Use of Innovative Technologies in Language Teaching

This week I was asked to submit a description of how we can use innovative technologies in the teaching of foreign language.  The write up should appear as part of a handbook for teachers.  Here are the contents of that write-up. Some of the examples are specific to Portuguese language, but I imagine that some readers will find the content useful.  It is a bit longer than my usual blog entries, but hopefully not too much longer.

Language Learning In A Digital World

Orlando R. Kelm, University of Texas at Austin


Language learning is messy, this despite the fact that our pedagogy traditionally strives to clean up the mess. Portuguese is no exception. We try to clean up the messiness by controlling and structuring our courses. For example, teachers generally present gender and agreement before learning the subjunctive, because somehow that is seen as an appropriate built up. If we were to be brutally honest with ourselves, however, much of this control is motivated by our need to manage students and classes, more than our belief on what is really helpful in language learning. A language supervisor at a large university once told me, “Our methodology may not be the best way to learn a language, but it’s an effective way to teach the language to 5,000 students.” A large part of our methodology is centered on convenience and practicality.

Nowadays, we have a new challenge. Our traditional methodology is confronting the reality of our digital age. Instant access to information, video, audio, chats, conversations with people from anywhere at any time, communication and information flows, all of these potentially change our approach to education and learning. It is partly for this reason that we sometimes look at technology and social media as a hindrance to our language learning pedagogy. Why? Because all of our efforts to make language learning less messy seem to crumble as technology exposes learners to hundreds, no thousands, of new ways to communicate with others and access information. The result is that we sometimes feel like we are losing control of the classroom, the students, and the learning environment. Given this, there is a push back. Some forbid students to open their laptops in class, others do not allow mobile devices at school, and others still discourage learners from accessing online resources, because, after all, who knows what kind of incorrect and incomplete information is out there. And this is true without even fanning the flames that suggest that technology will someday replace teachers!

There are additional challenges as well. Even if we want to incorporate more technology and social media into our language learning, these are moving targets. Every day there are new options, new sites, new applications and new programs. How do educators make a decision about how to incorporate technology and social media into foreign language learning when faced with the real issues of cost, quality, scalability, copyrights, time commitments, accuracy and age appropriateness? It becomes overwhelming. Let’s be honest, the school or university is going to make a broad decision to use a specific content management system, and we will go with it. The department is going to make a broad decision to use a specific textbook, which comes with ancillary online materials, and we will go with it.

Still, even if we “go with it,” inevitably there are students, often the self-motivated independent ones, who approach language learning differently. These learners finds ways to read news updates and articles from anywhere in the world. They use translation technologies to enhance their understanding. They find ways to talk, in real time, with native speakers who are thousands of miles away. They download music, talks, lectures, grammar exercises, podcast lessons, movies and videos.

With all of this in mind, the object of this part of the manual is to provide some ideas on how to use technology and social media to enhance the learning of Portuguese. For learners of Portuguese, labeled with the famous acronym LCTL (Less Commonly Taught Language), this is especially important because there are simply fewer published materials for language learning.

The premise and starting point for this essay is the following: Look at how technology is used in society in general, and build on that for pedagogical purposes. If people use a program or application for communication purposes, how can we modify that for language teaching? If people share information with others in a certain way, how can we adjust that for language learning purposes? If in everyday life we access information in certain ways, how can we replicate a part of that in teaching and education? In other words, observe what happens in real life and figure out a way to tweak that when learning a foreign language.

Background Stories To Set The Stage

Let’s begin with two brief examples that illustrate how technology and social media have changed the way we interact with students, and how they learn foreign languages. Recently I introduced our Portuguese language students to HelloTalk, a free app that allows learners to use their mobile device to chat, record, correct, and edit language with native speakers. During class one day I told that students that almost every Brazilian will have heard of the poem, Minha terra tem palmeiras by Gonçalves Dias. At that very instant a student named Kris pulled out is mobile phone and asked his Brazilian contacts on HelloTalk if they had every heard of that poem. It was not even two minutes later when Kris raised his hand to let me know that he had just asked a few Brazilians and indeed they had all heard of the poem, but no, none of them really knew it. It was an amazing, and slightly intimidating experience. First, it was impressive to see how quickly students were able to confirm what I was simultaneously talking about in class. Second, the experience served as a catalyst for lots of new ideas on how I could integrate classroom activities and immediate Brazilian input.

