Some angels speak Italian

Posted on Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Illustration of a tablet where the phrase "parli italiano ?" appears.
By Marcelle-Anne Fletcher

How well can you learn a language if you can’t find anyone to speak it with? As the saying goes, it’s use it or lose it.

Cristina Perissinotto, Italian program coordinator and associate professor in the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures, is using social networks to enhance learning in beginners’ Italian courses. Today, students are able to do almost anything on-the-go using technology — play grammar games such as Duolingo on their smartphones, contribute to closed Facebook groups, watch Italian television, and review class lectures — but they haven’t been able to have conversations. That is, until now. 

During the spring/summer 2015 session, students in ITA1911: Elementary Italian had the opportunity to connect remotely with native speakers via Skype. The project was inspired by a TED talk about the successful “Granny Cloud” — a project through which retired teachers (known as “grannies”) from the U.K. taught English to children in India via Skype. Perissinotto found a group of volunteers through the director of the Unitre dell’Alto Orvietano, an international organization that offers small classes to those who wish to participate in Italian culture.  This Italian course features not “grannies” but “language angels.” Cristina Perissinotto explains: “Not all volunteers are grannies. Some are in their 20s and 30s, some are working, some are university students, some are retired, but all of the volunteers are very generous with their time.”

For Cristina Perissinotto, incorporating this sort of technology has these advantages:

Moving beyond the classroom

Students are able to connect with native speakers in Umbria, a region in Italy. Usually, those who can travel and immerse themselves in the culture have a learning advantage; however, with this model, students staying on campus can have these same advantages.

Giving students more control of when they learn and how often they practice

Language classes have traditionally been large and grounded in written exercises and weekly conversations with TAs. Perissinotto recommended that students talk to their language angels once a week for at least 15 minutes. She recalls, “Some were so inspired they opted for twice a week, with conversations lasting up to 40 minutes!”

Teaching smarter

This technology tailors learning to students’ needs and offers a new way to assess student learning. Student Chelsea Ouellette says, “This teaching method improved my understanding of the language by allowing me to ask questions about certain words and phrases, and it also allowed me to hear how words are supposed to sound.”

Perissinotto transformed the traditional first year Italian class into a hybrid course that combines the beginner’s desire to learn quickly with the convenience of technology. “Students were taught how to make espresso or bake dishes right in their kitchen.  They learned vocabulary for tools, dishes, ingredients, etc.  So it became relevant and memorable to them too.” 

Needless to say, Perissinotto  will continue to rely on the “angels”  in her online summer courses to foster passionate learning.

Volunteer from the  Unitre dell’Alto Orvietano greets student over Skype

Volunteer from the  Unitre dell’Alto Orvietano greets student over Skype
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