The Internet gives foreign students a high-tech path to English proficiency.

By Jessica Jones | Staff Writer

The French have difficulty pronouncing the "h" sound. Asiatic language speakers have difficulty with their pronunciation of "l" and "r." Spanish speakers often confuse the "b" and "v" sounds. The best way for all these students who speak foreign languages to learn English is to

send them to the Web.

Steven Donahue, professor of English as a second language at Broward Community Colleges South Campus in Pembroke Pines, Fla., has mastered the technique of correcting speech problems over the Web. He shares his findings on his Web site .

"They can send me a .wav file using the sound recorder on the desktop and I have the sophisticated equipment to analyze that," he said. "I can literally tell where their lips and voicing and tongue position is by analyzing the acoustic signal online. I can give them written instructions and tell them to do it again, or we can go to NetMeeting and do it in real-time, and I can show them the acoustic pattern and have them do it in almost real-time online."

An added bonus is that students get more individual attention online. Donahue said working online is neither more nor less time consuming than regular classwork, but with the Web, he is able to disburse his time more evenly.

"Im able to service a classroom individually rather than on a wholesale level. Im able to use some powerful technology to analyze acoustic signals and really get to the bottom of their pronunciation problems," he explained.

Not only does Donahues technique help people perfect their English pronunciation, but it can also aid in improving speech impediments. Although that is not Donahues specialty, he feels the technology would have the same benefit.

"There are exercises for them doing sounds like p, t and k, " he said. "And there would be a series of other sounds that they would have to try and master and repeat. Im not a speech pathologist. There are specific exercises for that, which they could use. Actually, Im using speech pathology equipment."

As for where the students go to access the "classroom," there is no Web site, per se. They either download or are sent special software that contains the online classroom.

"So the students simply launch the classroom and stay connected for a minute or two to upload or download course materials," Donahue said. "Most of the work is therefore done offline. A very good solution for our overseas students who do not have dedicated lines."

Although most aspects of this technology are positive, it can hinder some students performances in the beginning of the course. "Theres a learning curve for the students to become adapted to the technology," Donahue said. "Its just straightforward stuff about using Windows and a computer, stuff that really anybody has to learn anyway. Theres a sound recorder on your desktop, many of them arent aware of that. But its easier to learn that than it is to get a babysitter, arrange a work schedule, hop in the car, drive to a classroom."

Donahue said that this is just another application of technology coupled with reengineering the classroom.

"People, when they think of teaching pronunciation online, think of two cameras, where you look at me and I look at you, but that model really would not work. This is the way to go -- acoustic analysis and trying to understand the first language interference for the students," he added.

But not all students had trouble with the technology. Viviana Cortes moved to the United States from Colombia about four years ago and had no technological background. The program Donahue used was easy for Cortes

Jessica Mulholland  |  Web Editor/Photographer

Jessica Mulholland has been a writer and editor for more than 10 years. She was previously the editor of Emergency Management magazine, and she loves that she can incorporate her love of photography into her work as a part of the Government Technology editorial team. Jessica can be reached at jmulholland@govtech.com@jbronwen on Twitter and on Google+.