Second example, in another recent course there was a miscommunication with the university bookstore and the textbook did not make it to the bookshelves. Serendipitously, there was an electronic version of that textbook. However, when we tried to access the textbook through our university library, it was not available for our students. As the instructor, I went to the library to see if there was any way to obtain access to the electronic version. The official answer from the library staff was no. However, some of our students clicked on one or two new search options and they found that the electronic version was indeed available, and legitimately so, through a different portal. Not even the staff at the library was aware of the other option. Had it not been for the savvy searching of the students, we would have been without the textbook at the beginning of our semester. Again it was an amazing experience. Students were literally able to use technology to keep our class progressing, even when the library and the teacher did not know what to do.

What Is Out There And How We Can Use It

In this section we will look at some of the “tools of the trade.” These are programs, applications, websites, etc., that can all be used to enhance language learning and foreign language teaching. Please notice the use of the word “enhance.” If a person asks, “What should I do to learn Portuguese?” the answer is never found in just one thing. There is no single best and only way to learn a language. There is no one textbook, or no one podcast lesson that miraculously covers all aspects of language learning at all levels of proficiency. The same is true with everything that I will show here. Some items work well to organize time, others work well for students at beginning levels, some work well to improve reading ability, others work better to improve oral fluency. The point is, there are hundreds of things that we can do to improve our language learning, but each are valid within their own area. It is unfair to criticize, for example, an audio recording because it doesn’t help a learner to spell difficult words correctly. Almost everything that is shown here works as an ancillary, but nothing covers for all aspects of language learning.

  1. Tools To Organize Materials and Sort Presentation

One of the challenges that we face as teachers is the wide assortment of tools we draw from, often in class. Sometimes we move back and forth between text, photos, video, audio, PDF files, URL links, textbooks, handouts, and any other variety of items.

It is easy to get lost. Here are four tools that assist in organizing our materials and our presentation.

  1. Padlet is an online wall, similar to a bulletin board, where individuals or groups can post all sorts of content: images, videos, text, documents, pdf files, URL links, etc. It is easy to customize the wall, control who has access and moderate student interactions. The basic version is free, and the learning curve to learn how to use Padlet is probably less than 30 minutes. It is a powerful tool to post notes, create portfolios, and to add ancillary materials. It is also effective as a tool for students to build their own walls, that also includes their notes, portfolios, and the results of their own search and research.
  2. If you have ever had the frustrating experience where a lesson plan or presentation is difficult because you find yourself bouncing in and out of multiple digital recourses, Blendspace will make your life much easier. Blendspace is a platform were users can gather, sort, annotate, and share almost any digital resource. Blendspace makes it easy to draw anything from google searches, flickr, educreations, upload any media, copy from Dropbox, or add from Gdrive. It simply allows you to sort and organize by a simple click and drag. The learning curve is again something that will take you less than 30 minutes to learn.
  3. Wikispaces, or about any other wiki format works well when you want to create something, especially text related, that results in a finished product. That is to say, if the contents continually change over time, I recommend that a blog format will serve better. However, if the objective is to build something (either individually or as a group) which will then serve as a final product, a wiki works well. Of course it may be that your school or university is using a content management system (like BlackBoard or Canvas) that allows you to create wikis, but for educational purposes, Wikispaces is among the easiest to use, the most flexible in development and presentation, and the most compatible with other online tools. The learning curve takes a little longer, but once you have the concept of the wiki, it is easy to build and modify.
  4. There are many online resources to create polls (e.g., poll everywhere, survey monkey, etc.), but Getkahoot is one of the best for classroom integration. What makes it unique is that the poll questions and multiple-choice answers are show on a central screen. The poll takers (i.e., the students) then use any online device (laptop, tablet, phone) to link to the poll and choose their answer. This creates a group activity where everyone needs to interact with the questions on the central screen and the clicker from each individual. I mainly use Getkahoot as a way to introduce a topic, to get initial opinions about topics, or to be a teaser to generate initial interest. To write the poll, go to To join a poll, users will go to and enter a game pin number.
  5. YouTube Channel You may not think of YouTube as a tool to organize materials, but when a person creates a YouTube channel, that person can then develop playlists of videos. This is a powerful way to sort and organize videos that you refer to often. For example, suppose that you want students to view videos related to Brazilian history, music, movies, politics and art. You could create a playlist for each topic. Then, as students go to your YouTube channel, all of the videos are already sorted by topic in the playlists.

