New Methods and Tools for Teaching Foreign Languages


Before the 1960s, the"tools" for the teaching of foreign languages were rather simple.Regardless of which teaching method was used -- natural orgrammatical -- the printed page and the instructor were the primarylearning tools. Although phonograph records were available, they werecumbersome, not easily controlled and, of course, notinteractive.

@DEPT BODY:In the early1960s a new tool appeared on the scene -- the magnetic open-reelaudio tape. Textbook publishers began supplying prerecorded masteropen-reel audio tapes to accompany their language texts. If aninstitution selected a particular text which had an accompanyingtape, that institution was allowed to copy the master for the generaluse of its students. These tapes were usually accompanied by anothertool -- a language laboratory workbook.

It did not take long forthe wave of the "language laboratory" to sweep over the country.Schools began installing these labs and introduced new technologydesigned for their use. It was now possible for students to select alesson by means of a central switching mechanism to receive aspecific prerecorded foreign language program. This new listeningtool became part of most language programs, with students required toattend "lab sessions" at least twice a week in addition to theirnormal classroom instruction.

Another advantage of thisnew technology was the ability of the instructor, through the use ofa main console, to monitor an individual student's progress and evento communicate directly with one student while not disturbing otherstudents in the laboratory. The instructor also could simultaneouslyadminister an oral examination to everyone in the room or interactwith a single student. Magnetic tape and the advent of the languagelaboratory were truly great innovations in the teaching of foreignlanguages.

Along with this new wave oftechnology came new teaching techniques. The audio-lingual methodcame into vogue. Native speakers were used to record dialogues andexercises. The students made extensive use of prerecorded tapedmaterials to memorize entire sentences and phrases in order to gainmastery over the patterns of a foreign language. This new magnetictool proved very useful for listening to literature readings andcultural music. The ultimate goal of the audio-lingual method was tobuild a linguistic foundation upon which the skills of the targetlanguage could then be built.

From Tapesto Cassettes

Eventually, the open-reel,remote controlled tape gave way to the individually controlled tapecassette. This versatile tool was much more user-friendly in so faras it permitted the listener to stop, pause, rewind and replay thetape on demand. The cassettes also could be used in students' rooms,automobiles or just about anywhere. The use of cassettes permitted aninstructor to evaluate a student's oral proficiency and to administeraural/oral tests. They also allowed the student to record his/hervoice and to compare it with that of a native speaker. Oralexaminations could be reviewed by all concerned simply by gainingaccess to a basic cassette player.

This technologicaladvancement persisted for many years and is still a fairly successfultool today. The cassettes can be used in conjunction with laboratoryworkbooks, which provide practice in achieving written as well aslistening competency. The combination of native speakers and writtenexercises is a very important facet in learning a foreign language,especially for gaining a better understanding of literature, dramaand music.

From the 1970s to the 1990sinterest in the study of foreign languages waned. Many colleges andeven some high schools dropped their language requirements in favorof more open curricula. This resulted in fewer students electing tostudy a foreign language. The situation became so bad that, in 1979,a report issued by a distinguished presidential commission declaredAmericans' "scandalous incompetence" in foreign languages a "nationaldisaster."[1]

Following this loss ofinterest in the study of foreign languages, the National ForeignLanguage Center formulated a statement of purpose in an attempt toreverse the trend. The statement read: "As we approach the 21stcentury, a variety of indicators suggest that the United States isnow facing a complex set of pressures for foreign language andcross-cultural communications competence for which we as a nation aredangerously unprepared."

Throughout this period ofdecline in the study of foreign languages, the unique humanisticcontribution of their study receded into the background. Educatorsand administrators forgot what impact the study of foreign languageshas on a student's psyche. At that time it appeared that they weremore concerned with curricula revisions and reduction of corerequirements than with the study of foreign languages. These eventscaused the removal of the traditional foreign language requirement infavor of a more liberal choice of electives.

