Chatting in Spanish by way of a satellite 20,000 miles above the earth, students at the University of Maryland campus in Baltimore County exchanged views on the weather, politics and romance Friday with the patrons of a restaurant in Miami's Little Havana.
As part of an educational experiment, Ron Schwartz's Spanish 102 class was thrust into the culture of Cuban life, thanks to a two-way microwave broadcast on large screen Sony television sets that all but rendered the smell of brilliant hibiscus blossoms and the pungent aroma of Cuban coffee. If the students ever doubted that Cuban culture in south Florida was a world apart from life on a college campus in suburban Maryland, there was Ana Marie to drive the difference home.
At 18, a model and aspiring actress studying in Miami, Ana Marie was no older than the UMBC students, but she looked in another league, done up in smoldering Cuban-girl style, with a glossy pile of hair and a salon's worth of perfectly applied make-up on her face. Sitting by a fountain in the Miami sun, she was the picture of invincible beauty. And yet, sophomore Stephen Levine who by all rights should have had a hard time flirting with her in English, much less Spanish, soon discovered that some things are easier by satellite.
"?Quieres salir conmigo?" "Would you like to go out with me?" he asked.
"Si," she replied.
Overall, the day's Spanish lesson was pronounced a success. "Learning took place," said Tom Naff, the director of the satellite teaching program developed by a Philadelphia-based group called the National Committee for Internationalizing Education Through Satellites Inc., mercifully known as NCIES. With funds from private foundations, the government and other sources, NCIES has been testing the pedagogical potential of satellites for three years.
"What we're trying to do," Naff said, "is reproduce the same experience a student would have if he were flown to Mexico City and kept there until he learned the language. The classroom becomes not the usual four walls and a chalkboard, but wherever we can put the student with a camera."
The branch of the University of Maryland here is ideally suited to such far-reaching educational strategies. UMBC is one of the few campuses in the mid-Atlantic region that has a 12-foot dish antenna, large screen Sony TVs and other "teleconferencing" equipment. The school offers its facilities for hire to companies such as the Chrysler Corp., whose mid-level managers convene on the campus regularly to talk with their bosses in Detroit.
Moreover, the school's modern language and linguistics department, which instructs in Spanish, French, Chinese, Russian and German, has taken an unusal route to teaching language, eschewing the rote, textbook approach in favor of one that emphasizes the social, political and cultural aspects of a foreign tongue.
"What we're looking for is communicative competence," said Schwartz. "We want students to be able to explain what they do, or be able to bribe their way through customs."
Said school spokesman Susan Baldwin: "They've forced students into the concept of being world citizens." Thus, language classes at UMBC make use of French and Spanish news broadcasts taped off shortwave radio. The dish antenna tunes in French Canadian television on Monday and Tuesday, and Mexican television later in the week. Over the weekends the soccer team stops in to watch games from Mexico.
High technology has its problems, however, as Spanish 102 learned Friday. A language class perforce demands sound. For 20 minutes the students sat clustered around microphones watching the people on the video screen moving their lips like communicative incompetents.
"No se oye. you can't be heard ," shouted Schwartz in frustration. He turned to his class and said, "Just give your orders. Who gives a damn whether they can hear us."
The script called for the class to make conversation with the party and order lunch. Menus had been flown in, along with a sampling of entrees and deserts from Juanito's Centro Vasco. (Science has yet to find a way to beam up lobster Creole, oxtail Bordalesa and Spanish egg cream.) Ena Pajardo, a freshman, planned to order filete salteado, the Spanish pepper steak, $9.50, and a glass of sangria, $1.50.
But by the time the engineers had established audio contact with a waiter, most of the students had lost their appetite. As for the flown-in food, it never appeared either. Apparently, somebody stepped on part of the meal during the flight up, and the rest was crushed by carry-on luggage.
But as the hitches were worked out, many of the students leaned forward in the chairs, helped each other find elusive pieces of vocabulary, and engaged in conversation with their new acquaintances in Miami. They touched on the role of Castro in Nicaragua, on Spanish customs and Miami weather. And while they committed errors such as addressing elders in the familiar form, they avoided the linguistic pratfalls that language teachers dread in such situations.