Our project Speaking in Tongues: Providing Digital Oral/Aural Opportunities for Foreign Language Students is the result of our participation in the Lecturer Teaching Fellows Program sponsored by the Center for Teaching and Learning at UC Berkeley during the academic year of 2018-19.
Foreign language learning typically revolves around these four skills: speaking, listening, writing, and reading. As language lecturers in three different languages (Italian, German, and Dutch), we have found that speaking and listening skills are often very difficult to acquire and that the classroom format often does not provide a satisfactory venue to practice those skills. Additionally, and especially in the first year of study when pronunciation still represents a hurdle, students often feel shy when it comes to speaking in a foreign language. This is why we wanted to explore ways in which creative at-home practice aided by technology might help students gain oral proficiency in the foreign language they study.
Originally, we were planning to test out various online tools, apps, and platforms geared toward developing, in an interactive way, oral/aural skills outside of the foreign language classroom, with the ultimate goal of creating a website which showcased a series of tasks/activities aimed at improving students’speaking and listening skills with the support of technology. However, as we explored the various online tools that are available, we realized that this project would become a much larger undertaking than we had anticipated. We were also concerned that the website we had originally envisioned as our final project would end up being just a short list of reviews of some of the dozens of online tools that exist. Not only are there already similar lists on the internet, but our contribution would have to be regularly updated to reflect the changes, improvements, and updates that apps and online tools continually undergo. Our endeavor, in other words, would be unproductive. This realization led us to shift our focus slightly and to narrow it down to one of the elements that we already planned to explore in our initial proposal: Digital Storytelling (DS). Several scholars have written about DS and foreign language learning, primarily in ESL settings, and new ideas for new applications of DS in foreign language teaching are continuously being developed. We aim to contribute to this development through the creation of interactive tasks that we have been experimenting with in our classes and by later sharing our findings (in form of student’s surveys, assessment charts, etc.) through this website.
Why Digital Storytelling? Digital Storytelling is a relatively new term which describes the practice of using digital and multimedia tools to tell a story. The practice of telling stories, however, is thousands of years old and present in most human cultures. Narrating stories is a common way for various cultures to make sense of the world around them, of life, of their interactions with others and of the universe. We understand our reality through stories, through both simple and complex narratives and we like to both tell and listen to stories. Using storytelling in class has the advantage of presenting students with a known and familiar format in order to experiment with the new language. Further, storytelling allows for different perspectives, experiences, and opinions: we can tell stories about ourselves, we can invent characters and build a story around them, we can add to someone else’s story, and so on. So, while the idea of storytelling is old, living in the 21st century allows us to use a variety of technological tools to enrich that old human need.Additionally, asking students to use digital tools to create their stories reflects the multimedia modalities of content fruition and production that they are accustomed to. There are several “flavors” of digital storytelling, each aimed at different goals, age groups and subject matter, and therefore different definitions of DS have been formulated. For our purposes, we define DS as a learning and teaching strategy that allows students to produce and share original narratives using words (written text or speech), images (pictures or video), and audio (recorded dialogues, movie clips, music and songs), while teachers provide prompts, guidance, and feedback using the same tools.
How can DS be useful as our framework? A narrative, by its own nature, offers a context that is easier to memorize and easier to relate to than single sentences, or questions and answers that do not share a common context. By remembering the plot of their story, by practicing the vocabulary necessary to tell that story, and by using linguistic structures needed to narrate it, students’ utterances become creative. Therefore, there is no need to memorize sentences without understanding them fully, just to “pass the test”. We thus believe that DS offers a wide array of benefits for our students, both in overall foreign language acquisition and in relation to improving oral/aural skills specifically.
One of the main benefits of DS is that it provides students with a sense of ownership. DS gives students the opportunity to create their own story and to take ownership of their product to feel invested in it, which is further enhanced when presented to an external audience through an online blog or video channel.(1)
As a result, students tend to be more motivated and rewarded when they actively engage in practicing the foreign language they are learning. Indeed, a study conducted by Maryam Amin Afshar and Ahmad Mojavezi(2), found that DS creates a motivating and low-stress context for language learning. The process of building a digital story, which should include timely and continuous feedback from the teacher, allows students to record their prompts as often as they like/need, to review and perfect them before turning in their final product. This is especially beneficial to the beginning language learner, who might feel especially insecure or nervous when speaking in the foreign language.
Work in progress Our project is a work in progress. As we will be teaching more groups in the semesters to come, we will become more experienced with different types of DS activities and we will share these experiences and activities on this website. Moreover, we will continue to conduct student surveys in order to get more input on DS in foreign language learning from students' perspectives.
---------------------------------- 1.Lucy Santos Green, “Language learning through a lens: The case for digital storytelling in the second language classroom”, School Libraries Worldwide, Volume 19, Number 2, July 2013. 2. Maryam Amin Afshar & Ahmad Mojavezi, “The Effect of Aural and Visual Storytelling on Vocabulary Retention of Iranian EFL Learners”, English Language Teaching; Vol. 10, No. 4; 2017.