Searching for native speakers for video-chats with students: Free and risky or costly and safe?

Previous posts in this blog have reported on the use of videoconferencing in foreign language classes in order to provide students with authentic experiences that can bring a completely new dimension to the language learning process. See my previous post  and Luis Gonzalez’s post for details.

When video-conferencing is used with the main purpose of providing out-of-class opportunities for the students to practice the target language, one of the main issues and challenges we face is finding native speakers who will engage with our students in a meaningful way.

For my elementary class project in Spring 2017 I used Talkabroad. Although this platform comes with a cost, I highly recommend it with elementary level students. The platform itself is very user-friendly both for the instructor as well as for the students. The instructor can create a classroom where students register, and design one or more assignments for the students to complete within a set deadline. The instructor can track the assignments and review the students’ performance as it records the audio of the video-chat. The technology is quite reliable and good quality, out of 25 conversations only 2 were cut off after 15 minutes (each conversation lasts 30 minutes), which was more due to the partner’s connection than to the technology itself. The conversation partners are all native speakers residing in the foreign country and are trained to be kind, patient and to never use English when talking to the students. My experience with this platform has been very positive and has resulted in a successful final project last spring. One complaint I have, though, is that the pool of native speakers for Italian is a little small. There were only 5 partners to choose from and my students ended up interviewing mostly 3 of them based on their profiles. Nevertheless, I still highly recommend it for elementary level students because the sheltered experience guarantees success, necessary to boost their confidence at this stage of their language learning process and increase motivation toward the language.  

For intermediate students I think this type of hand-holding is no longer necessary. These more mature language learners can safely venture into one of the free online language exchange communities that connect people all over the world to practice language with native speakers.  Years ago, I tried to direct my students to using The Mixxer, a free site hosted by Dickinson College, but the technology at the time was not well developed and the community of Italian speakers was extremely small and unreliable.

Next Spring, I am planning on incorporating video-conferencing with native speakers in my upper level conversation class again as I find it an invaluable tool, and I am optimistic that this time around things will work better.  I did a quick Google search to see what other language communities are available, besides The Mixxer, and I found quite a few. Of the many that came up, WeSpeke seemed the most promising of all. I decided therefore to test its reliability and the community that uses it.

First step to access a language community in WeSpeke is to create a profile and specify your native language and the language that you want to practice. You can also write a little bio for other people to read. Based on your preference it will match you with a community of speakers that have similar preferences. You can always reset your filters so that it will narrow down the community even further. Once in a community you can then directly message people that you want to establish a friendship with. I must admit that this is an extremely active community, as soon as I signed up people started messaging me and had 4 friendship requests in the matter of a few minutes. I had to switch my profile to offline because I couldn’t keep up with the messages. I, however, didn’t go past a few introductory greetings with other people as my focus was to just test the platform for future use.

The messaging system is not perfect. Some chats are saved but they do not show up in the chat window for some reason. There is also the possibility of doing audio and video chats once you have established friendship with your language partner. The bar at the bottom of the screen has a number of interesting features. There is a quick dictionary feature, and you can also send an image or URL. The community seems quite active but, I was told by one of my new acquaintances, it is also a little volatile. Establishing a contact is extremely easy as the community is very large, but maintaining the contact and laying down the grounds for a video-chat is a little harder, according to some.

With this in mind, I have, nevertheless decided, to give WeSpeke a try for my intermediate conversation class for next semester and see how it will work in the context of the assignment that I will design over the winter break. 

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