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Road Warrior Learns Languages With a Little Help From Skype

Ever since the cassette player was considered cutting edge, students of foreign language have been using the latest technology to learn to parle francais, hablo espanol or falo portugues.

And while there are clear benefits of listening to key conversational phrases while driving to work or doing chores at home, Claudine Woo finds it more helpful to have actual face-to-face conversations with actual people. Woo, who works in clinical development for a pharmaceutical company in the San Francisco Bay Area, uses Skype to design her own language study program so she can pick up some basic phrases before traveling for work.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Find a “pen pal.” Woo uses the website to connect with native language speakers in Milan, Sao Paolo and other places where she has travel scheduled … or hopes to go one day.
  2. Correspond via Skype. The ability to connect with someone halfway across the world via video is a modern twist on the idea of the pen pal. Not only does seeing the pen pal help keep Woo engaged in the conversation, she says it provides valuable visual cues that speed the learning process.
  3. Take it mobile. Because Woo is busy working mother, she only has small windows to time to devote to her language studies. She typically conducts her correspondence over her smart phone.

Woo first engaged a high tech pen pal in Milan. When he turned the camera onto the cityscape in the background, she discovered how she could be transported to her future destination via Skype. She has also connected with pen pals to learn some Spanish and Portuguese.

By her own admission, the level of language proficiency she achieves in these quick Skype sessions is “very peripheral.”

“It is not very extensive, but it is enough to let people know your intentions,” she explains. And thanks to the face-to-face connections over Skype, she says that she typically learns a more personal, conversational way of speaking.

“I learned Chinese from my family, and it was a rather harsh form of the language. I learned French in school and it was very formal. Now I’m learning a very friendly approach to conversation.”

In addition to her day job in the pharmaceutical sector, Woo is in the process of starting an international career-coaching business, where she hopes to encourage young professionals to see their careers as adventures. She expects her willingness to learn new languages and connect with people in their native tongue will serve her in that role too.

“I see myself as an international tour guide into the world of the workplace,” she explains.

Have you found an unusual way to use Skype at work? Share in the comments!

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