Bachelart Alexis, PRCE
Aix-Marseille Université, France
Uotila Suvi, MA and Vuorinen Paula, MA
JAMK University of Applied Sciences, Finland
The ability to communicate in English is a necessity in today’s world. A lot of this communication happens between non-native speakers using English as a lingua franca. To offer our students opportunities to use and practice their English language skills outside the classroom, language teachers from JAMK University of Applied Sciences in Finland and Aix-Marseille Université in France started planning an online collaboration project, in which students from both universities discuss different topics using online communication tools. This article describes the planning and implementation process from experiment to practice, with descriptions of the successes and challenges, the teachers’ experiences, and authentic comments and feedback from the students.
It is common knowledge that English has become the main tool of communication when travelling or doing business but what students often fail to perceive is that more than a norm or a requirement, English is the language that will give them access to millions of foreigners, and more importantly, access to other humans. They will tell you that “English is important” without realizing that what is important is the capacity to communicate and get actual work done. Language learners often feel that they need to speak like native speakers do, which acts as a barrier when learning English. What they fail to perceive is that the work will most of the time be done collaborating with other foreigners whose mother tongue is not English, meaning that what matters is communicating information accurately instead of using correct grammar or having a perfect accent. This leads us to imagine a video exchange that would mimic what happens in the working world: communication in English between non-native speakers coming from more or less distant cultural worlds.
Background and implementation of the project
Intercultural competence is increasingly important in today’s world. Our students will be not only working but also living in an environment where several languages and cultures coexist. This has implications to foreign language teaching. In addition to learning a language, students need to learn skills to communicate in an international context. Some students are very active in using the language, travel abroad, have foreign friends etc., but not everyone has the same chances to use the language. Therefore, the students should be offered authentic situations to communicate using a shared foreign language outside the classroom during their studies.
Luukka (2016) defines good language skills as being able to flexibly adapt one’s skills in different situations. Key skills include e.g. intercultural competence and the ability to work in various groups and virtual teams. This socio-cultural approach defines language skills as context based procedures, not as mastery of perfect grammatical structures.
Our tandem project started after the second International Week for Language Teachers in Tampere and Jyväskylä in 2015, where the participants had an opportunity to discuss and share current ideas on language teaching. We found that using the available internet tools we could offer our students the chance to cooperate with students at another university abroad. The language teachers at Aix-Marseille Université in France and JAMK University of Applied Sciences in Finland started planning a simple model for an online communication project to encourage the students to speak English and learn about different cultures. The first tandem project started during spring 2016.
The participating students learn English as a foreign language. According to Eurobarometer, English is the most commonly spoken foreign language in the EU area, so the students will be most likely to use English with non-native speakers in their personal lives and working life in the future (European Commission 2012, 19). According to the teachers’ evaluation, most students participating in the project were on levels B1-C1 on the Common European Framework for Languages. The teachers paired or grouped the students based on their self-evaluations, having the most confident speakers working together, and giving the weaker ones the option to form a group of three with someone in their own study group and a foreign student. However, even the weaker students were required to actively participate in speaking on their own level but they could get support in the conversation from their colleague to improve communication.
The tandem project focused on spoken interaction but the students first emailed each other to decide on the time and date for the first video call. The project included the minimum of three video calls to discuss the topics (e.g. studies, free time, work experience and current events) given to the students before each meeting. Some of the topics were covered in class during the course before the video calls to help the students with preparation and the specific vocabulary but in general the students were required to go through the list of topics before the meetings and prepare for them.
The teachers recommended using Skype for the video calls but the students could also use other tools. As the goal was to improve spoken communication, the students needed to communicate in speaking and to provide samples of their conversations for evaluation purposes. The quality of the video was not crucial, so even recording with a mobile phone next to the computer was acceptable. According to student reports, other frequently used tools were Messenger, FaceTime, WhatsApp and Facebook.
After the online meetings, the students returned their teachers three short video clips of their conversations. They also wrote a short report in English reflecting on the experience and evaluating their own learning process and language skills.
Students’ and teachers’ experiences of the project
The students’ final reports reveal that many found starting the project difficult or even uncomfortable. Many students wrote that talking to a stranger in a foreign language made them nervous but once they got going it started to feel more natural. In the end, most reported that the experience was a positive one.
When I first heard this project, I thought that no, I don`t like to do this and I don´t understand why we need to do this, what is the point. But it is our school project, so of course, I’ll do it. – – – Now I know and now I understand; the point was that we dare to speak English. Even I don’t speak well now, still someone understands me. That feels good and it gives me self-confidence, now I dare to speak English bolder.
