11 Improving students’ confidence in speaking a second language

Dr. Jennifer Lang-Rigal and Dr. Diana Galarreta-Aima

This study will address the lack of opportunities for JMU Spanish students to interact with Spanish native speakers. Many students in our JMU courses only practice the target language in class (3-5 hours a week). There are some opportunities on campus to practice Spanish, such as the Spanish club, or service learning programs; however, most students don’t take advantage of these opportunities for various reasons. Secondly, most of the opportunities for practicing Spanish are in group settings, and so do not require the constant participation of each student, and are with English-dominant interlocutors, lessening the necessity for students to maintain conversation in the target language. The benefits of immersive language experience
are well studied and observed in the acquisition of a second language (c.f. Lynch et al., 2001). What is much less studied and understood are the benefits of immersive technologies in the development of language production. One such recent study found that even beginning learners improved in communication strategies through videoconference-mediated conversations with other non-native speakers (Tecedor Cabrero, 2014). We propose the inclusion of such immersive experiences in our Spanish intermediate and advanced curricula, providing the space for each student to interact with native speakers. A one-on-one conversation with a native speaker of the target language, who furthermore, is residing in his or her home country positively induces the linguistic interaction towards the target language for the learner. It is a type of forced linguistic immersion, and also cultural immersion as their conversation partner is participating live from a foreign country through the videoconference platform. With this project, we will introduce an immersion experience into three Spanish course curricula with the online videoconference platform TalkAbroad. This study will track and measure the impact of TalkAbroad in JMU Spanish students’ speaking skills, as well as their perceptions towards speaking a second language.
Instructional design and implementation plan:
Our team consists of two Spanish instructors at JMU. We teach different Spanish courses from intermediate to advanced levels. We propose using TalkAbroad in our courses to create meaningful learning experiences for our students and to give them the opportunity to get to know and talk to Spanish native speakers from different parts of the Spanish-speaking world. The TalkAbroad website (Talkabroad.com) offers resources for instructors like journals from students who have used this program, different ways to incorporate this program in Spanish courses, and research studies about the effectiveness of TalkAbroad in different institutions.
Our study will address 2 main questions:
1. Does the use of TalkAbroad in Spanish courses improve students’ speaking skills?
2. After 4 TalkAbroad conversations, do students change their perceptions (from anxiety to confidence) about using the target language with native speakers?
In order to answer these questions, we will ask students in three different Spanish courses SPAN 375 (Basic Medical Spanish), SPAN 475 (Advanced Medical Spanish), SPAN 315 (Spanish phonetics) to complete 1) a skills exam and 2) an attitudes survey, both at the beginning and the end of the semester. These two exams will be compared to each other to gauge an increase in linguistic skills and a change in attitude and confidence towards their own proficiency and performance speaking with native speakers. To supplement our analysis of their speaking skills, we will evaluate the students’ conversations on TalkAbroad, comparing the 2nd and 4th (last) conversation to each other. To quantify their proficiency we will use the ACTFL oral proficiency rubric (ACTFL, 2012). We will obtain informed consent from all participants prior to data collection.
Project Transferability:
If the study’s results prove that the use of technologies like TalkAbroad improve students’ speaking skills and relieve some of the anxiety of speaking another language, we will recommend the incorporation of TalkAbroad or similar technologies in other courses of differing levels and languages within our Modern Foreign Language Program in the Department of Foreign Language, Literatures, and Cultures at JMU. We also will prepare our results for presentation to the academic community (conferences and/or a journal article) to share this innovative idea with foreign language educators outside of the university.
Our proposed teaching design using a videoconference conversation with a native speaker as an assignment can be easily adopted as-is by other foreign language professors, or adapted for different courses and objectives. Each conversation can be structured by the instructor to focus on specific topics and/or linguistic skills, including grammatical, lexical, phonetic or pragmatic skills. Our proposed assignment has the added benefit of increasing cultural knowledge, which is central to the study of foreign language.
Innovative and creative teaching outcomes:
Our hypothesis is that having multiple (4) one-on-one conversations with a native speaker, through the use of a videoconference technology like TalkAbroad, our students will gain both skills in speaking proficiency, and confidence in their own abilities to communicate in their second language, Spanish. To measure their development, we will have each student complete a skills test, covering grammatical, lexical, and pragmatic competence, and an attitudinal survey of their beliefs of their own ability, comfort, and willingness to use Spanish in a variety of speaking contexts and with different interlocutors, including native speakers. These two test instruments will be given to students before their first conversation with TalkAbroad and after
their last conversation. We will also examine the student’s performance during two (Conversations #2 and #4 of 4) of their TalkAbroad conversations (which are audio-recorded and available to the instructor), using the ACTFL scale of oral proficiency to quantify specific speaking skills (ACTFL, 2012).
Result dissemination plan: The proposed study would be appropriate for dissemination in the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL), which is a growing research area in higher education. One of the applicants currently participates as a member of the Engaged Teacher Scholar CFI program, where she and other JMU faculty create and share evidence-based teaching and learning scholarship. Appropriate journals for this study include Active Learning in Higher Education, Learning and Teaching in Higher Education (LATHE), Learning and Instruction, or the Journal of General Education. A second venue for presentation and external to JMU is at the annual meeting of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL). This national organization provides many resources, such as the speaking proficiency scale that will help us interpret our data in this study. ACTFL also brings together thousands of foreign language teachers and researchers annually in a conference where workshops and original research are shared. In addition, this research would be appropriate to academic journals and conferences in the field of second language acquisition and pedagogy since it has many implications for the study of oral proficiency, immersive methods, and technology.

Logistics and Resources Plan:

The only logistical dependency in this project is the course enrollment and the difference of budgeting that will make. These courses accept between 6-15 students each, making the total number of students 18-45, and thus the cost of completing this project for all students for the Spring 2019 semester could range from $810 to $2025. Other than this uncontrollable factor, the project would still be able to be carried out successfully is it does not depend on a minimum number of students nor other resources. If one of the courses did not meet the minimum enrollment to remain in the Spring 2019 catalog then the instructors/applicants each have another Spanish course which could be substituted for inclusion in this project.

Research design and data analysis plan: As soon as we receive the ACT grant, we will develop our test instruments (skills test and attitudes questionnaire, November-December 2018) and apply for IRB approval (early January 2019). Both applicants are already familiar with the IRB process. As soon as the Spring 2019 semester starts in January and we have the final enrollment for our classes we can purchase the TalkAbroad conversations for the participants.

We will collect our data at the beginning and end of the semester (skills test, surveys and two conversations per student), and we will analyze it in May-June 2019. We intend to present our results from this study in academic conferences (funding will come from our department), and use the feedback from our peers to prepare a manuscript for future publication. We can write up a description of our project for the Pressbooks eBook by the first weeks of Summer 2019.

References cited:

  • ACTFL. (2012). ACTFL Performance Descriptors for Language Learners. The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, Alexandria, VA. https://www.actfl.org/sites/default/files/pdfs/ACTFLPerformance_Descriptors.pdf
  • Lynch, A., Klee, C. A., & Tedick, D. J. (2001). Social Factors and Language Proficiency in Postsecondary Spanish Immersion: Issues and Implications. Hispania: A Journal Devoted to the Teaching of Spanish and Portuguese, 84(3), 510–24.
  • Tecedor Cabrero, M. (2014). Developing Interactional Competence through Video-Based Computer-Mediated Conversations: Beginning Learners of Spanish. ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global, 75(1).