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Enhancing language & culture learning through P2P.


A variety of digital realia available on Peer-to-Peer networks (P2P), such as Emule, KaZaa and Bittorrent, can enhance the learning process for students of foreign language and culture, and the quality of the instructor's teaching. The article essentially aims to be a practicum on what types of digital realia prove more effective, and explores legal issues linked to P2P, educational institutions and Fair Use.


The advantages of realia as a whole have already been extensively explored under the theoretical standpoint (for example Dlaska, 2003 and Spurr, 1942). While such advantages include development of specific personal interests in exploring, and therefore acquiring, the foreign (or second) language and culture in a context, the ultimate goal is to turn the student in a life-long learner of the target language and culture. This paper explores the category of digital realia in a variety of media in the target language originated from the target culture and available on the Web. Rather than aiming at being another theoretical contribution in the field of pedagogy, this paper aims instead at representing a practicum. I intend to review what types of digital realia, in my experience, produce the best results; how the Peer-to-Peer (P2P) revolution, which began in 1999 with the creation of Napster, [1] has made this didactic tool accessible and easy to use; and how to incorporate digital realia, available on the Internet, in our teaching. Finally, I will examine legal issues linked to P2P use. [2]

My own experiences as a foreign language student have always played an essential role in guiding my pedagogical approach to the teaching of foreign language and culture. To this day, I am more likely to remember vocabulary, idioms and irregular verbs from some song, comic-book, magazine or TV show, rather than from my textbooks or the dedicated efforts of my language teachers. I am not denying the clear value of foreign language teaching, language classes provided me with very useful, necessary structures, but I feel it was the time I spent with my pop-culture realia that helped me improve my languages. These media taught me structures, as well as idioms and slang that I would not have been able to access in the classroom (Bregni, 2004).

In my teaching experience, using video, audio and other realia both in and outside the classroom has also proven to be the best didactic tool to reinforce linguistic skills and expose students to contemporary foreign culture. This has contributed substantially to the enhancement of the quality of my teaching. [3] I believe that the advent of the P2P revolution (which began around 1999 with Napster and also with the introduction of new compression formats for digital media such as mp3 and Divx) has provided language teachers with a potentially invaluable, multi-faceted didactic tool, thanks to the ease of use, availability and flexibility of digital realia it can provide. [4]

Obviously some digital realia are more effective than others. We all have, at one point or another, used a Webpage (or online newspapers or streaming TV newscasts) in the target language to illustrate a linguistic or a cultural point. In my experience, however, there are two formats of digital realia which prove to be the most effective: songs (music videos in primis, then audio) and videos (TV shows such as TV series, cartoons, soap operas, but also commercials and short movies). Also, in my experience, the most effective results are obtained through diverse combinations of media. Such variety would have been nearly impossible before the advent of the P2P revolution, and since then the horizons are constantly widening.

Songs and Music Videos

Why use songs in teaching language and culture? The pedagogical benefits of using songs in the classroom have also already been extensively explored, especially by scholars in the field of TESOL (Murphey 1990; id., 1992; Celce-Murcia, 1998). [5] Music is a widespread, universal, beloved medium. Music can be used to reinforce the listening comprehension skills of students at different levels. In addition, current pop music contains a wide range of references to contemporary culture, often more numerous than those included in our textbooks. It is, in my experience, more appealing to students and perceived as more "authentic." Songs definitely fall into the category of realia, genuine cultural artifacts, rather than manufactured, artificial (and often stereotyped) elements of culture. In fact, I would argue that the most popular and effective realia (at least for young learners of high-school to college age) are music videos. They are effective in the classroom because of their limited duration and their multi-faceted nature. Music videos are an excellent learning tool because students can both hear and observe the singer's lip movements. This then improves their understanding of the language and, possibly, their pronunciation.

The Internet has simplified and enhanced the access of grammar, idioms and slang in context. At the same time, it has finally helped solve the problem that the teacher's taste in media does not necessarily coincide with the students' taste. The digital revolution has relieved the innovative teacher, who in the past might have wanted to use music and videos as a support/tool, from the difficult task of having to keep constantly up-to-date with current foreign music and TV programs. The ease of access to digital realia in video or audio formats has resolved this problem. What comes out in foreign countries today can easily be accessed on Web streaming TV and radio stations, sampled on foreign websites and downloaded from foreign Web users.

