Virtual pen pals: Fewer letters, more face time

UO student Emma Schumacher online with her French vid pal

UO language students are using a kind of virtual study abroad tool to parle Français with French students 5,458 miles away in Lyon — all without ever leaving their classroom in Eugene.

Social media and other forms of online communication have made cultural exchange more accessible and more useful than ever. And the UO’s Yamada Language Center is riding that wave with an innovative tool that has let students around the world communicate with one another since 2004.

ANVILL — A Natural Virtual Language Lab — was created by the UO’s Yamada Language Center and is available to any language teacher, anywhere in the world. High school and university language classes have been able to connect with other classes across the globe through this innovative platform.

“(ANVILL) is the language lab of the modern era,” said Jeff Magoto, the director of the UO’s Yamada Language Center. “What sustains a conversation is the relationship; this makes it easy for teachers who want to partner and it’s more effective when it’s a class to a class. You really start to care about the people there.”

This fall marked the fifth year UO French instructor Melanie Williams partnered with Stéphanie Meunier, an English professor at Université Lumière Lyon 2, a UO exchange partner in Lyon, France. Williams’ students, who are learning French, were able to communicate three separate times this term — using ANVILL — with Meunier’s students, who are learning English.

Although Williams and Meunier include a spoken-language requirement in their classes, the comprehensive cultural exchange is entirely their own initiative. Working together, the professors carefully match students to others of a similar skill level.

“Students must record a message in English and in French,” Williams said. “The students in Lyon do the same, and this way, each student is the expert and the student, in relationship to their partner student.”

The ANVILL-supported exchange is used regularly in Williams' second and third-year courses. Faculty interested in knowing more about incorporating this type of exchange in their classrooms may contact Jeff Magoto at

“How do you get better at a language? You have to use it, you have to have a purpose for it, you have to have feedback on what you say and most importantly, you have to feel like you’re making progress,” Magoto said. “It’s basically pen pals of the 21st century, except now they’re communicating via video and online.”

Although the requirements of the exchange involve language and grammar concepts that students must prove proficiency on, the topic of conversations between students is often left up to them.

With recent mass shootings in Roseburg and Paris, and with France and the United States in the swing of political elections, the topic turned to current events and the political climate in each country.

“This connection encourages students to be more curious of another culture and to realize that learning French has true communicative purpose, even if they cannot travel to study in Lyon,” Williams said. “With the recent tragic events at Umpqua Community College, in Paris and around the world, my students chose to reach out to the students in France to express their concern and solidarity — it was a moment to check in and to hear about their partners' perspectives and experiences.”

Emma Schumacher, one of Williams’ French students here at the UO, found the international conversation to be surprisingly personal and applicable in her daily life.

“It was cool to see how someone my age from France would actually speak and how the flow and structure of their sentences would go,” Schumacher said. “My partner and I talked about our hometowns, our favorite movies and music. I found out we have a few things in common, which was cool considering she lives on the other side of the world.”

Williams added that many of her students remain pen pals long after the class is over. Their last communication of the term often involves the exchange of social media and contact information so they can stay in touch and establish and reliable connection, should they ever visit or live in the country.

“In the long term, I hope that this exchange contributes to more international interactions and connections for my students,” Williams said. “I find it to be one of the most meaningful activities that I can offer my students.”

— By Nathaniel Brown, Public Affairs Communications