By Melissa Fiori, Associate Professor, Daemen College
As language instructors we have many standards to juggle. How do we motivate students to learn a second language in a way that addresses the three modes of communication, simultaneously developing the 21st century technological literacy they need, in addition to developing intercultural competence? Layered onto that, how do we emphasize the value and importance of language study beyond the (B.A. degree) requirements at a time when bilingualism is a critical skill set in the 21st century job market?! Layered onto that, how do we create an inclusive environment where the aptitude and proficiency of the bilingual, matriculated student is acknowledged and revered? Well, I would like to introduce to you the Language Assistant Program at Daemen College and will address the following:
- Who are our Language Assistants?
- What are Language Assistant Visits (LAVs)?
- What is interpersonal communication and how do LAVs exercise this skill?
- How does the LAV Program cultivate intercultural competence?
- How does the LAV Program build community?
- How does the LAV Program foster technological proficiency?
Languages Other than English B.A. Degree Requirement
At Daemen College, we are lucky to have language proficiency integrated into the requirements for the B.A. degree programs at the college. This requirement puts us in position to prepare graduates for a workforce where the demand for bilingual workers is steadily increasing across the economy as a whole. With this requirement comes the responsibility to build the skills that employers seek: bilingualism, technological literacy, and intercultural competence. The Language Assistant Program at Daemen College plays a key role in helping graduates develop these skills through their language requirement.
Who are our Language Assistants?
Our Language Assistants (LAs) are Native Speakers (NS) and Heritage Language Speakers (HS) of French and Spanish who are matriculated students at the undergraduate level. Native speakers are international students and Heritage Speakers are fluent bilinguals from the US for whom Spanish is their family’s language and the language spoken in the home. HS have varying degrees of bilingual proficiency but for our program, as long as they are communicatively fluent in the home language, they can participate. Their role is to meet for interpersonal communication with second language (L2) learners of Spanish at all levels of proficiency (Novice, Intermediate, Advanced) where negotiation of meaning (rather than turn-taking) is central to the exchange; matters of presentational communication (where grammatical form and function require attention) are the purview of language tutors who work for the Student Success Center. Our Language Assistants are home grown – that is, we do not outsource these exchanges through external programs, companies, groups, or apps. Rather, we identify heritage/native speaking students through the Athletics Department, Global Programs Office, the Student Success Center, and/or by recommendation (our LAs have recruited and recommended peers who could join the LA program) and invite them to apply to become work-study students in our department. Once candidates are identified, meetings are scheduled to discuss the program, the responsibilities of the post, and to have interviews to verify the level of oral fluency the candidate brings to the table. One that process is complete, schedules are determined based on the department’s budget and federal work-study eligibility. While we have LAs for both French and Spanish, the two languages offered at Daemen College, this article focuses on the Spanish language program only.
Language Assistant Visits
What are Language Assistant Visits (LAVs)?
LAVs are a core course component to the L2-Spanish curriculum at all levels of study. In general terms, L2 learners of Spanish meet with the LAs approximately biweekly. Our program aligns with the ACTFL proficiency guidelines for Novice (low, mid, high), Intermediate (low, mid, high), and Advanced (low, mid, high) for interpersonal communication with the LAs. At the elementary and low-mid Intermediate levels students may use short guided or suggested prompts to exercise their interpersonal communication skills. At Intermediate levels students conduct guided interviews on topics of interest (for example), and at advanced levels students discuss topics of interest related to their language, linguistics, literature, and culture courses. In addition, students in the Spanish for Health Professions courses engage in exchanges that prepare them to work with future Spanish-speaking patients. At all levels, students are required to exercise courtesy during the conversations, engage in a culturally appropriate manner, and to focus on negotiation over turn-taking. Finally, while each course requires a certain amount of visits (approximately biweekly or at least once per chapter, etc.), learners may chat with the LAs as frequently as they wish, and may visit alone or with a partner. Please note that students and LAs alike are provided with sample videos that demonstrate negotiation of meaning accompanied by written descriptions of what it means to negotiate meaning. Prior to submitting interpersonal communication tasks for a grade, language learners and LAs complete a preliminary conversation for which they are provided with feedback on the communicative exchange and explicit commentary on negotiation of meaning (or lack thereof) vs turn-taking.
