Immersed in Other Worlds
When Baylor students need to type an assignment in Jim Kumahata’s Japanese language classes, there’s only one location on campus with computers equipped with characters particular to languages other than English. It’s called the Interactive Media and Language Center (iMLC), housed within the College of Arts & Sciences, and Kumahata has been its director since 2019.
In the Department of Modern Languages and Cultures, where Kumahata is a lecturer, “we teach a number of languages including Arabic, Japanese and Chinese. And this is the only place on campus anywhere that students can type in all these different languages,” he said.
But the center is much more than a space that houses computers with specialty keyboards for various languages.
“Knowing the mores of a society is just as important as speaking the language.”
“The center is the technology hub for the Modern Languages and Cultures department. We serve faculty members as well as students,” Kumahata said.
For faculty members, the iMLC offers workshops, assistance with technology and rooms especially equipped with hardware to assist in language teaching, including virtual reality (VR).
“Our faculty will bring students here to have the VR experience in class,” Kumahata said. “We have goggles for 20 students. They all are sitting around here, with the goggles, looking around, walking around and experiencing VR. Maybe they are walking along the Avenue des Champs-Élysées in Paris, or maybe they are in downtown Tokyo. Wherever they are, they’re actually experiencing VR. And then after that, they can have a conversation with their neighbors — ‘What did you see?’ And their neighbor might say, ‘Turn around. Turn around. You see that?’ So, the students can become immersed a full 360 degrees in that particular culture.”
Knowing the mores of a society is just as important as speaking the language, Kumahata said. One of his favorite VR exercises places students at a dinner table in a Japanese home.
“So, you have VR goggles on, and you look down and notice that, oh, you don’t have shoes on,” he said, “because you’re not supposed to wear shoes in a Japanese house. And then you look down at the table, and you see all these different dishes and utensils. Of course, you would expect chopsticks to be there. There are a lot of cultural things that are not only just about the dinner, and when you look around, you’ll see different features of the houses. That’s important. And there’s somebody sitting right next to you, and they’re talking to you, so you want to interact with that person. There are a lot of experiences such as these you can have through virtual reality.”
The iMLC is also expanding its ability to administer exit exams for students in Spanish, with French and German exams possibly added in the future, Kumahata said.
“And we will be able to give exams in all four different areas — reading, writing, listening and speaking,” he said.
The operation of the iMLC, which is on the third floor of Baylor’s Draper Academic Building, is overseen by a three-member advisory committee, composed of Rosalie Barrera, senior lecturer in Spanish; Eva Hruska, senior lecturer in Russian; and Dr. Yuko Prefume, senior lecturer in Japanese.
“We meet often to talk about strategies, what’s going to work and what hasn’t worked,” Kumahata said. “The committee members bring ideas to us, and we discuss what we should do with those ideas.”
“The media and language center is a rich and wonderful resource, not only for the faculty and students of our department, but for faculty and students in other departments who can make use of the technology available there.”
–Dr. Michael Long
Dr. Michael Long, professor of Russian and chair of the Department of Modern Languages and Culture, said the media and language center “is a rich and wonderful resource, not only for the faculty and students of our department, but for faculty and students in other departments who can make use of the technology available there.”
“The iMLC has proved to be invaluable during the COVID-19 pandemic by providing a space for and equipment and technology to train faculty to transition to the online delivery of course content,” Long added.
Value During the Pandemic
Recent events have indeed underscored the value of the iMLC. When Baylor announced on March 11, 2020, that, due to worries about COVID-19, spring break would be extended by a week and all classes would then resume only in an online format, the center went into overdrive.
“We gave 25 to 30 workshops during the two-week period following the announcement, because we needed to get faculty members ready to teach online,” Kumahata said. “We did a lot of workshops using Canvas (a web-based learning management system) that gave our faculty the appropriate tools to use online. We teach faculty members pedagogically appropriate ways to use these tools in language classes. We cater specifically to language teaching and language learning through Canvas and tools within Canvas. That’s a big thing for us.”
The iMLC has remained a major resource for students both during and after that period of online-only instruction, Kumahata said.
“We installed webcams to all the computers so the students can come here and do their online classes,” he said. “That was especially useful back when a student might have an in-person class, followed immediately by an online class, and then another in-person class right after that. They didn’t have time to go home in the middle of all that and do the online class, so they could come to the iMLC to do their online classes while attending their in-person classes on campus.”
A Resource for Students
Grace Chen, a senior University Scholars major, visits the iMLC pretty much every class day.
“All of our labs are online, so I need a place to come to that’s quiet and has a computer,” she said. “And the iMLC has a bunch of computer stations that you can work at. It’s very quiet, the Wi-Fi is fast and there’s always a printer open.”
Chen has studied Spanish, Chinese and Japanese during her time at Baylor “because there’s a lot of nuances that you can’t really pick up in translation,” she said. “A big part of the reason why I study a lot of languages is that I really enjoy reading things as they were originally written. Also, it’s super useful to be able to communicate in a language that isn’t English. English is kind of like the lingua franca, but in many places it’s just better to know the host language. And so, I feel like studying languages has helped me in my career.”
The Interactive Media and Language Center employs 11 students who assist with tutoring and technology, or they might simply spend time in conversation with students enrolled in language classes so they can practice their conversation skills.
“The center has really been helpful in developing my teaching experience and working with a lot of younger students who are just in their beginning levels of German,” said Olivia Gorrell, a senior majoring in piano performance and German who works at the iMLC. “I really enjoy working with the students. They come in and we give them homework help. Or, if they want to practice speaking, we just talk for 30 minutes, and they can come and go as they need. They don’t need to make an appointment, so it’s really flexible.”
This is another in a continuing series of stories examining the purpose and contributions of the academic centers and institutes within the Baylor University College of Arts & Sciences.