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Center offers high-tech resources for language learners

By Jennifer Greenstein Altmann

Princeton NJ -- The students enrolled in Simone Marchesi's ''Advanced Italian'' are studying a 1,500-year-old language in a decidedly 21st-century room.

A computer terminal sits at every desk, and at the front of the room is a touch-screen console for the professor where, with a few clicks, he can monitor each student's screen from his computer. If one student's work would be a good teaching tool, he can project what appears on that student's computer onto a large screen on one wall.

language lab

Marianne Crusius (standing), manager of the Language Resource Center, works with senior Yusufi Vali and sophomore Becky Madole in the East Pyne facility, which offers state-of-the-art equipment to assist in learning foreign languages.

The new classroom has vastly improved the students' ability to work with their professor and with each other on their language skills, Marchesi said. ''The lab has shifted the perception of technology-assisted learning from a solitary, student-to-screen practice to a communicative, student-to-student environment,'' he said.

The room, known as the smart classroom, is part of the new Language Resource Center, which opened last fall in the basement of East Pyne following the building's renovation. The smart classroom is just one of the technological gems at the center, which is run by Marianne Crusius.

''What we offer now is a very large improvement on what we had before,'' said Crusius, referring to the facility's previous location in Jones Hall.

The center offers thousands of audio files, videos, DVDs, interactive CD-ROMs and word processing programs for the 17 foreign languages taught at Princeton, all housed in a cluster of rooms filled with state-of-the-art equipment.

The facilities have made it easier for professors and students to access more tools that help with the study of foreign languages. And students who are not in foreign-language classes also use the center extensively because it circulates the University's video and DVD collection.

Students and faculty are flocking to the center. ''The new lab is amazingly busy,'' Crusius said. ''The word is spreading among faculty members, and often it's through the students. They tell their professor, 'My friend is watching a video for class in a residential computer cluster,' so the professor comes and asks, 'Can I do that too?'''

Faculty are finding numerous ways to help their students by using the center, which is part of the Office of Information Technology's Academic Services. ''At the center I'm discovering a whole range of opportunities to enhance instruction,'' said Shaun Marmon, associate professor of religion. ''Marianne is one of the most helpful people on campus. She puts an immense amount of time into helping faculty members.''

It's not just students and faculty who are benefiting from the center's offerings. The materials also are available to staff members. ''An employee who is taking a trip to Italy will come in to brush up on his or her Italian,'' said Crusius, who runs the lab with staff member Barbara McLaughlin and about a dozen student workers.

VCRs, DVDs, CDs and more

The center's main room is equipped with 15 computers that each have a multistandard VCR, which can play videocassettes from anywhere in the world. Seven of the computers also have region-free DVDs, which can play any DVD. Faculty members often want to view DVDs from abroad that can't be played on a regular DVD player, Crusius said.

Cable television also can be viewed from the terminals, and there are five channels on the University's Tiger Cable Television that broadcast programs in eight foreign languages, so students can not only watch news and shows in Spanish, French and Italian but also in Russian, Hebrew, Japanese, Arabic and Chinese.

Two viewing rooms provide a venue where small groups can view films on plasma screens. The equipment is controlled by touch screens, so it's easy to use. The rooms also have hardware and software for digitizing, capturing stills, editing images, scanning and burning CDs and DVDs.

The center's audio materials, mainly used by language classes, are nearly 100 percent digitized and available online. Students don't need to make a trip to the center to access them: They can listen from their room, from computers in the library or even from home. One student who was injured in a skiing accident accessed the files from her family's home in Australia, Crusius said.

Many language students visit the center to use a system called WIMBA, a computer program that lets students listen to correct pronunciations and make recordings for the professor. Before WIMBA was introduced, students came to the center to make tape recordings demonstrating their comprehension and pronunciation; the professor would then pick up the tapes. Now the computer makes the recording, and both students and professors can access it from home.

There are interactive CD-ROMs that offer language exercises for beginners. ''These especially help students who may be too shy to speak in front of the class,'' Crusius said. ''Students can use the exercises on the computer as often as they need to improve their pronunciation skills. Working with interactive programs and viewing videos gives the students additional role models besides the professor for pronunciation and body language, and exposes them to images from other cultures.''

Marmon was delighted with the results when the center digitized several recitations of the Koran for her ''Introduction to Islam'' course.

''Listening to these recitations is a great way for the students to familiarize themselves with the Koran and to learn about Koran recitation, which is such an important part of Muslim piety,'' Marmon said. ''And instead of just playing them in one class, I was able to have the students go back and listen to them several times, while following along with the translations and transliterations.''

Video on demand

The center also provides videocassettes and DVDs for language classes and courses in non-language departments. Many of those films have been digitized by the center's video on demand service, which allows students to watch from public OIT computer clusters through a course's Blackboard page.

This semester 90 courses are using the video on demand service. The number -- a record for the center -- is a huge increase from two years ago, Crusius said.

Another recent innovation at the center are the film clips it produces for classes. The clips can be viewed by students on their own on a computer or they can be shown during class. Students in ''Advanced Japanese,'' for example, viewed excerpts from a Japanese soap opera called ''Please Say I Love You'' as part of their homework to get acquainted with the language's colloquialisms.

Professor of English Larry Danson often shows clips from films during class to help students relate to the material. ''I'm able to show clips without having to waste time searching for them, and best of all, I can show more than one version of a scene, so that students can see various possibilities for staging and interpretation,'' he said.

In his ''Shakespeare I'' course, Danson showed students excerpts from two film versions of ''Romeo and Juliet'' so they could contrast them. And he is using clips from Julie Taymor's film ''Titus'' in his lectures on ''Titus Andronicus.''

''It's not a play that easily yields its riches on first reading,'' Danson said. ''Taymor's wonderfully inventive film helps make vivid some of the points I try to make in lectures.''

Marchesi's Italian class meets in the center's smart classroom about twice a month. The students watch film clips from Italian movies and TV shows, using them as a starting point for listening and comprehension exercises and for class discussions about the content and the cultural context. At their individual computer stations, the students visit Italian Web sites with chat rooms where they can practice their conversation skills live with native speakers. The room also is used by students studying German, Spanish and other languages and by non-language classes who want to watch DVDs or use the computers, as well as for various workshops.

''The upgrade of the lab's facilities has greatly enhanced the tools that we offer to our language students,'' Marchesi said. ''But I would say that the most remarkable feature of the Language Resource Center is not directly linked to the new location. It is the exceptional people who work there and their competence, helpfulness and plain understanding of what is involved in teaching a foreign language.''

For more about the Language Resource Center, see ''By the numbers''.