Calling All (Language) Angels

Posted on Monday, May 8, 2017

Language angel Lolita greets Mikaela over Skype.

Traditionally, language classes at the university level have been large, and based on written exercises and weekly conversations with TAs. However, Cristina Perissinotto, Italian program coordinator and associate professor in the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures, is changing that with her hybrid Italian course. Professor Perissinotto has incorporated remote technology – Skype sessions – where students connect with tutors (known as “language angels”). There are several advantages to this instructional approach; I interviewed four students in her course to learn more.

Is this your first time connecting with tutors remotely over Skype?

Navid: Yes. It sort of reminds me of those years back in the ‘80s when I had a pen pal from the US. Our mail correspondence helped me with my English. Unfortunately, whenever I asked a question it would take 30 days to get an answer!

Mikaela: Yes! I had never even heard about this until I was already in the course; I’ve never known any other classes that do it.

Coralie: Yes, this was the first time I've ever had to Skype a tutor.

Max: This is my first time connecting with a tutor via Skype in this context; by that I mean where I am the student.I have done online Skype tutoring lessons with students in Korea where I have assisted students with English language lessons in a conversational setting.In terms of secondary language learning, I have never done remote lessons through Skype, only lessons in person.

What was most memorable about your first Skype session with your language angel?

Navid: I was excited to finally talk to a native speaker. I tried and tried to mimic her accent but it was hard to pronounce the words exactly.

Mikaela: The first session was without a doubt the most nerve-racking because I was worried about saying the wrong thing. About halfway through our session, I remember roughly attempting to explain what I was doing the following weekend, and she was so patient and helped me out with words I had forgotten or didn’t know. That definitely made the rest of the call much more relaxed and less daunting for me.

Max: The most surprising thing about my first session was how deep of an introduction we got from each other. I was very nervous and unsure if I could fill a 30 minute lesson with a complete stranger. I tried to avoid staring awkwardly at the screen whilst scrambling to find something to talk about. I think it was this fear on my part that helped me to talk more about myself than I normally would. Basically, we described ourselves, our respective cities, our family life, and we even discussed a little about the language angel program itself. I talked a little bit about my Italian-Canadian heritage and the family I have living in Sicily. There were a few instances of awkward silence during the first lesson, but I was surprised at the instant connection we made during our first chat session.

Coralie: The most memorable thing about my first Skype session with my language angel was how fast Italians speak! In our classes, the teachers take the time to pronounce the words and syntax to make sure we understand, so speaking with my language angel was more challenging than predicted. You also realize how your initial vocabulary is somewhat limited, so in this case listening and noticing their facial expressions is essential to your comprehension.

Tell me a bit about your language angel. Does he or she change during the semester?

Navid: She was very helpful with my homework, but she had a lot of responsibilities, such as: being a teacher, a grandma, and so on. I wish we could talk through Skype more than one hour per week. I love languages, especially, la lingua dell'italiano.

Mikaela: Our professor and TA assigns everyone an angel, creates a chat on Skype, and makes sure that we’re able to connect. Then we chat with our angel to set up a time that’s good for both of us, and connect every week with that same angel throughout the semester. They’ll ask questions about topics we’ve covered in our lectures, and then move on to other topics of regular conversation.

Max: My language angel is named Alberto. He is from Fabro which is a small town in Umbria in central Italy. Alberto works as an engineer in town and lives with his wife and small daughter Elena. He is in his mid-30s. Alberto is a big fan of the soccer club Juventus (as am I). He has never been a language tutor in a context like this, and his knowledge of English is very minimal. Alberto is a language angel for me and one other student in my class. His wife is also a language angel to a student in my class.To my knowledge we will remain with the same language angel for the duration of the semester.

Coralie: For this semester, I Skype with the same language angel every week, so our relationship develops. For example, I have noticed that she has started to speak less quickly to ensure that I keep up, and our conversations are less about describing ourselves and more story-telling like typical new formed friendships.

Tell me about the best Skype session you had with a language angel this semester.

Navid: The best Skype conversation I had with a language angel this semester was concerning grammar.

Mikaela: The best chat I ever had was probably the fourth time we talked. The first three calls I was a bit apprehensive about contributing much to the conversation; I preferred to just listen and make comments here and there. The fourth time I realized that unless I decided to make a real effort, my oral communication skills wouldn’t improve. I tried answering her questions with more detail and bringing up my own topics, and I had a great time and laughed through most of the call. It ended up being the both the best and longest conversation we’ve had so far.

Max: The best Skype lesson we've had so far was when we began to discuss current issues and events in our respective countries. Naturally we began to discuss the migrant crisis occurring in Europe.This is an issue we are facing as well in Canada; however not nearly to the same extent as Italy is on the frontline of this ongoing crisis. We talked about the general attitudes of Italians towards refugees and the rise of hate groups in Italy. It was intriguing to talk with someone to see how perspectives of the issue differ from North America to Europe and to get the firsthand accounts of someone who is actively witnessing the situation unfold. In the same lesson we talked about the earthquakes that occurred in central Italy in 2016. 

Coralie: What I specifically love about these weekly calls is the “keeping up” attitude. What I mean by this is telling each other events from the past week as well as the upcoming ones. This gives us a glimpse of the cultural differences between our countries and of our personal lives.

What advantage do you think you have over students who do not have this opportunity?

Navid: Learning a language through Skype is much more effective because you learn to pronounce the words correctly. That is why I appreciate la mia professoressa, Cristina Perissinotto, who established, managed, and supervised the project of speaking with the native Italian speakers. 

Max: In my other language class, the only opportunity to actually practice the language is during the DGDs through class activities. It helps a little bit, but it’s nothing in comparison to the Skype calls. Having to continuously comprehend and form responses in real time really tests your knowledge and in my opinion is the best way to learn a language. The course itself is phenomenal, but the calls add so much extra experience and really boost confidence in oral communication. Plus, it’s really fun becoming friends with someone who lives so far away and with such a different lifestyle that you otherwise would have never known.

Mikaela: I've found this program to be beneficial not only in terms of my language and conversational skills, but in a cultural sense as well. I learn about cultural elements such as sports, art, and music; although we do learn cultural elements in lectures, it is beneficial to learn the societal significance of each of these cultural elements (which Alberto kindly informs me). With this program we get to talk with someone who is actively up-to date on the reality of the Italian language in a truly Italian context. I've found many times Alberto has pointed out a word I've used in a chat that I've learned online or in class and told me that said word is seldom used in Italy, or is an Anglicism. Speaking with a native Italian speaker who is currently residing in Italy has provided me with a much more practical understanding of the language rather than the more theoretical approach we've learned in class. It definitely prepares someone better if they were to actually go and visit the country

Coralie: The advantage of this opportunity is to take part in real life dialogue. Our classes teach us how to properly write, pronounce and speak, but this type of activity requires critical thinking, and applying these skills as instantaneously as possible. Skyping with my language angel forces me to apply myself to correct conjugation, and motivates me to extend my personal vocabulary in order to bring new topics to the conversation as well as to understand them.


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