What does this LAV program allow us to accomplish?
At the heart of the program is collaboration between instructors and students, and peers with peers. This collaboration allows me to join forces with NS/HS Experts (LAs) to generate opportunities to: develop L2 interpersonal communication skills, cultivate intercultural competence via peer-to-peer interactions, build community by connecting L2 learners with bilingual peers (LAs), and foster technological literacy skills in the process. Fortunately, the program’s design permits the department to meet multiple objectives at once. Each will be addressed in greater detail.
What is interpersonal communication and how does the LA Program exercise this skill?
Effective oral communication between two or more people enables interlocutors to exchange ideas, to get their needs met, and to engage in problem solving and task completion. Communication is effective when meaning is negotiated and conveyed (verbally and nonverbally). For the L2 learner these exchanges reflect ACTFL proficiency levels and are designed to prepare them for true to life interactions in the language of study, whether they’re planning to engage in personal or professional interactions. Visits focus on building L2 comprehension of interactions with NS/HS representing various dialects of Spanish, as well as improving how well the L2 learner makes themselves understood to NS/HSs of Spanish.
Visits with the Language Assistants help L2 learners to connect with bilingual peers. Here, L2 learners collaborate to achieve course goals and lesson objectives. They have the opportunity to engage socially and linguistically, to practice and apply the concepts studied, and to take linguistic and cognitive risks well before they do so outside of the college bubble. In the course LMS, students are reminded what it means to negotiate meaning and are given video samples that demonstrate what this looks like in practice (Picture 2). Lower level materials guide learners through the application of the language functions (such as greetings, goodbyes, planning, asking for help, asking for clarification, confirming understanding, asking about meaning, dis/agreeing, etc.) , while Intermediate and Advanced level materials offer less guidance as students progress (see Picture 2 and Sample Tasks). Please note that the Language Assistant Program is deeply integrated into the Department’s curriculum and therefore the tasks below serve as samples that are demonstrative, but by no means exhaustive, of the ways in which the visits are integrated.
|Negotiation of Meaning: Actions taken to reach mutual understanding during an interpersonal exchange in an attempt to bridge hurdles to communication. It includes linguistic action: asking for clarification, restating known information to communicate what is vs. is not understood, confirming understanding, applying apt expressions of courtesy and register (in/formal) that suit the social context. And it includes behavior adjustment: recognizing that behavioral differences exist from culture to culture (that neither the dialects of Spanish nor English are homogenous) and adjusting behavior accordingly to avoid misunderstandings and social blunders.
Sample Task 1: Elementary Spanish II – ACTFL Novice mid/high
|LA: You are a server at a new restaurant. You introduce yourself and welcome your guests. You tell them something interesting about the restaurant, share the menu items and daily specials, offer recommendations, and take their order.
|Student 1: You have food restrictions (allergies, diabetes, etc.) and have to be very careful about what you order.
|Student 2: You have limited funds and need to be mindful about prices and cost.
|All: In the course of the conversation you must be sure your information is conveyed.
In addition, you must order three items and must comment on the ambience, price, service, and food.
In all exchanges you must also be sure you either ask a follow up question /or/ ensure you make a statement that confirms comprehension of the information shared in the course of the conversation. Finally, be sure you are being polite (customers and server) and using the appropriate register (friends may use tú or vos; server & customer must use Ud/Uds), and be sure to negotiate meaning throughout the exchange.
Be sure to complete the self-assessment in the course LMS to assess how well you’re meeting the objectives for this chapter.