Also, if you want students to record their own videos, those videos can be uploaded to your YouTube channel. (To do so, click on the YouTube account settings and choose “Overview.” Listed in the overview is an address for mobile uploads. Anybody who attaches a video to a message sent to that address will then have access to that video on the YouTube channel.) This feature makes it possible to allow students to post to your YouTube channel, without having to share the password to the channel with others.

Finally, another advantage to YouTube channels is that the Video Manager has a powerful editing feature. This allows users, for example, to enhance any video with additional annotations and subtitles. There are both Brazilian and Continental varieties of Portuguese, and both are surprisingly accurate at speech recognition. Alternatively, if you already have a textual transcription of a video, it is easy to insert that into the video, and with slight modifications in timing, you end up with easy-to-make subtitles. This even supports multiple tracks, to add subtitles in multiple languages.

  1. Facebook Groups and Twitter Feeds It almost goes without saying that both Facebook and Twitter serve and excellent resources for organization. Once a group is created, users can join and share text, photos, links, and video.

Tools to Enhance Individual Language Practice

In the past couple of years there has been an explosion of online options for language learners, both free and by subscription. Of course they are not all created equal, at the same time, do not simply ignore them as an ineffective waste of time. Furthermore, your students know about them, often use them, and will want your opinions about them.

  1. Memrise is a wonderful application to assist in vocabulary memorization. The program uses a log rhythm to recycle vocabulary review. Words that the user already knows are reviewed less frequently and words that the user gets wrong are reviewed more frequently. There are options for multiple languages, including lots of Portuguese language options too.
  2. Mango Language walks students through specific language learning lessons, including Portuguese. Especially interesting is the use of color on the screen (laptop, tablet, or phone). For example, when syntax between English and Portuguese differ, Mango makes it easy to see how the parts fit together. Mango also does a nice job of recycling phrases and vocabulary from one lesson to another. Mango also has a video feature, built as a capstone at the end of lessons.
  3. Chat With Native Speakers This is another area that has exploded with new options:,,,,,,,, etc. Each of these is similar in that users can chat with other native speakers, who can then assist with advice and practice. And each also differs a bit in the actual lesson structure and focus. In most cases, the benefit is found more in the interaction with people and less in the actual lessons. LingQ is unique in its approach to vocabulary and how words are stored in the memory bank. FluentU is unique in the integration of video and subtitles, which allows for a personalized database of vocabulary words. HelloTalk, one of my personal favorites, has an innovative speech to text feature and a correction feature that is also very effective. In the case of HelloTalk, there are many Brazilians in the system, so anyone who wants to practice Portuguese will have lots of options. is where we make our audio Língua da Gente podcast series available as premium content. Their mobile act allows for extended practice, repetition, recordings, and interaction.

Tools to Enhance Classroom Activities

There are a number of digital tools that were not created specifically for foreign language purposes, yet work will in the foreign language arena. Often these tools become excellent resources in the classroom. Let’s look at few examples.

  1. Aurasma is a digital tool to create virtual reality. In simple terms, users create a “trigger image” that works with an “overlay” to create an “aura.” Suppose, for example that as your students walk into a classroom, there is a photo on the wall of Neymar playing soccer. As students hover their tablet or phone over the picture of Neymar, suddenly a video clip begins of Neymar’s most spectacular goals. Or, suppose that the students hover their mobile device over the word “árvore” that is written on a table in the classroom. Suddenly a video clip about trees of Brazil appears on their screen. In other words, a trigger image causes something to happen, which can be a link to a website, a movie, an image, or a host of other things. And it might also be that the students are the ones who recorded the original video clip, which in turn they save as an aura. Subsequently, as others hover over the trigger image, they then view the student video. There are incredible possibilities for language learning in the application of virtual reality, and Aurasma is one of the easiest applications to get started.
  2. Vyclone is a social video platform that allows users to co-create a video from multiple angles. Imagine, for example, that 5 of your students are simultaneously video-recording an event. Later, the students combine the video into one clip, alternating views from each of the five cameras that originally made the recording. If you ever ask students to make video recordings to practice Portuguese, Vyclone gives you a whole new dimension to enhance the experience.
  3. Despite the weird URL, offers a way to make online lists, which are then sorted and ranked by users. Suppose, for example, that you are going to travel with a group of 15 students to Salvador. In preparation for the trip you post 20 photos of different locations in town. The 15 students then view the list and rank the places they most want to see. As each student ranks the list, little by little you will see the group preference. A teacher can also make lists of sentences with grammar features, or vocabulary features, and again the students will rank all of the entries. is free to use and again the learning curve is short.
  4. If you are looking for a digital tool to assist in brain storming, will provide you with easy access, group participation, slick sharing capabilities, and a fast learning curve. Imagine a site where ideas can be shared by simply adding another branch to a tree. I have seen students who used to practice verb conjugations, post pictures from a trip, sort vocabulary by topics, and outline ideas for class presentations. is the ideal example of a digital tool that was not created with foreign language in mind, but at the same time can be adapted to language learning situations.