Wilga M. Rivers, ProfessorEmerita at Harvard University, an expert in the teaching of foreignlanguages, writes that "the unique contribution of foreign languagestudy, which is truly educational in the sense that it expands ourstudents' personal experience of their environment and trulyhumanistic in that it adds a new dimension to their thinking, is theopportunity it provides for breaking through monolingual andmonocultural bonds, revealing to the students that there are otherways of saying things, other values and attitudes than those to whichtheir native language and culture have habituatedthem."[2]

FastForward to 1990s

In the fast-moving 1990s, avariety of new technological tools appeared on the scene. No longerwere we swept by a wave of methodology; we were swamped by a tidalwave of computer-assisted technologies. Suddenly the capability ofincorporating laserdiscs, hypertext cards, CDs, CD-ROMs and theInternet into our syllabi became a reality. Instructors of foreignlanguages are now faced with a myriad of new multimedia tools unheardof just a few years ago. We have entered a new language teachingdimension, one which some educators are reluctant to accept. Add tothe foregoing list numerous quality videos -- mostly shot on locationand using native speakers -- and you have the ingredients to give aseasoned foreign language teacher an ulcer or at least "languageindigestion."

As Gilberte Furstenberg,Senior Lecturer in French at Massachusetts Institute of Technology,states: "There are good reasons for our confusion and reluctance.Many of us have not been trained to use technology and may thereforefeel vulnerable using it in public. It may be unfamiliar to us, andwe may not have the time or may not want to take the time to learnabout it. Or we may not perceive its role in the classroom. Theresult is that many of us just don't integrate technology into ourteaching.... Technology will reach its full potential only when wesee it as a tool that can assist us and our students in our loftierendeavors."[3]

Today, the teaching offoreign languages is no longer restricted to the static classroom. Nolonger is a textbook the main source of information. No longer areaudiotapes in vogue. And no longer is there only one teacherin any program. Now, through the Internet, the entire world isliterally at one's fingertips, with a multitude of written texts,sounds, visual representations and animations available to all whohave access to a computer. Sophisticated interactive voicerecognition programs allow for the comparison of the student's voiceto that of a native speaker -- a remarkable achievement.

Publishers already havejumped onto the multimedia "language-wagon." Many now integrate thesenew tools with their new or revised textbooks. We have seeninteractive laserdisc programs such as la rencontre dePhillippe and CD-ROM programs such as French Your Way, toname a few. Today, such software can be purchased in most computerand electronics stores.

During the past two to fiveyears, a number of Providence College instructors have usedvideo-oriented programs such as Destinos (in Spanish) andFrench in Action. The videos serve as lead-ins to coordinatedtextbooks. In addition, members of the German section have utilizedReclam CD-ROMs containing the narration of German literary works, aswell as biographical and visual data, in an attempt to enhanceliterature courses. In 1997, interactive CD-ROMs were introduced atProvidence College to help students with their pronunciation and tobuild vocabulary in the target language.

In order to benefit fromthe use of interactive CDs, the foreign language courses should beconducted in the target language and the instructor should havecommand of the language as a native or near-native speaker. Thereason, in part, is that the actors and speakers in the videos and onCD-ROMs are indeed native speakers. Before the availability of suchtechnological tools and access to Internet, the students were notexposed, in most cases, to many native speakers, especially inlower-level language courses. Now, the students are able to comparetheir instructor's voice to that of native speakers -- which can be avery unnerving situation for some "traditional" languageteachers.

SomeRelated Concerns

As a result of theavailability of these new tools, many questions have arisenconcerning their proper use in the teaching of foreign languages.This is especially true when trying to implement their use in atraditional classroom. The new technology presupposes theavailability of hardware in all teaching environments, whileadministrators expect the foreign language teacher to possess thenecessary expertise to integrate one into the other. Many secondaryschools and even some colleges still do not have the necessaryhardware to permit the introduction of these new tools. Without theproper hardware, the proper software and the proper training, it ispractically impossible for a teacher to integrate new technology intothe traditional classroom or into foreign languageprograms.