As learners develop their proficiency, tasks range from guided to structured in order to build upon each other within a given task, to more open-ended, etc., depending on the specific course. The following is an example from one intermediate level course:
Sample Task 2: Intermediate Level
|In order to build interpersonal communication skills you’re going to interview the LAs on topics of interests that have surfaced from the course content, current events, or mutual interests. This is completed over the course of the semester through three main steps, after which your instructor will assess your interactions in terms of how you negotiated meaning with the LA to reach mutual comprehension, how diligently you made yourself understood during the exchange, how you engaged the LA in a dialogue (vs merely a Q&A session), and in terms of politeness and intercultural sensitivities.
|Step 1: Introductions, contextualizing the nature of the interview, its structure and expectations, sharing procedure and answering questions; setting the stage for an interview to begin.
|Step 2: Repeat step one and incorporate feedback into the second interview. Complete the interview in accordance with how you set the parameters.
|Step 3: Repeat the first two steps incorporating your instructor’s feedback. Finalize the interview by summarizing what you learned, thanking the LA for their time, verifying that you have their information correct (name and spelling, contact information, and permissions), and politely ending the exchange.
|All: All steps are submitted for instructor and peer review.
As proficiency grows students engage in more open-ended exchanges, such as:
Sample Task 3: Intermediate, High – Advanced
|Find two sources: 1 written (magazine, news, blog, etc.) and 1 audio (podcast, newscast, etc.) that address the same topic. Provide the links to each source.
|Step 1: Prepare to bring the LA up to speed on the content of the sources by preparing a summary of the argument and supporting points for each source. Think about the points you want to discuss and prepare to chat with the LA on the topic.
|Step 2: Orient the LA to the topic and the sources and go! Work toward mutual comprehension in terms of your own understanding (of the sources and the LA’s perspective on the topic) and your comprehensibility in the exchange (how well did the NS/HS understand you in this process). Always be polite and utilize courtesy expressions and vocabulary throughout the exchange.
|Step 3: Write down new idiomatic expressions, vocabulary learned, or grammar that received explicit attention in the course of the conversation.
|Stop 4: Assess yourself in terms of what you Can-Do as a result of this visit. Incorporate instructor feedback prior to your next LAV.
Through its design, the LAV Program widens the spectrum of communicative practices from L2 peer-to-peer interactions to include the broader campus community of bilingual peers. It invites activities where active negotiation of meaning is required, where interlocutors have to demonstrate awareness of what they are communicating and how their linguistic choices are being perceived, and where they adjust their participation to reach mutual understanding as the conversation unfolds. The LAVs are recorded using Zoom and are uploaded to the LMS for the instructor to offer feedback on the exchange with a primary focus on how well students negotiated meaning and met the objectives for the recorded session. Please note that while this process encourages the development of interpersonal communication skills, it is very laborious for the instructor. Rubrics and time limits on the submissions facilitate this process for the instructor but providing feedback is incredibly time-consuming and onerous.
How does the LAV Program cultivate intercultural competence?
Intercultural competence boiled down to its core is the ability to function effectively cross-culturally in terms of behavioral, linguistic, and social norms. It is where knowledge, skills, and attitudes intersect to either facilitate or impede interpersonal communication. So, if we are to prepare students for a diverse and interconnected world, we must integrate intercultural awareness explicitly. How do I do this? By aligning the lesson objectives with interaction, relationship building, and reflection.
- Objectives adhere to ACTFL’s interpersonal and intercultural communication benchmarks. Students may choose activities that are more/less guided, but each is designed to align with the chapter theme and proficiency level, require negotiation of meaning as part of the assessment, and demonstrate courteous (culturally sensitive) interactions. Students are provided with a document of communicative functions at Novice, Intermediate, and Advanced levels for expressing things like repetition/clarification requests, dis/agreeing, greetings, and taking leave.
- Relationships are cultivated over time. Learners meet with the LAs multiple times per semester and over a period of years as they complete the B.A. degree, or a minor/major in Spanish. Moreover, LAs are expert peers who are a part of the same college community as the L2 learners.
- Reflection is inherent in the process. Students visit the LAs at least once per chapter but are encouraged to visit as often as necessary to reach the course objectives. At the chapter’s end they complete a self-assessment, using the criteria below, for each of the chapter’s objectives.
- Excelente: I know this well enough to teach it to someone.
- Muy bien: I can do this with almost no mistakes.