TV Shows and Movies

Thanks to the ease of the DVD format, many more foreign movies are now easily accessible for purchase worldwide, although there remains a problem with format compatibility in different regions (the seven DVD zones and the three TV formats: Pal, NTSC, Secam). On the other hand, until the P2P revolution, accessing most popular (especially non-U.S.) TV shows was impossible without traveling to the target country and spending a considerable amount of time videotaping TV programming. The same goes for TV commercials, another popular way of exploring contemporary pop culture through a format which is immediate, often times fun and effective in terms of communication. So, why use TV shows, movies and commercials in teaching language and culture? The same conclusions derived above in regards to music can be applied to TV shows, movies and commercials. Aside from music videos, the medium that in my experience most inspires autonomous learning outside the classroom on their part is TV shows: namely, popular TV series aimed at teenagers and young adults. These prove particularly engaging and effective, in my experience, because they expose students to topics of their interest. Also, do not overlook children's TV shows such as cartoons, which are fun, engaging and capture the (relatively short) attention span. [6]

How to Use Digital Realia to Enhance Comprehension of Foreign Language and Culture?

Besides the general, non-specific purpose of listening comprehension, songs and movies can be used to introduce and reinforce elements of grammar in context. Let me begin by clearing up a possible misunderstanding right away, I do not believe that using songs, TV shows or movies should replace "regular" language teaching. I do believe, on the other hand, that it can serve as an excellent complement to it. Therefore, I would never spend a whole class period covering a song or watching a cartoon. Rather, the purpose is to expose student to a variety realia and also to provide them as learning tool that can be explored autonomously and individually outside the classroom.

Besides fostering autonomous learning outside the classroom, there are two main ways of using digital realia in the classroom, one "guided," and one more "autonomous" on the part of the students. The latter is what I prefer, because its impact seems more effective. In the must method, it is the instructor who chooses the realia based on its content, either cultural or linguistic. The chosen music video or TV show can be used either to introduce a new specific theme or grammatical point at the end of a regular language period, in order to reinforce what has just been learned. In the second method, the teacher simply instructs students to independently choose, in consultation with one another, a song, a cartoon, a show or a movie that appeals to them. The teacher should first explore students' taste or interests through a series of questions. Then s/he can direct students to a specific website where they can, for example, preview samples of the current top 40 chart in Spain or see what TV shows are most popular in Germany right now. Students then appreciate learning the meaning and cultural value as such, because they are tapping their own taste. In my experience, any realia can provide the teacher with a chance to reinforce recently acquired grammatical points or idioms and to introduce slang. [7]

Another interesting format of digital realia are interactive games, which are particularly engaging, from simple Flash games to complex PC and gaming console simulations in the target language. Unfortunately, there are huge format/compatibility issues with commercial gaming (especially console) software. For example, European Playstation (1 or 2) games will only work on a European Playstation system, and vice versa.

Are music videos and TV shows available for legal download, both free and/or commercially? The answer is only to a limited extent at present. However, the situation is very rapidly evolving. Some (more "'enligthened"?) artists make their music videos available freely to their fans on their own official websites. Sometimes the digital quality is outstanding and they even offer multiple formats and video definition. An example of this is the case of Only few legal download services offer the option to download music videos and TV shows. Popular commercial venues such as the new legal incarnations of Napster and Audiogalaxy, for instance, are limited to the mp3 or similar digital audio formats. [8]. iTunes started offering videos and TV shows as of October, 2005. However, all over the world P2P users are recording from TV, digitizing and sharing thousands and thousands of music videos and TV shows episodes, many of which, incidentally, would never be available outside their country of origin.

So music videos and TV shows are easily available through P2P applications. Before the P2P revolution, more specifically before the advent of KaZaa and Audiogalaxy (the first P2P applications to include sharing of other formats besides mp3, unlike Napster), a language teacher had to physically be in the target country, spending time and energy videotaping music videos and TV shows from regular TV broadcasts. Although in recent years one could have benefited from satellite channels, the quality of such programming is uneven at best and often neither reflects actual programming nor people's taste in the target country. A blatant example can be seen in Rai International (the official Italian public satellite service), which, except for its newscast and the occasional soccer game, is basically unusable.

In P2P applications, on the other hand, we can find thousands of music videos, commercials and full episodes of TV shows which foreign users have taped, digitized and are now sharing with other users. Moreover, they come in compressed file formats which can be easily stored and/or transferred on storage media (cd-roms, Video-cd's, DVD's). [9]

P2P: Theft, or rather an Invaluable Learning Tool?

What are the legal boundaries of P2P use and the sharing/downloading of digital realia? If on the one hand the matter of P2P access for personal use is generally frowned upon (although widely practiced), the situation is perceived differently by legislators worldwide when it concerns the use of copyrighted material within learning institutions for learning purposes. In the USA, the matter is regulated under the category of Fair Use by the Technology, Education, and Copyright Harmonization (TEACH) Act of 2001, which modifies the copyright laws (specifically, it supersedes Section 110 (2) of U.S. Title 17) and expands the scope of permissible actions with copyrighted works in educational settings. These are indeed controversial (and much debated) matters that still require extensive examination and proposed solutions. However, I do believe that P2P application can be used as valuable learning tools, and believe that the boundaries of "fair use" should be fully explored, and possibly stretched, when applied to learning institutions.

