Thursday, April 24, 2008

"Face-to-face online Spanish tutoring"

(Published April 19, 2008 in the Guadalajara Reporter)

When learning a new language, it’s one thing to laze on the sofa with headphones and a cassette recording, mimicking common and phrases like a parrot. It’s quite another to sit face to face with a native speaker and chat back and forth – and that’s what Hablando Live, an online Spanish school started about a year ago, seeks to offer.

Partnered with Visual Link and a Spanish school in Cuzco, Peru called Wiracocha, Hablando Live uses a method of distance learning to get students talking and interacting from day one.

“It’s very difficult to gain conversation practice through a CD or tape program,” said Chandra Bringhurst, the company’s business development manager based in the Agora Hills, California office. I spoke with Bringhurst via Skype, a free Internet phone connection and chat spot through which Hablando Live’s students communicate (in addition to Google Talk).

Bringhurst explained that the only devices required to access the program are an Internet connection and headset with both receiver and microphone. The student may also use a web-cam to see the teacher. During the live class, a virtual blackboard is present on which the teacher can sketch words or explain ideas.

After the student registers for a class, which costs from 18 to 20 dollars per hour depending on the package, he arranges a time to begin class with a Wiracocha teacher, who will remain with him throughout the course.

The methodology is simple: each class consists of a conversation to practice material learned in the last session, introduction of new vocabulary and grammar, and a Latin American culture topic to wrap up. The program not only emphasizes speaking, but provides an overview of topics unfamiliar to many foreign learners. Subjects may include the Patagonia in Argentina, the Latin American kitchen, and costs of living in Peru.

“Where we’re focusing right now is working with different tour operators, clients who travel and like to pick up another language, or want to learn more when they come back,” said Bringhurst.

Hablando Live is unique in its connection with a school in Peru, which provides its students with consistent native speakers. But the service has many online competitors, including Interlingua, which works with a school in Guatemala and offers roughly the same service at a reasonable price. Both programs beat other methods such as private lessons, which can run up to 40 dollars a pop.

Other popular learning options include Rosetta Stone, which does not offer an online program, but courses for interactive study on the computer. The Berlitz language school uses an “audio-lingual” approach; that is, grammar is secondary to speaking and listening. Berlitz has language centers around the world as well as an online interactive course.

Bringhurst warns that other distance learning programs, while affordable, may not assure consistent communication with a native speaker. And because Hablando Live is based at a Spanish school, a student may call and chat with a teacher for a half an hour.

What all online programs can promise is a sense of confidence from the first day of learning a new language. While not ideal, simply because complete immersion is impossible, the face-to-face distance approach is possibly the best learning opportunity available aside from a private tutor.