Bob Is Bootless in Seattle

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As a veteran foreign-language teacher, I was intrigued by the recent New York Times article "Learning From a Native Speaker, Without Leaving Home." If you have good Internet access and a broadband computer connection, it seems that you can now study a new language interactively with a native speaker who wants to learn yours -- and it's free for both of you.

Perhaps "intrigued" isn't the word; "threatened" may actually be closer to what I felt. One professor was quoted as saying that students now "have thousands of [teachers] to pick from -- if the first one doesn't work out, you can choose another." Uh-oh.

But after some reflection, I deduced that laptop-to-laptop pedagogy isn't really God's way of telling me about early retirement. Though I am a stick-in-the-mud traditionalist teacher -- to me, "distance learning" means an unusually long classroom -- the peculiarities of my specialty should keep me employed.

I teach English to Russian speakers and vice versa, an arena in which even introductory greetings can prove so seeded with cultural and political land mines that well-meaning cyberstudents might get their socks blown off before you can say, "Go teach your wife to make borshch!"

Consider a hypothetical American student firing up his Lap-Ranger 3000, smiling toothily into his webcam and galumphing into the ether with a hearty ...

"Hi, I'm Bob from Seattle and I'm really excited about learning Russian! So, who are you?"

"Friendly greeting, Bob, I am Vera Nikolayevna in Piter, a tutor wanting to improve English and teaching you Russian. Now, please sit up straight on divan, remove hand from jeans and -- wait, you are your putting booted feet on coffee table?!?"

"Um, hi back at you there, Veronica LaPeter, or whatever. What difference does it make where my feet are? In Ameri..."

"What difference?!? Young person, you are cyberguest in home, and you ask what dif-- wait, now you are putting ice in cola drink?!? Do you want sore throat illness? March month outside, are you craz ..."

"Thanks, uh, Ms. LaPeter -- wow, look at the time! Let's study again next week, OK? Bye! [click-click] Whoa, what's up with her? I need somebody more chill, for sure. Ooh, look, here's one in Siberia -- there's some chill, I bet, ha-ha! OK, here goes: Hi there, this is Bob from Seattle and I'm excited about learning some Russian. Maybe."

"Thank God!! It works!! I mean, hallo, Bob! I am Mikhail from Chita, and I am even more excited than you, believe this! I am building laptop five years from smuggled parts and scraps of wire and now it finally ... Aaarrggh, get back! Svolochi, otstante! bob, you must help, i am being held pris ..."

"Hello? Wait! Don't go yet, McHigh-Yield! Jeez, some lesson -- he disconnected! Oh well, at least that one didn't yell at my boots. All right, lemme try one more, anyway. Here's someone in Moscow named Ivan -- he's gotta be more typical. Yeah, Ivan Ivan-o-vich on Lubiyan-, no, Lubyanika Plowshed Street, or something. OK, here goes: Hello, I'm Bob from Se..."

"From Seattle, yes, I know, Bob. You're a junior at Seattle Tech and you need three language credits, don't you, to meet your humanities distribution requirement -- and you plan to get them here on the net, without paying tuition. Smart plan, Bob, very smart. We're quite impressed by your initiative."

"Um, who's 'we,' Mr. Ivan-o-vich? I thought this was a one-on-one thing. And hey, where'd you hear about my language credit prob ..."

"We can help you get those credits quickly, Bob -- very quickly. Does that interest you? I'm your friend, Bob, always remember that. Now, do you want our help getting the credits -- fast?"

"Well, sure, who wouldn't? But c'mon, your English is really good. I don't think there's any way I could help you in return."

"Oh, you'd be surprised, Bob. Now, put your feet up -- right on the coffee table! And let's forget about that Mikhail fellow, shall we? He looked like Al Capone, no? Now listen to my voice, Bob. This is the very latest in language training. You're very relaxed, Bob -- yes-s-s-s, you're getting drowsy ..."

Wake up, people! Language learning isn't like this. Remember books, paper, blackboards, tapes, films -- and homework? News flash: That stuff works!

Too 20th century for you? OK, fine, go roll the cyberdice, bring a bunch of native-speaking weirdos through the looking glass into your rumpus room. Hey, I'm not saying it's a plot, but watch your step ... as well as your boots.

Mark H. Teeter teaches English and Russian-American relations in Moscow.