If one is to believe company lore, it was a combination of necessity, creativity and substandard hiring practices that resulted in the birth of the Berlitz method of language learning back in the 1870s. Because Maximilian Berlitz neglected to ascertain if the French teacher he’d hired to teach American students could speak English (he couldn’t), the students experienced total immersion, very different from traditional teaching methods of the time. And so a new approach – and educational empire -- was born.
Some 150 years later, educators continue to look for the most effective way to teach languages and cultural difference. Not only in business, though, but in study abroad, a student’s fluency and comfort in the language of the country in which he’s studying can be the difference between success and failure. Tools abound – whistles, bells, interactive videos – but what tools are truly effective?
At William & Mary some new methods are gaining traction, and although there’s plenty of creativity and innovation involved, this time the outcomes are based on solid research, good data and empathy.
Jingzhu Zhang, doctoral candidate at the College of William & Mary’s School of Education, is the Project Director of the Virtual Conversation Partner Program (VCPP). A native of China and special education teacher by training, she appreciates the challenges – both obvious and subtle -- of pursuing higher education in a foreign language. Her three-year study, Effects of Virtual Conversations with American Students on International Students’ Intercultural Communicative Competence, investigated the effects of virtual conversations with domestic American students on improving international students’ intercultural communicative competence (ICC). Zhang surveyed incoming international students and domestic American students who completed the Virtual Conversation Partner Program (VCPP) in the summer before arriving at William & Mary (one hour per week for three months) on Skype.
The 2012 pilot program was funded by an Innovative Diversity Efforts Award (IDEA) grant from the Office of Diversity and Equal Opportunity at William & Mary. The 2013 and 2014 programming was funded by the Reves Center for International Studies.
Last December her work was awarded the 2014 Marjorie Peace Lenn Research Award for scholarly research by The American International Recruitment Council (AIRC), a consortium of senior administrators at U.S. post-secondary institutions, pathway programs, student recruitment agencies, secondary schools, and non-U.S. educational institutions that work together to establish quality standards for international student placement in the United States.
Genesis of the Study
Zhang has considerable experience with international students, beginning with her studies at the Language and Culture University in Beijing, which is an international campus – 4,000 some foreign students and only 2,000 Chinese students. “I really appreciated those four years there with the international exposure,” she recalls. She’s been in the U.S. almost a dozen years now, but she hasn’t forgotten the hurdles when coming to a foreign country and making your way.
Zhang’s undergraduate degree is in English Literature. At William & Mary she’s studied special education and worked six years in Williamsburg James City County Schools (WJCC). Based not only on data from the study but also on her own experiences as a student and teacher, Zhang has found that being physically present in the country of target language doesn’t automatically guarantee authentic interactions with native speakers. Interactive opportunities need to be created to bring both international and domestic students together in an informal, social, and non-threatening environment where international students can feel equal, valued, and needed.
In approaching her project, she talked with students and realized that students who struggled with spoken English felt isolated and had fewer success with jobs and social life. She was troubled: “What can I do? I wanted to find a solution--- not just for a superficial connection, but for something deeper.”
She initially thought about doing a blog as preparation for arrival on campus, but students were often already more comfortable with writing and often self-reported high speaking ability than they really had.
And that’s when she realized what she sensed they needed was face-to-face connection. Skype offered a widely accessible and affordable means. She also realized they needed to start earlier than when they arrived on campus to begin studies. The virtual conversations began three months before a student’s arrival on campus.
Structure of the Study
Three questions guided her study, a sequential mixed-method study design that utilized both quantitative and qualitative data.: (1) To what extent and in what ways, if at all, did video-based, real-time virtual interaction with American students affect incoming international students’ ICC development? (2) What factors predicted international students’ perceived ICC, if any? (3) Which factors were perceived by participants to contribute to meaningful virtual intercultural communication between incoming international students and American domestic students?
The results show that international students who had five hours and more virtual conversations scored significantly higher on the posttest than those who had one to four hours’ virtual conversations, p < .005. Previous intercultural experiences predicted international students’ perceived ICC pretest scores, p < .005. ICC pretest scores and virtual conversation hours predicted international participants’ ICC posttest scores, p < .001.