Open Access Portuguese Language Resources at the University of Texas

Among the National Foreign Language Resource Centers that are funded by the U.S. Department of Education, The University of Texas at Austin is home to The Center for Open Educational Resources and Language Learning (COERLL). The mission of COERLL is to disseminate Open Educational Resources, meaning that the Internet public offers foreign language materials freely to anyone. These materials are also available with permission to re-mix, improve, and redistribute under Creative Commons licenses. There are currently a number of Portuguese language materials that are available at COERLL. All of the Portuguese language materials can be viewed at the Brazilpod homepage: Of course, there are many other locations that have digital tools for Portuguese, but as a one-stop shopping site, Brazilpod offer lots of options.

  1. Portuguese Communication Exercises A compilation of nearly 350 brief video clips, together with a complete Portuguese transcription and English translation of native speakers of Portuguese from various locations throughout Brazil (and some Portugal) who talk about 80 different topics. The clips are not scripted. Some talk fast, some slow, some are interesting, some are not, but you have access to real speech from real people. It is an excellent resource to hear how Brazilians really talk. The topics are roughly divided by the level of the difficulty of the task. Beginning level includes topics like introductions and describing what you like to do. Intermediate topics include things like talking about favorite foods, buying items and going to the store. Advanced topics include stories about airplane rides and auto accidents. And the superior topics include ideas about how life would be different without electricity.
  2. ClicaBrasil ClicaBrasil is a series of lessons for intermediate-level students of Portuguese, where you will find topics that highlight aspects of Brazilian culture. The materials include videos of Brazilians from all walks of life as they talk about their lives, their country, and their numerous activities. All of the lessons integrate reading, writing, listening comprehension, grammar, vocabulary, oral communication, and cultural activities, using the videos and PDF files as a point of departure.
  3. Tá Falado The 46 audio podcast lessons cover pronunciation and grammar issues of Portuguese, specifically designed to help those who already speak Spanish. The lessons are built around dialogs performed by Brazilians that are then repeated in Spanish, providing a direct comparison of the two languages. All lessons include downloadable PDF files with the transcripts and notes, mp3 audio files, and blog discussions. Additionally all of the dialogs present cultural scenarios that illustrate differences between North American and Brazilian culture.
  4. Conversa Brasileira Imagine video scenarios where people are interacting with each other. There are dialogs, questions, turn taking exchanges, clarifications, false starts, hugs, laughter, asides, just everything that makes up real conversation. Conversa Brasileira is a compilation of such scenarios, but enhanced by transcriptions, translations, and content analysis. Think of it like a sportscaster’s analysis of a game or the director’s commentary that accompanies movies. The roleplay scenarios provide learners with a view of everyday exchanges, but especially with a way to analyze its parts.

Conversa Brasileira also includes a print on demand textbook that is available via

  1. Língua da Gente This is the newest and ongoing audio podcast series that currently has over 60 lessons, and new ones are introduced each week. The focus is to provide language that people actually use in everyday speech and it does this by presenting brief, slice-of-life dialogs, which focus on some daily situation, scenario, or task that we encounter every day. In addition to the free podcast lessons, COERLL has partnered with, by subscription, to provide a full range of complete online and via tablet language services. Users who subscribe to the full-featured version of Língua da Gente at OpenLanguage receive additional benefits (e.g. lesson exercises, including matching, reordering, dictation, and multiple choice).

Final Observations

Since the object of this manual is to provide practical information for teachers of Portuguese, our recommendation is that we maximize the opportunities to implement innovative use of technology into our language learning. Partly because Portuguese is a less commonly taught language, the people who do want to learn Portuguese usually have a high motivation to do so. They want to learn, and they want the extra practice. This is precisely why we can take advantage of what technology and social media have to offer. There really is no reason to restrict, but to encourage extra practice and increased interaction. Over time, of course, the specific examples that we have shown in this manual will be dated. However the concept behind them will always be valid. Look to see how technology and social media are used in everyday life, and implement a slice of that into our foreign language teaching.

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