- Más o menos: I can do much of this, but I have questions.
- Es difícil: I can only do this with help.
- Ayúdame: I can’t do this, even with help.
LAVs include cultural awareness at all levels of the program. The elementary level focuses on memorized formulaic expressions and appropriate register, but novice levels still create an environment where courtesy and politeness are a part of the task and are factored into assessment. Lower levels prime learners for the Intermediate level where they have to recognize the differences in novel settings and adjust their linguistic and behavioral contributions accordingly. Advanced levels of intercultural competence are required for successful personal and professional exchanges and it is here where the impact of the LA Program is most dramatic/noticeable. Coming from both Spanish-speaking countries and regions inside the US, the LAs offer a diverse range of cultural practices to share with L2 students.
How does the LAV Program build community?
Language Assistant Visits offer reciprocity. Not only do the students interact with each other, but they share an undergraduate experience both physical and virtual, a college identity where their experiences align over four or more semesters, and a connection beyond the curricular requirements. The program fosters inclusion, integration, and shared experience, the pillars of community building. Unfortunately, our language program is limited to French and Spanish (and this article focuses on the Spanish Language Assistant Program specifically) and therefore those students are the most impacted by our program, but at this predominantly commuter college of only a few thousand students, our program has connected students in a way that wasn’t happening previously.
It is worth noting that the Language Assistant Program is the result of a conference panel on Network for Effective Language Learning (NELL) hosted by the Council for Independent Colleges which promoted collaboration between faculty and heritage/native speaking students for building language proficiency for L2 learners. By bringing students (NS/HS & L2-learners at the college) together we are able to expose L2 learners to various dialects of the language with the cultural values inherent to its speakers, to create local language communities, immerse them into broader communities of Spanish speakers, and to introduce cultural elements that only NS/HS can offer. The program naturally aligns well with ACTFL’s Five Cs. In addition, we’re able to facilitate creating an assets-based community for the native/heritage speaker where their home language is respected, revered, and considered an asset, and their lived experience is valued. From the vantage points of both L2 learners and native/heritage speakers, inclusivity is at the heart of creating a space where students can have the space to learn, grow, and expand upon their personal and professional base.
The Language Assistant Program offers opportunities for academic and social integration. LAVs are integrated in the second language learning curriculum at the college as a weight bearing course component at all levels of instruction. L2 learners are required to participate and the tasks are designed to compel them to develop interpersonal communication skills and intercultural cognizance. Language Assistants participate in the capacity of bilingual (experts) work-study students. In this role the LAs meet nearly every student pursuing a B.A. degree. As a result, the LA program expands the social networks of the LAs, while the LAs assist in initiating their L2-learning peers into the bilingual community on campus and hopefully with speakers beyond the college. Whether the student is wearing the Language Assistant Hat or the L2-learner Hat they are all Daemen College students. They meet regularly and over a period of semesters for their online LAV exchanges, but they might be enrolled into other courses together, be on an athletic team, live in the same dorm, or be a part of the same club. Thus, we have a community of bilingual (speakers and learners) within the broader college community.
The Language Assistant Program is designed for shared experience. Creating a collective experience that is mutually beneficial to both the L2 student and the bilingual peer impacts how each learns and grows. Language Assistant Visits certainly shape the undergraduate experience at the college. When they collaborate they stand to learn and grow. They build their identity as bilingual speakers of Spanish – together. They build their interpersonal communication skills – together. They develop intercultural skills – together. They progress in their undergraduate studies – together. They build technological skills through the exchanges – together.
In this manner, the inclusive and integrated nature of the Language Assistant Program creates the space for the shared experiences that are fundamental to community building.
How does the LAV Program foster technological proficiency?
ACTFL recognizes technological literacy as a 21st Century skill and that it has a place in L2 study. To address how LAVs foster tech literacy skills I turn to the International Society for Technology in Education. ISTE has established a set of standards with the aim of intentional application of technology to transform teaching/learning. Considered through this lens, the LA Program meets multiple standards: Educator Standard – Collaboration 4c and Student Standards Empowered Learner 1c and Global Collaborator 7a.
