'Teletandem' Language Program Allows Students at VCU, Universidade Estadual Paulista to Learn Each Other’s Language and Culture

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Twice a week since Sept. 1, six Virginia Commonwealth University advanced foreign language students have met in the World Studies Media Center, where they logged onto computers and put on headphones to communicate via Skype with students at Universidade Estadual Paulista (UNESP) in São Paulo, Brazil.

The VCU students are learning Portuguese and the Brazilian students are learning English through a program called “Teletandem.”

“Teletandem is an engaged, learner-centered environment that fosters inquiry, discovery and innovation in a global setting,” said Tony Brinckwirth, director of the World Studies Media Center. “Teletandem is a high-impact learning experience that speeds up the path to fluency in a foreign language and enhances intercultural awareness through collaboration, cooperation and friendship.”

Each VCU student was paired with a student from UNESP. Students said they are engaged in their sessions because they discuss issues that are relevant to their lives with their partner.

“I’ve had some great conversations with my partner, Amable,” said Jake Rhoads, a junior majoring in Spanish. “Once, when we were talking about our favorite movies, I was trying to explain ‘Good Will Hunting’ in Portuguese. When you cultivate a relationship with another person, the language becomes alive for us.”  

During the last class of the semester on Nov. 30, students from both universities communicated in a group setting.

“This is kind of like pen pals, but using Teletandem and interacting on Skype, it was apparent that this is much more effective than traditional pen pals,” Brinckwirth said.

That’s because students are able to communicate in real time, which keeps the conversation moving. Students also spend a great deal of time outside of their communication sessions to learn about the other country’s culture.

“It’s a lot more work than people may expect,” said Annie Delematta, a senior majoring in international studies in French. “We use a workbook and focus on grammar and listening comprehension. We also listen to news online and write about current events. This is a great way to read, listen, write and speak.”

And that’s what Teletandem is supposed to do.

“What I see in other (language teaching) methodologies is a focus on how to read and write,” said Márcia Fontes, instructor of Portuguese. “This allows student to focus on communication from the start. They learn self confidence in presenting themselves in another language and cultural competence.”

As the final class session drew to a close, students stood in front of the camera and used their fingers to form heart shapes to share their affection for their new high-tech pen pals and the program that brought them all together.

“We work together, VCU and UNESP. We need both parts to accomplish results,” said UNESP English instructor Rosário Gomes Lima da Silva. “It was a very successful semester for both of us.”

This is the second semester for the Teletandem language program at VCU.

“Only a handful of U.S. universities are using Teletandem in their foreign language curricula,” Brinckwirth said. “Our pilot shows that VCU is on the cutting edge of foreign language instruction, online learning and internationalization.”

Teletandem courses are planned in Spanish and Chinese in the Spring 2012 semester.

Visit http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KImU9bnxbvQ to view a video about VCU’s Teletandem efforts.

Or visit http://www.has.vcu.edu/wld/faculty/brinckwirth/unesp-assis/index.html for more information about Teletandem.