The reflections show that students find this kind of activity important in improving their language skills. Some students stated their concern on their partner being a non-native speaker of English, but most understood that being able to communicate with a non-native speaker is a skill they will need in life.
… and if you look a real world, you can see that actually that is how people communicate…
We should have more assignments like this because you can’t start speaking Finnish with foreigner to explain something you cannot say in English and you learn much more than from book.
In particular, the students reported how they were positively surprised at how they managed to hold a long conversation in English with someone who could not understand their first language. From a teacher’s perspective even more delightful was that students who had evaluated their language skills weaker than their peers still noticed that they had managed well, which boosted their self-confidence as language users.
I tell her that people can speak english very well in Finland and I am one of the weakest. She was surprised. She said that I have good language skills. I learnt from this project a lot of my language skills. It makes me more confident.
Pairing the students and making sure everybody had contacted each other and started working according to the schedule took a lot of the teachers’ time. If a student dropped out of the course, the students needed to be grouped again. Sometimes technical difficulties caused problems in contacting one’s partner, and for some timetables made it difficult to organize time for the calls. Slow internet connections and finding suitable technical tools for recording video calls were other common problems. However, the students were mostly understanding of the problems that arose during the project and were happy to share their knowledge on the technical solutions that they had found useful and gave suggestions on how to develop the project.
One of the aims of the project was to increase the students’ understanding of different cultures. As the students shared their thoughts and experiences, some reported that it actually had enforced the stereotypes that they had before the start of the project, as anticipated by Belz (2005, 5).
We also discussed about different stereotypes between our cultures. Some of them actually got confirmed by the representors of the culture. For example we claimed that every French person loves croissants, they are proud of their country and culture and they slightly arrogant. They confirmed every one of these claims.
However, more than creating or confirming stereotypes, the project helped to increase the students’ cross-cultural understanding and offered an opportunity to learn about different cultures:
I think we will talk to each other afterwards too it was so easy because he knew how to speak English despite my prejudices. I had this thought in my head which was that no one in France can speak English at all because they want to preserve their own national language. But as it turned out I could not have been more wrong about that.
From experiment to practice
Based on our experiments we have developed a model for international collaboration online to be used in other courses. We have tried to improve especially the scheduling and the content of the assignments. We still need to find better ways to commit the students to the project, in order to simplify the teachers’ role in coordinating the students’ work, and to look for other easy-to-use programmes for recording the video calls.
Although projects like this demand extra work from the teacher and the students, the benefits make it worth it. Finishing the project on schedule requires commitment and co-operation. The students’ contribution affects not only their own performance but also that of their partners. This teaches the students responsibility, an essential working life skill. It seems that some students still need to work on this skill, and the teacher needs to control the situation to some extent.
In addition to the working methods, some students struggled with the technical equipment. Despite the commonly held belief of an average university student using digital learning environments with ease, this was not always the case. The students know how to use social media in their free time, but do not necessarily know the applications used in working life. Some of the students had never made a video call even in their native language.
How much the project actually improved the students’ English skills is perhaps the most difficult result to measure, and it was not considered as the primary goal of the project. The students participating in their compulsory English course have already studied many years of English at school, and some have used the language more and some less in their lives. Compared with this, in a short course lasting for a few months the actual language proficiency level does not increase that much. Based on the students’ reflections, however, they felt that the project enabled them to use their skills in practice, to gain self-confidence in speaking and to learn to tell about things that are important for them in English. The students also reported having learned new vocabulary about the different topics, and some mentioned that their writing had improved when they emailed their partners.
I think that this conversation has helped me at my shy personality. I had to come out from my comfort zone and learn something new to get better. I am sure that this course has raised my acquirements in work life.
Belz, J. (2005). Intercultural Questioning, Discovery and Tension in Internet-mediated Language Learning Partnerships. Language and Intercultural Communication 5(1), 3–39. https://jyu.finna.fi/Record/nelli09.111002735700016
European Commission. (2012). Special Eurobarometer 368. Europeans and their languages. http://ec.europa.eu/COMMFrontOffice/publicopinion/index.cfm/ResultDoc/download/DocumentKy/56906
Luukka, M.-R. (10.11.2016). Monilukutaito tulevaisuuden ammattilaisen työvälineenä [Multiliteracy as a tool for a future professional]. [Lecture]. Helsinki: Arcada.