Shawn Loewen knows what it’s like to learn a second language through “blood, sweat, and tears.” He started taking private Spanish lessons when he was 13 and studied Spanish and French all through high school. Passionate about language learning, he majored in Language and Linguistics in college and decided to become a teacher and research scholar.
Today, Loewen is a Professor in MSU’s Department of Linguistics and German, Slavic, Asian, and African Languages. He’s intent on making language learning easier by examining the effectiveness of teaching methods, instruction, and popular apps and platforms.
I didn’t have the benefit of being very young when I started learning second languages. I told myself when I became a teacher, that anything I could do to make language learning easier, I wanted to do that.Professor Shawn Loewen
“I didn’t have the benefit of being very young when I started learning second languages,” Loewen said. “I told myself when I became a teacher, that anything I could do to make language learning easier, I wanted to do that.”
About four years ago, Loewen became increasingly curious about the learning potential of various online language learning apps and platforms. Some of his MSU colleagues had been using TalkAbroad, a multiuser digital communication platform,with fourth-semester students learning Spanish. Most faculty and students had good things to say about the learning experience that enhanced classroom learning with synchronous video conversations. But as far as Loewen could see, no data on its effectiveness existed beyond that gathered through end-of-semester surveys.
In 2018, Loewen put on his researcher’s cap and teamed with his then graduate student Matt Kessler (who is now an Assistant Professor at the University of South Florida) and colleague Daniel Trego, an Educational Media Design Specialist in the College of Arts & Letters. Trego had integrated the use of TalkAbroad into his Spanish 202 course to strengthen second language abilities for students. Like Loewen, he was interested in understanding the degree to which students improved, as well as their perceptions of the computer-mediated learning that involved real-time conversations with native speakers.
Trego explained that his students were required to engage in five 30-minute conversations outside of class throughout the semester in order to apply skills and explore classroom themes. Students registered for the sessions through the TalkAbroad website and were paired with a native speaker who was screened and trained through the platform’s community.
Learning grammar doesn’t necessarily help you speak a second language. A lot of the time, we teach language as simply another classroom subject. Anything we can do to improve second language pedagogy is worthwhile.Professor Shawn Loewen
TalkAbroad took care of scheduling each conservation and provided tools to keep sessions moving. Students also had the audio of each session recorded and delivered for review. After each scheduled conversation, students reconvened as a group and discussed what they had learned.
“The initial reaction of my students was feeling scared,” Trego said. “The idea of meeting with someone who doesn’t speak English, even when through a computer interface, created a layer of anxiety.”
Trego said it was the first time most of his students had ever conversed with a native speaker. After a session or two, the anxiety waned.
“These sessions became one of the favorite parts of the Spanish class,” he said. “For students to see they could communicate in Spanish was a real confidence booster and extremely important.”
The joint study led by Loewen, Trego, and Kessler asked students to report new vocabulary, grammar, or other content they learned through synchronous learning video sessions. Students were asked to share their perceptions of the sessions, as well as any listening and transcription activities that followed.
The study’s sample included 35 students from three sections of a 200-level Spanish course. Data were collected in the fourth or fifth session of the sequence through questionnaires and semi-structured interviews.
Results indicated that nearly all participants reported learning something new about Spanish culture, including differences and similarities related to education, family, food, music, sports, and more. Slightly more than half the students said they had acquired new vocabulary. Conversely, fewer than 10 percent of participants reported learning any new grammar through their sessions. In the end, most students said they generally enjoyed the activity, once they got past feeling anxious or self-conscious.
“One thing that stood out was how fourth-semester Spanish students were actually speaking the language with native speakers,” Loewen said. “There isn’t always the confidence at that level. It was a real boost for students to know they could hold a conversation for 30 minutes.”
The idea of meeting with someone who doesn’t speak English, even when through a computer interface, created a layer of anxiety. These sessions became one of the favorite parts of the Spanish class. For students to see they could communicate in Spanish was a real confidence booster and extremely important.Daniel Trego, Educational Media Design Specialist
With the pandemic and switch to more online learning, Loewen said platforms like TalkAbroad will be increasingly used in foreign language curriculum. That, he said, isn’t all bad, given people’s increasing comfort level and familiarity with computer-mediated and real-time video interaction. But as a teacher and researcher, he also supports examining what synchronous video computer-mediated communication can do, particularly with pandemic-induced shifts to online learning.
The results of the Loewen-Trego-Kessler descriptive study recently appeared in the online journal Language Teaching Research. Plans are to follow-up with an in-depth analysis of the linguistic data and to conduct a more systematic investigation of web-based language learning and language learning apps.
“It’s important to know the pros and cons of these programs as we begin adding these options or requirements to the curriculum,” Loewen said. “These platforms can be really powerful to help learners connect with people and communicate through the studied language. Essentially, our goal was to see how it’s working and how it can be made better.”