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 to learn and made her experience online a success, especially since she could practice at home.
"Sometimes when youre in class youre uncomfortable because you know youre making mistakes," she said. "If you practice at home, you gain confidence. It really works. And its really easy to use. The key is that you really learn how to pronounce vowels and consonants. Its good for people looking to improve their pronunciation."
As far as problems with the course go, Cortes said there arent any. She recommends it to anyone who is looking to improve his or her pronunciation of the English language.
"Professor Donahue spent a lot of time working with me. I took that class before [without the technology], and I got a really bad grade, but with Professor Donahue it was really enjoyable. He takes time and he made this program that works very well."
Maria Gamez is from Venezuela and had problems deciphering the "m" sound from "n" and "b" from "v," but said Donahues class helped her find those mistakes and correct them.
"We had two different things that I liked," she said. "One of them was that we had exercises on his Web site, and we could practice them. The results of the exercises were automatically sent to him, so he would check if we were studying at home or wherever we practice."
This program is available both to students at Broward Community College, as well as overseas students who are learning English as a second language. The overseas students go through the Sister Cities Organization, a program supported by a $10,000 grant from the Florida Secretary of State Kathleen Harris, Hollywood, Fla., the Greater Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, as well as donations from convene.com, an education and technology vendor.