Blog Post

Wikipedia in the Foreign Language Classroom

I love using Wikipedia in the language classroom. As a teacher of elementary Spanish and Portuguese, there's no quicker way to find out the way people actually use language to talk about topics and issues they find important. It's also a much more effective tool than a dictionary for certain terms and phrases. For example, a student once asked me how to say "Ice bucket challenge" in Spanish, and I had to idea. So we found the English page on Wikipedia, and then went to the left-hand side of the page and found that someone had written a corresponding page in Spanish about the so-called "Desafío del balde de agua fría." 

After seeing this page, a student raised his hand and asked a simple question: "Is that a good translation?" This question has totally changed the way I approach language teaching. This student saw Wikipedia (and perhaps the world in general) as something intrinsically in (American) English, all other langauges being translations. I found this mindset so fascinating, and took it as my own personal challenge and opportunity to help my students understand that legitimate original cultural production happens in all languages, even (and especially) on Wikipedia.

When teaching vocabulary, I very often use Wikipedia to educate myself and the class about words or concepts that are tricky to translate, for example, wading through the translation and conceptual problems between types of pastries/sweet breads in Portuguese, like bolacha, bolobiscoito, pão doce, pastel. Some have direct translations (bolo=cake), some are translated and localized (pão doce=Portuguese sweet bread), and some get more complicated, requiring pictures and lengthy descriptions (bolachas/biscoitos=biscuits/cookies).

After using Wikipedia for so long, I've decided that it's time for my students and me to contribute. So, for our final composition in Intensive Elementary Portuguese, we're going to be collaborating on a class Wikipedia article in Portuguese. We'll take an article about some fact of American culture that has very little coverage on the Portuguese Wikipedia, and significantly expand it. Each student will write one "section" approximately 400-500 words. If I had more time, I would have started by having students first translate a stub from Portuguese to English, thus expanding coverage of Lusophone culture to English. But, I got started too late, so I'll have to try that next semester...

For now, I have the project broken up into several steps:

  • Week 1: (Today) At home, students signed up for an account, participated in Student training, and looked through Portuguese pages to see what was in need of creation or expansion. In class, we had a good discussion about Wikipedia, its advantages and disadvantages and its basic tenets, and voted on a topic. Our final candidate pages were Independence Day (US), Southern United States, Vanderbilt University, and the winner: Nashville!
  • Week 2: At home, students will read about Wikipédia in Portuguese, find at laest three sources for their section, and begin outlining it.
  • Week 3: At home, students will write their 400-500 word section in a Word processor. In an in-class workshop they will peer-edit their work. 
  • Week 4: At home, students will encode their article, using a cheatsheet provided by the instructor with some of the most basic coding necessary. In an in-class workshop we will all work together to troubleshoot coding issues, and hopefully post the article!

It's an ambitious schedule, but my students are dedicated and enthused, so I'm hopeful that it will turn out to be a good experience. It will require a little work on my part, to do some of the set-up coding, but I anticipate this being a highly enriching activity for my students, so I think it will be worth the effort. Of course, I'll keep everyone updated at each stage of the process, and let you know when we have a final project! Wish us luck!


1 comment

    I have always found Wikipedia to be very useful, it covers just about anything you could possibly think of. It is a great source to use, but not everyone seems to agree with it. For many reasons that is, I do understand why people do not like using it. Part of the controversy is that anyone is able to contribute to it. Which is understandable if someone is putting false information. With the monitoring and editing of this site, this should reassure people that the information is relevant and accurate.  Personally though, I find it interesting and exciting that it is collectively put together by thousands of people around the world with different knowledge. Wikipedia has so much to offer, as you clearly state in your blog. Allowing people to contribute to wikipedia, lets this site broaden throughout the world. It is people like yourself who are making this world a better place, you are being effective and really taking your students into consideration. I find it fascinating that you are working with children, and teaching them a different language. I am sure that you are a huge impact on these students lives. Also, that is wonderful that you have decided for you and your students to contribute to Wikipedia. I will have to look into what you guys have done once you are finished. Thank you for this great read, it has truly inspired and intrigued me. Best of luck to you and your students!