Taking students deeper into a foreign language

Paul Mayne // Western News

Hispanic Studies graduate student and Spanish language teacher Meredith McGregor is designing a language curriculum for Study Abroad and Exchange (SAE) program students that will help develop pragmatic skills before they leave for their destination country.

A little conversation goes a long way.

Just ask Meredith McGregor.

By mixing together digital technologies like e-portfolios and online mentoring sessions via Skype, the Hispanic Studies graduate student and Spanish language teacher helps university students who are overseas on Study Abroad and Exchange (SAE) programs become fluent in their chosen foreign language – she does so by developing their pragmatic skills.

Pragmatic skills guide us on how to use language (what we say and how we say it) in culturally appropriate ways. It involves knowing, for example, when to use formal or informal pronouns of address, whether or not to use honorifics, or knowing the correct words when apologizing to someone.

In Western’s SAE programs, students attend foreign universities, ranging from a semester to a year. But these programs are more than just academics – students experience different cultures and bring back with them a better awareness and understanding of the social and cultural diversity around them.

Based on her research work with students in Costa Rica, McGregor is now designing a language curriculum for SAE students that will help develop pragmatic skills before they leave for their destination country and during their time abroad – a critical addition for the program. Typically, SAE students have a basic understanding their destination country’s language that does not extend beyond asking for directions and grocery shopping.

“This nuanced understanding of the language opens doors to a wider culture and enriched experience, where students can comfortably and confidently engage with the local populace and immerse in their culture,” McGregor said.

McGregor was the first SAE student to attend the Universidad de Costa Rica (UCR) when Western had an affiliation with it many years ago.

Over the course of the Fall 2016 semester, a group of French and German study abroad students attended UCR and agreed to participate in McGregor’s study. (At the time of her work, there were no Western students attending UCR.)

Most had an intermediate understanding of Spanish.

McGregor asked them to create an online portfolio in which they could record (via videos, photos or writings) their cultural experiences, daily observations, and note the ways in which the local population was speaking Spanish – region-specific idioms and dialects, for example.

Throughout the semester, they discussed the journal entries with her over Skype.

“These were simple informal conversations where I would give them some advice or share my thoughts on their experiences,” McGregor said.

She would, for example, suggest them to volunteer at a local shelter, or join a book club, or play with the soccer team. This way, McGregor was gently pushing them outside their comfort zones and encouraging them to use Spanish beyond just shopping lists, helping them engage with the wider community in a deeper, more involved way.

In other words, she was helping them develop their pragmatic skills.

She found the Skype conversations and their online portfolios helped the students.

At the semester’s beginning, they had taken a basic Spanish test (administered by McGregor) to assess their reading, writing, and comprehension skills. The test included an extremely challenging portion where they had to discuss their opinions, beliefs and desires using grammatically correct Spanish – all critical outcomes of one’s pragmatic skills. When they re-took the test at the semester’s end, their overall scores in general, and in the ‘pragmatic skills’ portion in particular, increased significantly.

They were able to communicate better with their neighbours and the local population. As a result they came back with richer, more meaningful experiences, according to their feedback to McGregor.

“Digital technology helps, but human interaction is critical,” McGregor says.

“The simple act of thinking about what they were doing, talking about it and writing about it was meaningful,” McGregor says, adding that, “It helped them acquire the language in a more effective way.”