Skype fosters long-distance language education
Skype has already revolutionized the way more than 50 million registered users communicate with faraway friends and family. Now, the web-based video-calling platform may just be poised to overhaul foreign language education as well, eliminating barriers like location, money and time.
Ray Blakney started Live Lingua, one of the world’s top Skype-based foreign language immersion schools, in 2008. While learning Spanish through the immersion method in the Peace Corps in Mexico, Blakney came to understand the importance of communication practice with native speakers. Skype helps learners connect with them.
“It’s amazingly similar to a one-on-one class,” Blakney says. “It really feels like you’re sitting there talking to these people. You don’t have to sacrifice that much.”
Live Lingua offers several languages and dialects, and most students are taught spoken communication. Instructors can diagnose their needs as they go. Most students start with at least some spoken proficiency — including Blakney himself, who is brushing up his rusty Turkish with Live Lingua.
For students whose focus is more on grammar, reading or writing, Skype coursework does have its limitations. Joseph Miranda, founder of NoteFull, started his company to prepare students for the TOEFL exam. TOEFL is an advanced English proficiency test required for non-native speakers to study or practice in the U.S. NoteFull uses Skype for tutoring sessions, but relies primarily on other web teaching materials.
“Skype doesn’t lend itself to presenting information,” Miranda says. “Coupled with a website, then it becomes effective. For writing, you’d be texting back and forth.” Still, it offers major scheduling advantages for busy adults: “Skype is on 24 hours a day, seven days a week. So it lends itself to flexibility.”
Liliana Novikova, a multilingual foreign language teacher based in Ukraine, agrees that Skype lessons are best for non-beginners. For them, teachers prefer a textbook they can point to, or to draw pictures and examples. And at any level, lessons can be sabotaged by spotty Internet connections. “It’s rarely infallible,” Novikova says. “Most classes are interrupted at least once.”
Despite Skype’s shortcomings, Novikova is still pleased to connect with students she otherwise couldn’t. “It offers complete geographical freedom. But students and teachers still feel connected to each other, and they can achieve almost the same progress as they would face-to-face.”