When I was in the Navy, a machinist’s mate on my ship once asked me if I knew why they couldn’t let boiler technicians take breaks. (Boiler technicians make steam; machinist’s mates run the engines that use the steam to power the ship’s screws. In their spare time they all make up jokes about each other.) Playing my role as straight man, I asked why BTs weren’t allowed to take breaks. “It’s too expensive to retrain them!” he told me.
And that, basically, is a problem with traditional classroom-based language courses. When it comes to language, we all tend to forget what we’ve learned unless we use it soon enough and often enough to fix it in our memory. That’s why an intensive course like the North American Summer Esperanto Institute (NASK) at UCSD is so useful: Each class meeting lasts a few hours, they take place every day, and there are plenty of opportunities to practice outside of class.
Unfortunately, most Esperanto classes meet for just an hour or two at a time and as little as once a week. It would be surprising if students didn’t forget a fair amount in the meantime. The solution is that word dreaded by every student: homework.
Today, fortunately, we’re not limited to doing exercises out of a textbook. The Internet has transformed language teaching, and it’s even possible to learn Esperanto interactively for free thanks to resources like the remarkable website Lernu.net. There you’ll find an impressive and growing number of Esperanto courses together with many other learning aids, including tests, on-line dictionaries, short videos, and the ability to exchange instant messages with other students and more experienced Esperanto speakers.
Lernu doesn’t make traditional classes obsolete, of course. Live and in person is still the best environment to develop speaking skills. And just as important, taking a class that meets regularly helps students stay motivated. But Lernu.net and classroom courses can work very well together — better than either alone, in fact.
Before you teach your next course, get familiar with Lernu. There’s so much there that at first you’ll probably feel overwhelmed. Eventually you’ll probably want to pick a course that’s appropriate to the class you’re teaching. In an introductory course, for example, you might want to use Ana Pana as homework, supplemented by other material on the site. Adjust your lesson plan to cover the same grammar and vocabulary as in the Lernu course, but in your own style. Approaching the same material two different ways can help clear up confusion, and variety makes things more interesting.
Today’s teachers routinely stay in touch with their students via the web and email, providing encouragement and sending gentle reminders of homework, complete with links so all the student has to do is click. You can set up a free combination web page and mailing list for a course on Yahoo! or Google among other places. You might even consider sending a very short email every day. Just don’t overdo it. It’s probably a mistake to try to conduct the equivalent of an immersion course by email. It’s enough to have them think about Esperanto for a few minutes every day between class meetings.
Of course, Lernu isn’t the only Internet resource useful for teaching Esperanto. Edukado.net is another source with a wealth of useful content for Esperanto teachers and students. The website of Infanoj Ĉirkaŭ la Mondo (icxlm.org) focuses on teaching for children. And I’d be remiss not to mention the obvious: esperanto.net (many useful links) esperanto-usa.org, UEA.org, and AAIE.us (the website of the American Association of Teachers of Esperanto, which we’re slowly expanding).
Nor is Esperanto confined to Esperanto websites. YouTube.com, for example, has a growing number of short films in and about Esperanto. (As of mid-May, searching for “Esperanto” on YouTube turned up more than 3000!) You can find numerous Esperanto radio programs and podcasts — including at least a few video podcasts — on iTunes and other sources. (Googling for the word “podkasto” turns up more than 38,000 web pages.)
Skype.com is a well-known service that lets you make telephone calls via the Internet. You can even make conference calls, with all your students connected at once, and as long as everyone is using Skype rather than a regular telephone, the service is free. (You will need some kind of microphone or headset.)
Skype even allows you to make free video calls, so you can see as well as hear the other person. All you need is a reasonably fast Internet connection and a webcam. A webcam is a tiny video cameras for use on the Internet. They’re now built into many laptops and some desktop computer monitors, and you can buy an add-on webcam for well under $100. (For higher quality you can attach a digital camcorder to your computer, but this can be a little more complicated to set up.)
Imagine letting your students talk to an Esperanto-speaker in another country, face-to-face, during class. Or seeing and talking with students in another Esperanto class in another country.
Oovoo.com is a similar service that does Skype one better: While Skype presently permits only two-way video calls, Oovoo lets up to six people take part in a video conference. With Oovoo or a similar service, you even could conceivably conduct a small course entirely on line, with the teacher and up to five students seeing as well as hearing each other.
Sites like UStream.com, BlogStar.com, and Stickcam.com, among others, even let you set up your own Internet television station, for free, so you can broadcast live Esperanto classes or sessions at meetings and kongresoj to as many people who tune in via the web. You can even record your programs for rebroadcast later, creating your own reruns! While this is not quite as interactive as a video conference in which everyone is visible on the screen, viewers can call in by phone or send text messages. With at least some of these services you can even switch between cameras in different locations, even on different continents. Of course, the fancier you get, the more technical complications you have to contend with, but young kids are doing it, so all you need is some smart young kids to help.
And then there’s SecondLife.com. If you haven’t seen it, Second Life is a bit hard to describe. It calls itself as “the Internet’s largest user-created, 3D virtual world community.” Roughly speaking, it’s like a video game where you control a character on the screen and interact with other characters representing other people on the Internet. But it’s not a game in the usual sense. It’s a virtual world you can explore along with thousands of other participants from all over the Earth. It has become so popular that businesses have opened branches in Second Life to showcase their products, and some companies conduct virtual meetings and seminars in this alternative world. As with the other services mentioned here, basic membership is free.
As you might expect, Esperanto-speakers taking part in Second Life hold virtual kongresoj and teach virtual Esperanto courses. For a good introduction to Second Life in Esperanto, search for the short film “Dua Vivo” on YouTube. Also trying Googling for “Second Life Esperanto”.
What online resources have you found useful in teaching or learning Esperanto?