ISTE Educator Standards
The ISTE Educator’s standard on Collaboration, specifically 4c, requires that educators use collaborative tech tools to expand authentic experiences for students by collaborating with experts. The experts are the native/heritage speakers who bring their intercultural knowledge and linguistics abilities to the program, while the tech tools have become more sophisticated as the program has matured. Over the years the procedures became more formalized and more digitized. The current procedures are as follows.
Procedures: Language Assistants
Language assistants populate their Google calendar with their availability and generate a corresponding Zoom link to record each appointment. This information is published in a live Google doc for L2 students to access. LAs send the recorded sessions to the L2 students who upload them to the LMS for the instructor to review. The instructor touches base with the LAs throughout the semester to discuss topics that have arisen, to check in, and to offer feedback.
Learners schedule their appointments based on mutual availability and by following the resources published for them in the live Google doc. They upload their session by adhering to the submission format requirements into the course LMS for the instructor to review.
The migration of our courses to a fully online format enhanced the LAV program learning and transformed technological skills development. The tools they use to connect and collaborate are the very tools they’ll need to be proficient in in professional settings.
ISTE Student Standards
The Empowered Learner Standard, 1c, requires the use of technology to inform and improve practice and works in tandem with the Global Collaborator 7a, which requires learners to connect with other learners from various cultural backgrounds. When students use the Google tools suite in professional (LAs) and academic (L2 learners) capacities, they are developing their professional technological literacy skills. When they record, share, and submit videos to the LMS by adhering to a required format, they are demonstrating their technological competence. Video submissions require students to submit the work most demonstrative of their current proficiency level, while allowing for feedback on their performance. Videos can be reviewed for negotiation of meaning vs. turn-taking and can be compared to the students self-assessment using ACTFL’s Can-do statements. Meeting with multiple LAs exposes learners to a variety of backgrounds and cultures while allowing them to take the reins of their learning by determining how satisfied they are with their performance and to build the proficiency level that best suits their post-graduate career aspirations and personal prospects.
What do our Language Assistants and L2 learners have to say about the LAV Program?
Second language learners report the following:
- “Through the LAVs, I am able to practice my Spanish with a native speaker and understand a more natural way of speaking the language. The LAVs offer practice for my listening, speaking, and comprehension skills. I feel more confident in my language skills when I work with a language assistant, and feel this experience is the best practice for learning.”
- “It is an opportunity to talk with somebody who has a different background and experiences than I know of or am accustomed to. It was imperative to the growth of my language skills abilities [sic] to step outside of my comfort zone in order to carry out conversations — especially in a different language. The LAVs helped me realize that I need a push sometimes (whatever that may be and for many cases throughout the Spanish program it was, yes, to grow my language skills but to obtain a grade). The LAVs were very informal and while sometimes it made me feel scared to speak up because I thought I would be judged, I soon realized that the LAVs are designed as an open forum almost. As I became more comfortable I realized how important communication is and just how much the assistants want us to communicate with them or try to communicate in their respective language.”
- “LAVs have helped me by giving me the opportunity to speak with someone who is fluent in the language. It helped me feel more confident in my ability to have and to hold a conversation with someone who is actually fluent. Speaking with fellow classmates is great, but we’re also at the same level of learning. Being able to have conversations with an experienced person, and being decently successful at it, really shows me how much of the language I am retaining and how far I’ve really come since I first started learning the language.”
- “LAVs have helped me to compare and contrast the LAVs’ cultures and my culture. This helped me complete and understand my personal reflection and my interpersonal reflection by making me think more and really dive deep into my culture and reflect on it.”
- “LAVs have shared aspects of their own culture both when we were able to meet with them during the 100 level sequence and with the videos they have posted for SPA 240. Them sharing about their different celebrations, foods, etc, bring greater awareness to and appreciation for differences in our cultures such as how things are celebrated, but similarities like why they are celebrated.”
- “ It is easier to learn these cultural aspects from the LAs rather than through traditional learning, since it is easier to relate to someone who’s speaking to you about their tradition.”