Her research indicates that motivation, previous intercultural experiences, equality, and features of video-conferencing were the four factors perceived by the international participants to contribute to the meaningful intercultural discussion with American students.
For those students who didn’t have much interaction with native speakers or American culture, they reported being nervous and unsure about themselves at the beginning of the virtual sessions. Some students would prepare a powerpoint or be very structured ahead of time. Others were more open to letting the conversation progress naturally. Either way, students were learning to strategize how to communicate.
“The point was that they can learn how to initiate small talk, read facial expressions and use gestures,” Zhang notes. “And these are the kinds of things that can’t be taught in rote memorization or repeating phrases.”
Gradually, they felt more able to describe and explain their home culture, having learned more about American culture, too, and were thus in a better position to draw meaningful comparisons.
Initially she had more international students than Americans, but as word spread about the program, more and more American students wanted to volunteer. Zhang didn’t expect the overwhelming interest from domestic American students initially, but after reading their applications that were filled with such passion for the project, she realized that the thirst for intercultural interaction from American students was as strong as that from international students. Three-hundred forty-two W&M students, including 163 American domestic students and 179 international students from 18 countries, participated in the program in the past three years.
With an increasing emphasis on internationalization of American college campuses – she feels that programs like the VCPP may be just one of many ways to provide opportunities for all students to develop greater self-awareness and understanding of other cultures – in a non-graded, one-on-one, informal setting – that places the focus on human interaction and moves beyond opinions shaped by what’s on CNN and youtube.
“This is exactly why intercultural programs like the VCPP are critical,” notes Zhang, “because international students can experience what it is like talking to an American peer in a relatively less-overwhelming environment. As demonstrated by the interview findings, this kind of one-on-one pre-arrival interaction lead to confidence and positive attitudes toward campus life.”
As one participant put it, “The best thing is to give yourself just a little bit of security, at least get to know one person, and start from there… this one person you have built relationship with, you know, and move forward, to get to know more people. That was a good start”.
During the six years teaching at WJCC schools, she loved the students and working with their parents. And her background in special education taught her “to individualize – because everyone is different. And that approach really helped with this project.”
It’s that attention to the individual that enhanced the project. She spent a lot of time pairing up students. “I looked closely at their essays and applications, asking what are their majors? Their motivations?” As she saw it, this should be an opportunity for both virtual conversation partners to learn. “I wanted to benefit both sides.”
One of her favorite aspects of teaching is getting to know the students and following their progress: “As a teacher I followed the group from elementary through graduation from high school. It was similar with the VCPP program. I’ve watched them in some cases since they were freshmen, and now they’re graduating this year.”
Although Zhang refers to this study as “my baby,” she approaches the results as an impartial, seasoned researcher. She says she’s especially appreciated the feedback. “They write paragraphs, not just words. They want to tell a story about what they’ve learned, and each story is different.”
Programs such as the VCPP have the potential to enhance the higher education campus internationalization efforts as a cost-effective solution. After just a few hours of conversations over three months, international participants expressed that they became more involved in campus life after arrival than they imagined that they would have been had they not participated in the program. They were more familiar with the campus life and therefore more comfortable in taking initiatives.
Finally, Zhang shared that she’s seen the international students being exposed to an aspect of American culture that had been unfamiliar to her, too, when she first came to the U.S. “There’s a tradition of volunteerism and community service here that is not as much a part of other cultures.” She’s pleased to see students participating in service projects with their fellow students while at William & Mary. And that, in some ways, is an outcome that pleases her most of all.
As she recognizes, the majority of international students won’t be staying in the U.S. after their studies. “The majority are going back to their home country, and I want to help them go back to contribute, to change their countries for the better. These hands-on experiences here will change their views. This younger generation is a change agent, and the world will benefit from that.”
Public Information on the VCPP
• VCPP Website
• Education Advisory Board publication (2014): Supporting International Students on Campus: 17 High Impact Practices to Ensure Student Success!
• News story (2012): IDEA Grants Support Diversity Efforts at W&M
• News story (2012): Virtual Conversation Partners Aid Incoming International Students
• News story (2014): Virtual Conversation Partner Program Helps International Students Acclimate To America