June 2016
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SKYPE AND FACEBOOK: A MULTICULTURAL EXPERIENCE
Grazzia María Mendoza Chirinos, Patricia Dyer, & Tara Friedman

 
Grazzia María Mendoza Chirinos,
Escuela Agricola Panamericana,
Tegucigalpa, Honduras


Patricia Dyer,
Widener University,
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA


Tara Friedman,
Widener University,
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA

In our world today, technology has been able to bring people closer and assure learning processes to be effective (Sykes, 2012). If learning is possible, then multicultural awareness is possible as well. As educators, we are always seeking ways to help students develop speaking skills. In the EFL classroom, we often require that our students get used to listening to different accents and intonations, and learn idioms. Additionally, teachers today are interested in teaching students the value of the culture behind the language they are learning. These goals can be hard to attain if students are not exposed to certain elements of the environment where the language is normally spoken (Dewaele, 2007).

There are different approaches that could be taken to address these needs. In this case, in our experience, technology helped bridge the gap; through tools like Skype and Facebook (FB) groups, we were able to set up and provide opportunities for EFL learners to interact synchronously with English speakers from a University in the United States, achieving two goals: improvement of language skills and promotion of multiculturalism through an online exchange.

This online cultural exchange was set up between students in Zamorano University (located in Honduras, with a student body of 1,200 students from 20+ Latin American countries) and Widener University (located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA with a student body of 6,630 students). The professors’ responsibility was only to set up initial topical guidelines and certain expectations. Students on both ends were in charge of determining the logistics of the meetings, length of conversations, who would write reports of sessions, and who would post reports to FB groups. The language of communication would be only English.

During the exchange, we found that students’ level of cultural awareness increased, and, as a consequence of the English discussions, we saw improvement in the EFL students’ language skills. Zamorano students had the responsibility of preparing in order to be able to communicate ideas and information accurately, and Widener students had the responsibility of preparing to use appropriate academic language to help EFL learners enhance their speaking and writing skills.

In an interesting case, one English language learner began the project by memorizing what he would say while using Skype. After several months, he was able to speak fluently and spontaneously. In his own words, “I was finally able to hold a regular conversation in English without translating in my mind or memorizing my notes.”

From this project, there are four benefits that the professors involved witnessed and which demonstrate what a digital exchange is able to provide:

  1. improvement of language skills, especially listening, speaking and writing;
  2. increase of cultural awareness;
  3. a newfound respect for other countries’ traditions and beliefs; and
  4. dissipation of stereotypes created by news media and other communication sources.

Grazzia Mendoza, Professor at Zamorano University, recognized that this valuable experience provided her 30 Spanish speakers with several important language skills as well as life skills, as they were required to have a conversation with an English speaker in the United States related to a variety of topics ranging from getting to know each other to politics and policies in their countries of origin. During this process, the EFL students increased their level of fluency, their ability to use English more spontaneously, and, in particular, their confidence. One student stated, and others felt, “My English is not as bad as I thought!”

By the end of the project, they spoke spontaneously and freely. Moreover, they gained new insights into the culture, habits, traditions, and perspectives of people in English-speaking countries from the best source: real people. They were able to compare and contrast situations from their own Latin American culture and see that even when there were differences in the ways things are approached in different contexts, humans are not as different from one another as it is sometimes perceived.

Patricia Dyer and Tara Friedman, from Widener University, mention that the nine students participating from their university enjoyed the project immensely. This exchange motivated the students to organize and plan a trip to Honduras, to learn on-site about the country and the people they had met online. Widener students reflected about the whole experience, and, when asked about the impact of the project, one Widener student said,

Most of the discussion topics attempt to make us think about our cultural differences or other differences between our countries, and I think that these topics were very eye-opening. We were able to learn about a country and its culture through a person that lives there and not through a textbook or online article.

One Widener student actually met her conversation partner when she visited Zamorano. She remarked,

It was such a great experience being able to finally meet in person after messaging each other for 4 months. We spent 2 hours just getting to know each other. We talked about our college experience and compared the two universities. Being able to contact with my partner on a personal level while in Honduras was one of the most memorable moments I have from my trip.

Another U.S. student reflected that this volunteer project "…is evidence that students are willing to take the next step in enhancing their education, especially their English skills." In other words, the students took ownership of this project and went beyond what they were required to do. Months later, the students are messaging each other outside the parameters of the project, sending photos, sharing news, and building their new friendships.

Personally, for us as professors at Widener and Zamorano, this experience has meant an important independent learning process on both ends—because in the end, the students were in charge the whole time.They were more motivated, more engaged, more aware of what they needed to do and how they needed to do it. Above all, the project defined the importance they gave to the learning of English, to helping others improve their English, and to their overall multicultural awareness.

References

Dewaele, J.-M. (2007, March-April). Still trilingual at ten: Livia's multilingual journey. Multilingual Living Magazine (pp. 68–71).

Sykes, J. (2012). Digital games and language learning: Bridging the distance. Research in Computing for Humanities. Lexington, KY: Centernet.


Grazzia María Mendoza has a master’s degree in international education and one in TESOL. She has been teaching English for the last 20 years at all levels. Currently, she coordinates the English Area at Zamorano University in Honduras. Grazzia has been a presenter internationally at TESOL International Association and other affiliates since 2007. She is chair-elect of the EFLIS and served from 2012–2015 as chair of the International Participation Award for the Awards Committee. Grazzia has reviewed proposals for TESOL since 2009 and is HELTA Honduras TESOL current president.

Patricia Dyer has a PhD from the University of Delaware. She teaches courses in applied linguistics, intercultural communication, and professional writing. She is the director of the Writing Center, coordinator of composition, and chair of English. Dr. Dyer’s research interests include contrastive rhetoric, second language acquisition, second language teaching pedagogy, writing and critical thinking, and writing center pedagogy.

Tara E. Friedman teaches English and professional writing at Widener University in the outskirts of Philadelphia. She is also ABD at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, hopes to complete her dissertation on female resistance and agency in select late 19th- and 20th-century American novels, and graduate with her PhD in literature and criticism. While she has presented on critical thinking and writing center theory and pedagogy at the CCCC and IWCA, her other research interests include 19th-century British novels, the 60s in America, and American humor. Her recent publication in the edited collection Critical Insights: The American Short Story focuses on Sherman Alexie’s brand of humor in Blasphemy.

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