- “I was able to hear the dialectal differences and understand where each individual’s dialect comes from. That was a super interesting part about the LAVs. I could then ask questions about how certain words are pronounced and directly compare that to another assistant’s pronunciation.”
- “I am familiar with a few of the LAs and feel more comfortable speaking to them as I get more familiar with them. Without the LAV program, I would not be aware of any other Spanish speakers on campus besides other students in my course.”
- “LAVs give the chance for younger students to connect with older, more experienced students when practicing the speaking portion of learning a language. It definitely builds a community where you can feel comfortable in learning a language for the first time. Talking with fluent speakers feels daunting sometimes, but all the LAs were so nice and supportive. Whenever I asked how to say something or how a verb would be conjugated, they easily helped me, no problem.”
- “LAVs help build a community at the college in terms of connection [sic] learners of Spanish with speakers of Spanish because the LAVs know through their own experience and can teach students how to be better. Students can feel comfortable to speak with LAVs because they are students themselves and aren’t afraid to ask them questions and how to become better at speaking Spanish especially if it is just between the student and the LAV.”
- “LAVs have greatly improved my understanding and ability to use tech tools such as Zoom and Google calendar.”
- “LAVs definitely helped me with Zoom, especially when I get invitations and have them show up in my Google calendar. It was a nice way in which I could keep track of my meetings and receive reminders. It also made me aware that I had to be logged into my Daemen Zoom account.”
The Language Assistant Program
- “The language assistant program is an essential part to the learning process for learning a language. The best way to improve your ability is by practicing and speaking the language. No other method is as effective, and conversational practice should be the focal point of language learning. I would prefer more usage of the LAVs for assignments for the purpose of more practice and to build more confidence with the language.”
- “I really enjoyed the LAVs once I was able to understand that it is designed to help students. A huge fear I had to overcome was about being judged because I am more reserved. So during my first year of Spanish at Daemen, I was very insecure about going to visit the LAs because I was afraid I would be made fun of, however, now that I understand the purpose of the program and have been able to meet with many different LAs, I find it to be an extremely important and necessary resource!”
Language Assistants report the following about the LAV Program:
- “I like being able to practice my first language in an area where I don’t get too many opportunities to speak Spanish. I joined after hearing good recommendations about the program from my friends.”
- “I really like being a LA because I truly believe that I am a useful resource when it comes to helping people and that fulfills me in a really nice way.”
- “It offers them good practice. Personally I know it can be very difficult to learn a language if you’re not practicing it often so this just helps enhance the students’ learning.”
- “It offers them a different way to learn that is very unique if we compare it with other colleges so I see this department as a competitive advantage that makes a difference…”
- “It has made me want to pursue a minor in Spanish because it has made me realize how special it is to know two languages.”
- “It had such a great impact. I think I learned a lot since I first joined the program 2 years ago from now. I truly believe that I am developing “teacher” abilities I did not have before and that is thanks to this program. I really appreciate the opportunity given and would like to keep working here in the future.”
- “It has helped me feel more at home because before I wasn’t able to speak Spanish with others since I hadn’t met others that spoke Spanish and now I am able to.”
- “This job really helped me to meet new people at Daemen. I have been working with more than 80 students so far and I actually established some kind of friendship with some of them so this program has also helped me to meet new and fantastic people.”
- “Before I didn’t really know how to use and manage Zoom or Google calendar but now I have learned how to navigate these applications very easily.”
- “I have always been really bad when it comes to tech so this program has helped me to develop skills in Zoom, Google Calendar or screen-o-cast so I think I can manage them perfectly nowadays.”
At the heart of the program is collaboration between instructors and students, and peers with peers. Working from an asset-based perspective allows for students to come together to learn language in a way that cultivates intercultural competence, exercises interpersonal communication skills, and builds community. And where technology can be introduced in a meaningful way, technological savviness can also result. LAVs are a fundamental part of our curriculum and have been invaluable to both the L2 learner and the native/heritage students. So, wherever you have students with a particular skill set and other learners who need to acquire that skill there is room for this type of peer learning program.
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