VCU’s Language Exchange Program Continues to Grow

by Whitney Spicer

RICHMOND, Va. — VCU expanded its new language exchange program, known as “Teletandem”, to three other languages this semester.

“We started with Portugese, and now we have ‘Teletandem’ programs for Chinese, Italian, and Spanish,” said Tony Brinckwirth, director of the World Studies Media Center at VCU.

“Teletandem” was introduced to VCU in the fall of 2009 by Brinckwirth. Communicating via Skype, the program allowed VCU students to develop their Portugese language speaking skills, while Brazilian students practiced their English speaking skills. The program was small and partnered only with the Universidade Estadual Paulsita-Assis in Brazil.

“We had to start small,” Brinckwirth said, “I think it’s a great program and I have a lot of confidence that it’s going to continue to grow.”

And growing it is. The success and popularity of this program has led to VCU’s partnership with three other universities around the world – the Wenzao Ursuline College of Languages in Taiwan, the Universita del Salento in Italy and the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico.

The effectiveness of the “Teletandem” program has been largely attributed to the ability students have to develop their foreign language skills with a native speaker.

According to the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, research shows that effective language learning must provide interactive feedback in the target language in order for students to develop language and cultural proficiency.

This interaction with native speakers is what makes “Teletandem” so effective.

“If you can’t quite get it out the way you want, they can interject and help you with it. Soon you start to see where you can make improvements,” said Brinckwirth.

The program has become very popular with students as well. Maria Lulu de Panbehchi, a Spanish instructor at VCU, spoke of her student’s disappointment one day when the connection was not working with the computers.

“As soon as the connection came on, their faces just lit up,” she said.

Students have also become engaged in the program because of the opportunity “Teletandem” offers them to create new friendships with students abroad.

“One of the reasons why we think it is so effective is because the partners have very similiar interests,” Brinckwirth said.

“In almost all cases, they are within a five year age range. The students abroad have the same level of English as our students have of the target language. So the goals are the same. The skill levels are the same. The age range is the same. Students just have a lot in common with these people, even though they don’t speak the same language,” he said.

This ability to communicate with native speakers and form friendships almost brings “Teletandem” to the same scale as study abroad programs. Almost, but not quite, says Marcia Fontes, a VCU Portugese instructor who directs the study abroad program in Brazil.

“Nothing is better than going and living in a place, but if we cannot go and spend a whole semester there, then ‘Teletandem’ is really amazing. You can talk with a person, they can see your face, they can see your gestures.”

Professors at VCU hope that this innovative program will continue to expand and grow.

“We’re in the process of extending the program to many other different languages at VCU,” Brinckwirth said.


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