Teaching Russian with Technology: Targeted Captioning and Beyond
Conversation with Richard Robin – Chair of the German and Slavic Department at the George Washington University
Because I’d seen his name around a lot in connection with teaching Russian and using technology, Professor Robin was the first person I thought of to contact for this project. He’s written a best-selling beginning Russian textbook (Golosa), worked on the AP Russian exam, served as the Language Technology Specialist at the GWU Language Center for four years, presented at many conferences and written numerous articles on technology, pedagogy and audio comprehension. I found his email address from his personal web page and sent him an email explaining my interest in CALL and Russian language teaching. We set up a time to talk over Gmail chat (but ended up having to switch to Skype because of technical issues) and in preparation I reviewed his various sites and projects online as well as some articles he’s written. As I researched, I took notes on interesting questions that arose, then added my own questions about both technology and teaching in general. We ended up talking for 2 1/2 hours about his own projects, programs, web sites, teaching practices, as well as his background and philosophy. Professor Robin started out as a Slavic linguist but switched his focus to pedagogy. In 1971 he studied abroad in the Soviet Union – at a time when only 120 people had studied abroad there for that amount of time. He didn’t have trouble finding a job because he had good Russian at a time when that was a difficult feat; additionally he had a background in SLA and technology, which was also rare.
Tips on becoming a good technologist
- Having technical skills is one thing; a good technologist is able to recognize what the technology can do and then do it. “It’s recognizing what’s possible.”
- A good technologist is able to recognize good ideas, adopt them and do them better. Always look out for ideas to steal!
- Use the computer for things that it does well (internet searches, self-correcting exercises, spell check). Conversely, don’t force the computer to do things it doesn’t do well; for instance, computers are bad at talking, so why try to have students interact with them in that way?
- A good technologist is willing to go looking for stuff – not just authentic materials but also assistance for the technology side. If you can’t load a video in a player because you’re lacking the necessary codecs, will you go looking for those codecs?
- “Don’t get into specialized technology.” If something is not available for download (preferably for a free download), hosted on the web, or available for purchase in a store, don’t bother – specialized technology “never pans out.” Concentrate on stuff that can be used off the shelf.
- Don’t be afraid of cutting up video to make it suit your needs.
- Use students as a resource – they’re probably more knowledgeable about the latest sites and programs than you are anyway!
- Look for good ideas everywhere – not just in language oriented resources.
Example projects and activities
- Targeted subtitling of authentic video. Professor Robin will make several sets of subtitles for the same clip, depending on the levels of the students. So, for students with little to no Russian language, he makes a set of English subtitles; for intermediate students, Russian subtitles with English glosses; and for the advanced students, only Russian subtitles. Thus, he only has to figure out the timing of the subtitles once – he can use those same timings for each set, changing just the text.
- In first year Russian, when they’ve reached the chapter focusing on the telephone, Professor Robin sets up Skype calls between his American students and children of his Russian friends. One-on-one with native speakers is too difficult for the students, so he has a mic in the room and anyone can walk up and talk to the Russian on the other end. Skype-to-phone is a solution if the Russian internet connection isn’t fast enough. Another issue is dealing with time differences.
- He requires students to write emails using as much Russian as they can. He’ll fix their mistakes and respond all in Russian with glosses, using a template (see below).
- In the third-year Russian class, Professor Robin assigns students to interview native Russian speakers in the Washington, D.C. area.
- At higher levels, Professor Robin gives suggested sites and has students write compositions on a particular topic. They can plagiarize and anything they write is fair game for testing – “If you steal it, you must own it.” He wishes he could get them to steal more – students try to write everything from scratch with a ton of interlanguage. Professor Robin tells them to go on the web and find someone else’s argument and use it. Oral plagiarism should be encouraged! Entire chunks should be stolen. He would rather see people steal stuff and learn it rather than make it up on their own.
- Although it’s controversial, Professor Robin is a big believer in drilling; he’s talked to many Russian teachers who share the same view but wouldn’t admit it in public!
- He has students do all the drills in the workbook for Golosa at home. Then, in class the next day they do them together. He suggests that students master the drills in the following way: first do them with the book open, then, when you can do all of them accurately, close the book and practice until you can do them all correctly without looking.
Richard Robin’s Web Sites
This resource provides step-by-step guides to installing Cyrillic keyboards, customizing your keyboard, fixing other Cyrillic-related problems in Windows, and inserting stress marks.
Details several technological modifications that can be used in teaching listening comprehension: repeated audio delivery; slowed audio text delivery (NCLRC Webcasts, Audacity, Audition); accompanying texts; captioned video (VLC, Windows Media Classic); translation bots; voice chat and interactive native speaker practice (Skype)
Contains video interviews integrated into the textbook, audio (dialogues, texts, pronunciation and comprehension exercises), grammar exercises made in Quia, vocabulary cards, links to sites and documents mentioned in the textbook as well as other resources, instructor’s manuals, grammar presentation PowerPoint slide shows, and example tests.
Contains audio (pronunciation and comprehension exercises), grammar and vocabulary exercises.
Slowed down short authentic news reports, updated twice a month, plus pre-listening background information, vocabulary glosses, and post-listening exercises (multiple choice and fill-in-the-blank). For students with listening skills at ACTFL Intermediate Mid to Intermediate High.
For conversations with Russian e-pals.
Uses these programs to edit and slow down audio files.
These programs allow you to upload .srt (subtitle) files to be displayed over video. The best thing about doing subtitles this way is that they’re so impermanent: you can make several files for one clip – e.g., one with just Russian, one with just English, one with Russian + English glosses.
Software for video capturing and editing.
Microsoft Word Template
Professor Robin has created a template that makes glossing documents easier. Here’s an example.
Web Sites Used
This site costs $49/yr. but allows you to make all sorts of exercises hosted on the web: multiple choice, true-false, pop-up, fill-in, short answer, essay, matching, ordering; as well as games: flash cards, concentration, battleship, hangman, jumbled words and more. It’s more versatile and attractive than HotPotatoes, its off-line, free analog.
This site allows you to type on sixteen different keyboard layouts (including phonetic and gosstandart) on a computer without system support for Cyrillic typing.
Google Docs allows Cyrillic characters and even has a Russian spell check. Spell check can be a useful resource when trying to find out the gender of a particular word. For instance, if you type in чего стиля and чей стили, the spell checker will mark the second one as wrong – thus you can infer that стиль is a masculine word.
Converts text to speech. Supports the following languages: English, Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Korean, Japanese, Chinese and Russian.
Video sharing site. Like YouTube, but better quality.
Online subscription based Russian television portal.
Russian search site.
Russian news site that archives video clips from broadcasts along with scripts. Great for class use.
Russian radio site with audio and text. Professor Robin listens to this station and pulls interesting excerpts for use in class.