In my view, some ground rules should be set in order to ensure an appropriate stretching of Fair Use laws. Whenever possible, buy commercial products and request proper permission. Also, instruct students not to share outside the campus any material made available. Finally, nothing should be made available on the campus servers, and therefore nobody from outside the learning institution would be able to access the material. The advent of cassette tapes in the late 1960's spawned a similar controversy in terms of copyright protection. Could the best solution to deal with copyright and digital media matters possibly be the same that was applied when cassette tapes first came out? Specifically place a new tax on the (digital, in this case) media, designed to cover costs for copyrights. P2P sharing will not go away with prohibitions. That kind of thinking has failed repeatedly in our history. One would hope commercial vendors would see past the issue. In the meantime, one cannot fail to see that P2P can be an invaluable learning tool that is most beneficial to us as language instructors.


P2P and internet-based media offer easy access to digital realia from around the world. Realia are recognized as invaluable learning tools (Dlaska, 2003 and Spurr, 1942). Among various digital realia, songs and videos produce the best results, enhancing both the learning and the teaching of foreign languages and cultures. Non-restrictive application of Fair Use to copyright-protected digital material, within educational institutions, would prove extremely beneficial for both learners and teachers.


Bregni, Simone. 2004. In Praise of the Revolution: Using Napster-like Software to Teach Italian Language and Culture. Italian Cultural Studies 2001: 1-12.

Dlaska, Andrea. 2003. Language Learning in the University: creating content and community in non-specialist programmes. Teaching in Higher Education 8, 1:103-113.

Celce-Murcia, Marianne, and Sharon Hilles. 1988. Techniques and Resources in Teaching Grammar. Oxford [England]; New York: Oxford University Press.

Murphey, Tim. 1990. Song and Music in Language Learning: an Analysis of Pop Song Lyrics and the Use of Song and Music in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages. Bern; New York: P. Lang.

--,1992. Music & Song. Oxford [England]; New York: Oxford University Press. Spurr, Frederick S. 1942. Realia in Foreign Language Courses. The Modern Language Journal 26: 174-176.

Simone Bregni, Saint Louis University, MO


[1] For a brief history of Napstcrs, see;

[2] This article expands and completes my 2001 contribution on using mp3's to teach language and culture (Bregni, 2004), written in 2000, and therefore in dire need of updating.

[3] I was hired in the Department of Modern & Classical languages at Saint Louis University in the Fall of 2000. By the end of my first year at SLU, enrollments in Italian had increased 54%. Endemic lack of qualified instructors notwithstanding, the program has continued to grow considerably (+63% from 2002 to 2003, and 2004/2005 enrollments show a +9% increase over 2003/2004). The reasons for this growth are many. However, students have constantly pointed out in their very favorable evaluations (since the Fall of '00, over 95% of the students evaluations found their courses good or excellent, and would recommend the course to a friend) that what they enjoyed the most was the approach to present-day foreign culture through a variety of media.

[4] My experience with teaching foreign language and culture through digital realia began in the Fall of 1997 at Trinity College (Hartford, CT) where I was Graduate Fellow in Italian. The Department of Modern Languages and Literature had recently received a Mellon grant to train faculty in CALL. From 1997 to 2000 I was able to explore the many advantages of such electronic media over their "regular" counterparts, in terms of accessibility and flexibility of the digital media themselves. Those were the days of "the Napster revolution": digital media formats had basically just been introduced to the masses.

[5] See also the Jazz Chants book series, published by Oxford University Press, Carolyn Graham's original collection of chants and poems that use the rhythms of jazz to illustrate the stress and intonation patterns of American English.

[6] For example, my students appreciate highly Italian versions of TV shows they loved as children, such as Voltron, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and others. On the one hand, students are already familiar with the characters and the storyline; on the other hand, the "nostalgia effect" proves extremely engaging. Also, popular anime shows in Italian such as Goldrake have helped me show my students how Japanese pop culture is not only mainstream, but indeed a defining portion of Italian pop culture among people of their age, unlike in their own country.

[7] I see slang as one of the many valid tools open to us in engaging and retaining the interest of our students. Slang pervades the world they live in, and is usually the most contemporary register of language we can find. Furthermore, unpacking slang not only helps us grasp the genius of any language, it can be fun.

[8] Besides, national artists are underrepresented as opposed to international artists. For example, on iTunes a search for the popular Italian groups Lunapop or 883 bring no results, compared to the 40+ results brought by Eros Ramazzotti of international fame.

[9] The most popular compression format for videos remains Divx (, which offers higher video quality and more efficient space use than regular mpeg. Another popular compressed video format is Xvid.

Bregni, Ph.D., is Professor of Italian and Director of the Italian Studies Program in the College of Arts and Sciences.
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Title Annotation:peer-to-peer networks
Author:Bregni, Simone
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2006
Previous Article:ESL college writing in the mainstream classroom.
Next Article:Dyslexia and foreign language learning.

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