Practicing Spanish with Students in China

By Brenda Romero

As many language instructors would agree, getting students motivated to speak the target language is one of the most challenging parts of our job. Study abroad can be expensive and is not an option for everyone. Thus, in my over 10 years of experience teaching Spanish at the university level in the United States, I have experimented with a variety of methods to engage learners and provide them with opportunities to speak Spanish in meaningful situations. Inviting native speakers to class, organizing field trips to a Latino supermarket in town or to a Mexican restaurant, hosting Spanish-speaking cooking lessons, and founding a Spanish club have been some of my attempts to encourage my students to speak the target language in a spontaneous manner. However, I never imagined that my efforts would cross many borders and land in China. This is a tale about a virtual classroom exchange between some of my students of Spanish in Omaha, Nebraska and a group of Chinese college students learning the language in Nanjing, China.

Technology and serendipity worked together to make this project a reality. It might be true that Facebook has room for improvement regarding the protection of user privacy but this social network can also be extremely effective at connecting people around the world. In my case, I met Prof. Mayra Padilla in a Facebook group for Mexican expatriates. She posted a photo of her Chinese students and mentioned how much she enjoyed teaching them the Spanish language and the culture of the Spanish-speaking world. In retrospect, the odds of me reading her post were very slim, as the news feed of this Facebook group of more than forty thousand members tends to be quite long every day. I read the post and decided to contact Mayra. We began exchanging online messages about our professional and personal lives. Academia, family, and nostalgia for our home country were some of the topics we discussed in our countless WhatsApp conversations. It was during one of those chats that the idea of connecting our students emerged.

Besides sharing a common national and career background as Mexican women living abroad and teaching Spanish at the college level, it became clear that both of us were genuinely invested in our students. We rapidly determined that speaking would be the focus of our virtual classroom exchange. Unfortunately, communication in real time would not be feasible due to the enormous difference in time zones. Therefore, we decided to plan an exchange of short student videos exploring a variety of topics: my city, the university, our hobbies, etc. During a video chat, Mayra and I discussed the details of our exchange (length of each video, deadlines, etc.). We would pilot this project with one class at the Intermediate proficiency level and students would work in small groups to record their videos. After exchanging videos, students would ask questions and submit answers about the topic. In all, each topic involved three short videos exchanged within a period of about two weeks: one of students discussing a specific topic, one with questions about the video they watched, and one with answers to the questions asked by the other class. Working asynchronously would imply more work than we originally expected but Mayra and I were determined to put our plan into practice.

The Spring semester usually starts at universities in the United States at the end of January. School had been in session for a couple of weeks when the details of this project were finalized, and my students at College of Saint Mary were taken by surprise when I explained what we were planning to do. Speaking to students in Spain, Peru or any other Spanish-speaking country would seem like a more logical choice so they were skeptical about the idea. Mayra and I recorded an initial informal video on our own cellphones introducing ourselves and our students to the other class. That introductory video that I showed to my class began with one student from the Nanjing Normal University saying: “Hola, estudiantes de College of Saint Mary en Omaha, Nebraska. ¿Cómo están?” (Hi, students from College of Saint Mary in Omaha, Nebraska. How are you?). Watching that Chinese student pronouncing those first words was enough to catch their full attention. Eyes were wide open and smiles were evident while this brief video was shown on the projector. Seeing a group of Asian students, thousands of miles away, and talking directly to them in Spanish was something they had never expected.

Our first official video exchange tested our determination. I learned that YouTube, Google files, or even Facebook were not an option for our project, as Chinese students did not have access to those online platforms. After various failed attempts we found a site available to both of us for the video exchange. It was Bilibili, a Chinese website similar to YouTube were videos could be easily uploaded and watched. Mayra and I were the intermediaries of these exchanges, but all oral communication was student originated. Students on both ends used their first names on all of their videos, and the questions sent after each thematic video were always addressed to a specific student. As Mayra explained to me, it is common for Chinese students in language courses to adopt a name in the target language. Therefore, her students identified themselves using their Spanish names such as Mariana, Carlos, and Rosa.

In addition to developing the oral and listening comprehension Spanish skills of our students, this project became a valuable tool for intercultural learning. The thematic videos were very insightful and allowed both classes to explore another culture from a student perspective. They were able to see images of each other’s cities, universities, and even dorms. Question and answer videos gave students the opportunity to expand the conversation in whatever aspect of a given topic sparked their curiosity. For instance, when talking about hobbies, Chinese students wanted to know names of specific singers my students in Omaha liked. Bailey, one of the College of Saint Mary students taking part of this project, talked about Country Music, very popular here in the American Midwest, and some of her favorite vocalists of that genre. On the other hand, after watching the video that gave us a tour of the Nanjing Normal University, my students asked about the hot water stations that their school had in every building. Ana, one of Mayra’s students, explained that it is customary in China to drink hot tea throughout the day and these stations allowed students, faculty, and staff to refill their insulated bottles.

Spring break and other holidays interrupted the flow of videos momentarily but the project operated during most of the semester. From the instructor point of view, this endeavor had been a success, but Mayra and I agreed to collect student input as well. Students completed a survey and their responses were submitted anonymously. Interesting, unique, fun, and fascinating were some of the adjectives used by participants to describe their experience. They indicated that it would be something they would definitely be open to repeating in the future, and that they never expected that speaking Spanish would allow them to meet people from China. A few students were interested in extending the activity to exchanging email messages, and others proposed the creation of individual videos rather than having students work in groups. The responses were overwhelmingly positive, and as instructors, we were quite pleased with the results.

My colleague at the Nanjing Normal University, Prof. Mayra Padilla, moved to a different city in China over the summer and put a hiatus to her teaching career. Upon leaving, she introduced me via email to other Spanish instructors in Nanjing but I was not able to find a partner class for my students. Since this project requires a great amount of work for both instructors, it is understandable that some educators might be resistant to the idea of a virtual classroom exchange. Personally, I hope to repeat this experience in the future. It was demanding but extremely rewarding. In a few years, some of my students will probably forget how to conjugate Spanish verbs in the present of the subjunctive or another verb tense, but they certainly will always remember what they learned about China in Spanish.