Terry King looks at a pioneering use of the web to bring minority languages to life for resource-starved students
Danish was the dominant language of the northeastern half of England for 200 years in the Middle Ages. But, ironically, today's first-year university students of Danish in that region say that what they want most to hear is the sound of real Danish voices and to have easy access to contemporary Danish writing.
Not an unreasonable wish, so why are they unable to fulfil it? Danish classes are typically small and there are few of them in the United Kingdom so students should be in an advantageous position compared with their peers. They have more individual attention, more chance to practise speaking the language and a more informal atmosphere.
However, one inescapable fact is that small numbers mean small returns for publishers and hence the lack of contemporary authentic language-learning materials drawn from the living culture of Denmark.
Visit any specialist languages bookshop and, when you have climbed the stepladder to reach a top shelf and blown the dust off the few Danish textbooks, you will find they were probably published 20 or more years ago, are printed on cheap paper with no colour but only hand-drawn, black-and-white illustrations. Little wonder that one first-year student said: "It's like studying a dead language."
A new project is attempting to address these questions and achieve contact with "reality" by using a "virtual" environment. The Virtual Departments for Minority Languages project, funded by the government through the Joint Information Systems Committee, is led by Jane Hughes and Jannie Roed from University College London.
In the pilot scheme, teachers and students of Danish in three universities - Hull, Edinburgh and UCL - are collaborating to create a virtual department by using an intranet to share ideas and specially created teaching materials, drawing on links with the real Denmark.
The project is intended to provide a model for university "minority" languages departments to use. (The term "minority" refers to languages not widely taught in the UK, or languages, perhaps different ones, not widely taught elsewhere in Europe.) Danish is the pilot language but the model might equally apply to more than 20 languages, including Dutch, Swedish, Icelandic, Finnish, Norwegian, Hebrew, Hungarian, Russian and Polish.
At the outset of the project a survey of the students' and teachers' needs revealed some interesting facts. For example, although language students are confident users of computers and of the internet, which is established as a means of everyday communication in their first language, fewer than a quarter use computers for language learning and a third say they do so only when directed by their teachers.
However, there was considerable difference between the departments surveyed. Two departments used computers regularly in their language learning. In contrast to most language students, the students in these departments are enthusiastic about the usefulness of computer-assisted language learning.
They have confidence in the computer as a help in language learning and believe it can aid in the acquisition of reading, talking and listening skills as well as in developing skills in grammar and writing.
The "real" test came earlier this year, when first-year students and their teachers from the three universities attended a day workshop in UCL intended to introduce the students to the concept of the virtual department, to give them practice in the materials created by the teachers and to receive their feedback.
Lone Britt Kristensen, press and cultural attache at the Danish embassy, was present at one of the sessions. She welcomed the project and gave authentic Danish topic materials to assist the students.
The sessions explored the potential of using the intranet website for distance learning, which is integrated with conventional classroom teaching. Students were asked to use links to real supermarkets and radio websites in Denmark to plan food and music for a party.
They tested themselves on their understanding of spoken Danish from a video clip of an interview with a Danish tourism officer. They used an interactive discussion board, assuming the roles of students on their first day at university given the task of introducing themselves to others via internal email (in Danish) and, finally, they engaged in textual activities with prompts and individual instant feedback.
Student response to the activities and the idea of the virtual department was very positive. The students singled out the motivation and interest provided by the use of authentic Danish contacts.
They valued the chance to interact and collaborate with other students, the opportunity to work at an individual speed and the convenience of the site being accessible at any time. With one year to run, the organisers are hopeful that that the project will bridge a historic gap in provision for minority languages departments by using new technology to aid teaching.
Terry King, of the education and professional development department at University College London, is a development officer on the Virtual Departments for Minority Languages project.