Video Conferencing Enables Students to Interact with Native Speakers to Learn Ancient Aztec Language
Students have long used vocabulary drills and repetition of phrases to learn foreign languages. However, students in “Mexican Culture and Language” at California State University, Dominguez Hills are learning the ancient Aztec language Nahuatl through a unique collaboration between the Chicana/Chicano studies department, the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL), and the Universidad Autónoma de Zacatecas (UAZ) in Zacatecas, Mexico.
Through the use of Elluminate, a synchronous video conferencing software program, the course is taught by faculty members at both institutions along with teaching and research assistants at the Universidad in Zacatecas who are native speakers of the now-extinct language.
Erika Gonzalez, who is majoring in both Chicana/Chicano studies and studio art, enrolled in the class to research her project on Chicana art. During a recent session, she and classmates gave and answered simple commands like “My name is ---,” “Sit down,” and “Stand up.” She says that the interactive process makes language drills “more fun because we get to see what they are actually doing.”
“And since we know Spanish, we can ask if we’re doing it [correctly],” she says.
Miguel Teran, a senior with a double major in Spanish and Chicana/Chicano studies with a concentration in language and literature, says that he signed up for the class because he is interested in the indigenous language, which was spoken throughout Mexico prior to the 16th century invasion of Spain.
“For me it’s a first-time experience, taking a course through a teleconference,” he says. “One of the main benefits of this course is interacting with students from Zacatecas who are native speakers of Nahuatl. I think this is the best way other than traveling to the country, to learn the language. This is as close as we can get to a full immersion language course.”
The language has evolved from its classical form to modern usage, both of which students at CSU Dominguez Hills will have the opportunity to experience.
“It has changed from classical to modern, but the language is very much alive in Mexico as well as here in California,” says Teran. “In Los Angeles, there is a large population of Nahuatl speakers, so [the class] can have many benefits for us.”
John Sullivan, a Dominguez Hills alumnus (Class of ’83, B.A., philosophy/Spanish), is a professor of the Nahuatl language and culture at UAZ. He says that many of his students in Zacatecas are Mexican Americans who are very interested in exploring their indigenous cultural heritage.
“They are delighted when they find out that they will be working directly with native speakers of Nahuatl in our program,” Sullivan says. “I have always told my native-speaking teaching and research assistants here that they have much more in common with a [Chicana or Chicano] from the United States than with a mestizo from Mexico. They are both non-native speakers of the dominant language in their country. Both are pressured by their country to forget their native language and culture and for this reason must work through identity issues.”
Sullivan, who is also an instructor of Nahuatl at Yale and Columbia as well as a research affiliate at Yale, is preparing the first monolingual dictionary and the first monolingual grammar of an indigenous language. UAZ is planning to open an undergraduate program in which the language of instruction and student writing is Nahuatl, as well as an institute for dialogue between Mexican Indians and Chicanas/ Chicanos in the United States. Sullivan hopes this project will include participation by CSU Dominguez Hills students.
“I became fascinated with Mexican language and culture in junior high, so the ethnic diversity at Dominguez Hills was right up my alley,” says Sullivan. “I married into Mexican culture and became a Mexican citizen. Being of mixed ethnicity is what defines my life, my wife’s life and that of our children. I work with students and teachers of mixed ethnicity, and Dominguez Hills helped prepare me to do this.”
Doug Borcoman, director of CTL and lead instructional design specialist with the university’s Academic Technology office, says that his departments are promoting Elluminate to faculty as a unique way to capitalize on technology and work more efficiently.
“Instructors can set up a meeting on demand,” he says. “Another use for it is for a virtual office hour. If a student walks in, they can [send] questions in a little chatroom. The instructor can be present, multitask and take care of questions that students might have [online].”
Irene Vasquez, professor and chair of Chicana/Chicano studies, says that the interest of her students in the online ingenuity of the class is a testament to their willingness to engage in distance learning formats.
“One would think this seems like a very distant way of teaching or learning,” she says. “But in fact, it’s amazing how the students feel so engaged by a screen. What it also does is forge a closer bond in the class with the students helping and supporting each other after class. It’s amazing that a distance learning class could create that kind of camaraderie and cooperation.”
“We’re really giving them an opportunity that isn’t available elsewhere,” Vasquez notes. “Unless they’re at Yale.”
For more information on the Elluminate course, click here.
- Joanie Harmon