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Dartmouth foreign language classes embrace Twitter

The Twitter assignments start with a workshop on how to perform Twitter searches and filter results.

Foreign language professor Tania Convertini is thrilled to catch her Dartmouth College students complaining about homework or upcoming tests. She’s not eavesdropping—she’s reading their tweets, written in Italian and assigned as part of an effort to immerse students in the language 140 characters at a time.

Convertini, director of Dartmouth’s French and Italian language program, requires students to follow prominent Italian individuals, companies, and organizations on Twitter and to tweet among themselves in Italian. And while the approach is a nod to the younger generation’s obsession with smart phones, Convertini says she is not embracing technology just for technology’s sake.

Instead, she wants put students in charge of their learning, expose them to authentic language in real-life, real-time situations, and create a community that extends beyond the classroom.

“We ask students to always use the Italian language in class, but then, when the class is over, what happens? They have homework, we have a lot of activities, but Twitter gives them one more opportunity to interact with each other,” she said. “And students are constantly using this tool. They are constantly on their phones, on their BlackBerrys. … So my challenge was to come to terms with the monster and make sure that the monster was actually working with me, instead of against me.”

(Next page: How Convertini has integrated Twitter into the instructional process)

The Twitter assignments, which are part of a broader effort to incorporate new technology into Dartmouth’s foreign language programs, start with a workshop on how to perform Twitter searches and filter results.

In addition to reading and writing Italian tweets, students give one-minute presentations in class on what they have learned. In many cases, they pick up vocabulary particular to certain subjects or industries.

For example, students who follow Italian soccer teams pick up sports lingo, while those following actors or actresses learn film industry terms.

“The moment you start following someone—an organization, a singer, a political group—you receive an incredible quantity of tweets,” Convertini said. “This is really authentic language and culture that it would be hard to expose them to otherwise.”

Fakoneiry Perez, a sophomore who took one of Convertini’s classes last year, said she was particularly interested in Italian fashion, so she followed companies like Armani.

“Initially, it was challenging because of the type of tweets a company would send, as opposed to a person,” she said. “A person would give day-to-day details … but for Armani, it would be about a new product coming out, sales or fashion shows that were coming up. So I had to learn a new vocabulary. But it became a lot easier the more I got used to it.”

Perez, who had never used Twitter before the class, also had to get used to the format. She read her classmates’ tweets to get a sense of what kinds of things people tweet about—the weather, food, routine daily details—before jumping in with her own observations.

“I would tweet about when I had too much work, or when it was really cold outside, or when I was going to a concert or something I was really excited about,” she said.

Convertini said she was fascinated to read tweets in which students said they didn’t want to study for an exam or complete their homework.

“But they are actually doing the homework. So there’s this sort of forgetting, where they are doing something for school but they don’t realize it,” she said. “And they come to class in the morning and they have something to talk about.”

Another student, Zhenwei Mei, said she was surprised to have Twitter incorporated into the curriculum. Mei, whose first language is Chinese, followed the Lazio soccer team and other groups and said she was surprised at how similar some parts of Italian culture were to her own.

“I like the new approach [because] it provides context, is easy to use, and is fun,” she said.

Perez agreed, saying while she appreciates the more formal language instruction she received in middle and high school, Dartmouth’s approach greatly improved her conversational Italian skills.

“On Twitter, if I wanted to say `I’m so tired,’ and I didn’t know the word for tired, I would look it up, and that way I became more fluent,” she said. “And I was also more comfortable afterward having a conversation with a professor or other students because I had used Twitter.”

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