At a recent colloquiumentitled "Technology and Foreign Language Learning: Defining theTerms, Confronting the Issues," held at the National Foreign LanguageCenter in Washington, D.C., Mary Ann Lyman-Hager, Director ofInstructional Technology, College of Liberal Arts at Penn State,commented that technology must be viewed as an "enabler" and thatfaculty are no longer the major source of knowledge. She maintainsthat faculty members must become "coaches" and "trainers," that therehas to be a "mind shift" and that faculty must develop newskills.[4] It is a recognized fact that the youngsters oftoday are visually and technologically oriented. Therefore, why nottake advantage of this truth and explore the possibilities that thesenew "tools" afford? In order to accomplish this task, we mustestablish Regional Resource Centers for the Teaching of ForeignLanguages through Technology. These Centers should be equipped withthe most current technological tools available and be staffed withknowledgeable personnel. Each center should consist of a number ofindividual learning stations and at least one authoring station. Theyshould have a well-stocked library of appropriate software to be usedby both teachers and students of foreign languages.

These Centers should beused to conduct workshops consisting of an introduction to the fieldof technology. The introduction should be followed by an explanationof just what technological tools are available and how they may beused in the teaching and learning of foreign languages. The workshopsshould culminate in hands-on-training to include the use of existingmaterials and the authoring of foreign language materials. It isunderstood that these workshops would make use of both passive andinteractive software programs as well as instruction in authoringone's own material for use in a specific language and for a specificlevel of instruction. The workshops would consist of 40 hours ofinstruction with the possibility of academic credit being awarded atthe discretion of a participating college or university. Also, eachlanguage teacher would receive a certificate of completion from thesponsoring institution. These workshops could be conducted bothduring the academic year and during the summer.

First, however, manyinstructors must change their mind set and plunge into this sea oftechnology with the expectation of improving their own abilities aswell as those of their students.

RegionalResource Centers

The establishment ofRegional Resource Centers is a proposed solution to meet thistechnological revolution in a positive way. It is an opportunity forthe improvement of foreign language teaching and learning, anopportunity that should not be allowed to go untapped. The more toolsthat language professionals and students have in their learningarsenal, the better the delivery and receipt of the product will be.Instructors must be convinced that these new tools are important tothe future of foreign language learning. Teachers, especially, mustbe convinced that the use of technology will make the learning offoreign languages more vibrant and rewarding to a computer-literategeneration.

Despite all of this newtechnology, MIT's Furstenberg reminds us that "the language lab stillneeds to exist in some form (for example, as a place where studentsdo preparatory work), but the classroom needs to remain theprivileged space for human exchange and interaction. The idealclassroom ... is equipped with workstations placed not at the centerbut against the wall, available at all times as resources to multiplychannels of communications and to diversify forms ofinteraction."[5] In light of the above, the followingquestions arise:

  1. How will the current foreign language teachers become proficient in the use of these new tools and who will train them?
  2. Will these new innovations be used as part and parcel of all language courses, including those in literature? Or will they be used strictly to enhance currently available materials and not be integrated into the standard courses?
  3. If language instructors are to capitalize on the advent of these new tools, then someone has to train them in not only how but also when to use them. In addition to learning how and when, language instructors should be taught to author their own multimedia programs. They should be able to integrate various media to produce multimedia presentations suited to their target language and to the needs of their respective students.

To shed light on thissubject, a questionnaire was sent to approximately 430 high schooland middle school foreign language teachers in Rhode Island. Of the220 who responded, 96% stated that if workshops on the use oftechnology in the teaching of foreign languages were to be offeredthey would consider attending one. Also, 95% of the respondentsstated that they would utilize the facilities of such a ResourceCenter if one existed in their state. Thus, as the 21st centuryrapidly approaches, Regional Resource Centers represent the latesttool for the teaching of foreign languages.


Dr. Laurent Gousie is aProfessor of German in the Department of Modern Languages atProvidence College, Providence, Rhode Island. He earned his M.A. inGermanic Languages and Literature from Harvard University and hisPh.D. in Modern German Literature from the University of Fribourg,Switzerland. E-mail:

1. Pamphlet published by the National Foreign Language Center (1997),Washington, DC.
2. Rivers, Wilga M. (1981), Teaching Foreign Language Skills, 2nded., Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.
3. Furstenberg, Gilberte (1997), "Teaching with Technology: What isat Stake?" ADFL Bulletin, p. 72.
4. Lyman-Hager, Mary Ann, notes taken from a lecture presented at aJune 16, 1997 colloquium sponsored by the National Foreign LanguageCenter at Johns Hopkins University.
5. Furstenberg, p. 23, 61.

This article originally appeared in the 04/01/1998 issue of THE Journal.

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