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Is There Anyone There?

Teresa MacKinnon, Language Centre, University of Warwick

Speak to me!

Teresa MacKinnonComing to work in a University Language Centre from a background in secondary teaching, I was delighted to find a range of resources at my disposal to vary my teaching to adult and undergraduate groups. I suppose I quickly earned a reputation as a technophile, and it was probably with this in mind that the Centre's manager, Philip Parker, passed me some information about a French Company, Wimba.

The Company were then producing a system for sharing and recording sound files known as voiceboards. The technology had a very user-friendly interface and most importantly resulted in the delivery of sound that didn't buffer or stutter. As it was widely used in distance learning in the US and Australia, I piloted a small voiceboard package for business language teaching support.  Those trainees and tutors who used it were positive about the potential for the technology. Clients could listen to their tutor's messages and record a reply, anonymously if preferred. Real language practice is often preferable to written homework for our business clients. The potential for using sound across the Internet was appealing for language teaching, but the practicalities were often challenging and the end result could be disappointing. I remained convinced however that good quality sound would enhance the teaching and learning of languages.

I do of course have other past experiences of using technology to enhance language learning and develop speaking skills. As a Warwickshire teacher I participated in a project led by Ernesto Macaro which produced a GRASS database to lend reality to role-play situations such as reclaiming lost property, back in the 1980's. More recently I have tried including sound files on a language game authoring packing provided by Quia. This package is useful for text and image based activities but the drawback of sound file use will be quite apparent when you try this simple French game

In order to make successful use of sound over the Internet I had the following issues in mind:

  • The sound must be clear and flow without interruption
  • The technical requirements of the delivery should be minimal
  • The interface should be instinctive to the user

In Wimba solutions I found all these issues addressed. The technology allows for sound clips of up to 5 mins to playback clearly without buffering. Their delivery uses a java applet, easily downloadable from and very commonplace. Technical specifications are not high by today's media hungry standards (see ) Those familiar with using a tape recorder or audio cd player will recognise the play and record functions.

After many conversations in both French and English we built a relationship with the Company and were allowed to test some of their latest offerings including voice presentations. These allow the creation of voice boards which are linked directly to websites thus enabling a tutor and students to set web-based tasks and react to them verbally, engaging in a dialogue which relates to the sites viewed. Now known as Wimba Horizon Live the Company has developed a range of voice-enabling solutions, both synchronous and asynchronous.  The latest being oral assessment builders in partnership with Perception and they even offer a voice e-mail creator, so your intonation can make your emails clear again! 

Whilst I was participating in the WELA project our group were set tasks to accomplish on-line through collaboration. Given that we would possibly wish to discuss our thoughts I set up a voiceboard to facilitate our interactions. This taught me several lessons very quickly! Firstly, those who participated most readily were women. I do not wish to draw any sweeping conclusions from this fact, although it did appear that women were less likely to allow technical hurdles to prevent them from having a chat! The recordings on the board are quite informal and even without a microphone it was possible to contribute to the discussion. Have a listen at

A very different use of a voiceboard was that created for by our Spanish tutors for their business trainees. Using their knowledge of their clients' interests and linguistic abilities, personalised messages were placed on this Hispanists board. These took moments to record, but we spent a good 30 minutes preparing the content and discussing the nature of the recordings. We felt it would be vital to offer communication that was both stimulating and encouraging. It will probably be necessary to take the microphones out to the Company in order to elicit a response!

I feel that the most likely way to encourage our (mostly) male client base to get talking to us will be by using the most familiar tool of all, voice email. Delivered into your inbox it gives the one click option of reply, quicker even than picking up the phone! Most Europeans have the regular opportunity to come across at least one language other than their mother tongue, through music, television or simply geography. Our isolation and supposed linguistic supremacy (!) leaves us without this challenge and therefore unable to interact with potential business partners. Surely we need this bridge to help us interact effectively?

Having overcome the language barriers that first existed in order to locate and understand these resources, I am still amazed at how reluctant the English are to speak to each other! The challenge that now presents itself is to encourage others to discover the pedagogical value of these tools for themselves. I hope you may share my enthusiasm for them. I have prepared a small showcase for some of the tools so that other interested parties can try them out and see what they can do. Please feel free to browse to

Sign in with your University user code to see the development page link in the left-hand side. Dig out that microphone and get yourself heard!

Teresa MacKinnon
Language Centre,

University of Warwick