For a long time it has made sense to language teachers to conduct elementary language classes by in effect matching words to words. How do you say “good morning” in the target language? “Bon jour.” “Guten Tag.” And so forth.
In the low tech environments of the past, i.e., when textbooks were the only available technological devices, this strategy not only made sense; for all practical purposes, it was all there was. Now, however, there are more and schools, from elementary schools to college and universities, that provide smart, internet-connected classrooms. As a result, language teachers have exciting new possibilities for engaging students and make language learning more stimulating.
In high-tech classrooms, language teachers have the possibility of using live streaming webcams, which have rich potential for engaging students. To begin with a general principle, webcams create a situation in which students give verbal responses to their environment. Instead of matching words to words, which is conceptually difficult, they match words to the live, real-time images in front of them.
Moreover-and this is a key point–students these days look at screens more or less constantly when they aren’t in class. They look at TV screens, computer screens, iPod screens, and cell phone screens. So why not have them look at screens when they are in class? As a matter of fact, the habit of looking at screens is so powerful that they can’t resist doing so. Teachers hardly ever have a teaching device that students can’t resist looking at!
Moreover, live streaming webcams have the quality of immediacy that students find irresistible. When students become accustomed to coming into the classroom and seeing a live stream from St. Petersburg, or Berlin, or Paris, or Seville, they will be less likely to think of those places, and the languages spoken in them, as foreign.
Any class in which language teachers want their students to speak the target language is a class in which they can use the power of webcams to their advantage. For example, even in the first few weeks of an elementary language course, teachers can ask basic questions, such as: “What do you see here?” “What’s the weather like?” “Is it cloudy?” “Is it sunny?” “Do you think it’s going to rain?” A great advantage of having students learn weather vocabulary is that they can use it to describe the environment they experience every day in the target language.
In advanced classes, and in conversation classes, teachers can use webcams to elicit responses to more complicated questions, such as: “What are these cars doing?” “What are these people doing?” and “What are they wearing?”
Webcams that show street scenes offer other possibilities as well. Teachers can ask students to make up stories about the people in the street. If a couple holding hands on the street appears, for example, teachers can ask students to make up names and biographies for them. Who are they? How long have they known each other? Will they get married?
Creativity is a powerful force for assimilating language. Once students can show some creativity, even in a limited way, in the target language, they have completed a major step in assimilating it and making it their own.
Many webcams show famous places in major cities, of course, such as Palace Square in St. Petersburg or Place de la Concorde in Paris. Webcams that show such places give teachers the occasion for mini-lectures on the history and architecture of the area.
These comments can suggest only a few of the possibilities that webcams offer. Webcams show, vividly and immediately, what Marshall McLuhan meant long ago when he coined the phrase “global village.” Although today’s students may well be more accustomed to living in a global village than their teachers are, their teachers can use this fact to enliven and enhance the language classroom.
Here are some useful websites that teachers who want to use webcams in their classrooms can use. The simplest thing is to do a search for the name of a city plus “webcams,” as in “Paris webcams”; “Berlin webcams”; “Madrid webcams.” A more general search is “Europe Live Streaming Webcams Portal,” and that will generate numerous possibilities.
One very specialized, and very French, website must be mentioned. Teachers can ask “Do you want to watch French bakers bake bread?” If the answer is “yes,” then here’s the website for that:
Students of German can watch a feed live from Marienplatz in Munich:
And also from Berlin’s Kurfuerstendamm:
Students of Spanish can see Barcelona on the screen:
For students of Russian, this site offers a choice of webcams in St. Petersburg:
There are webcams at numerous famous sites in St. Petersburg, and the site also offers the slide show option, in which the screen shows one site for about 30 seconds, and then automatically switches to another one.
Before class, teachers will of course want to check individual urls and also webcams, which do have mechanical problems from time to time. Still, these are minor issues in comparison to the variety, excitement and immediacy that webcams create in the classroom.