Can you learn Spanish on Instagram?

Northeastern students Abdelrahman Elsaadany, JoJo Brennan, and Morgan Blaney host a video conference with Lia Sanchez from UNIFE University in Lima, Peru, in the lobby of International Village on Oct. 25, 2018. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Do you surreptitiously check your phone in class to see who commented on your latest Instagram post? If you were taking a Spanish course taught by Yanet Monica Canavan, you wouldn’t have to hide your phone under your desk to scroll through your feed.

Canavan requires her students to create Instagram profiles and post comments in Spanish in order to learn how to communicate in the language. She said that the strategy is part of her effort to make her courses relevant to the lives of her students, who spend a lot of time posting messages on social media platforms.

“What’s the point of learning a language if you aren’t going to use it?” said Canavan, who is an assistant academic specialist in Spanish at Northeastern. “They aren’t just writing an essay for me to review or correct, now they’re writing because it’s how they communicate.”

In 2016, Canavan formed a partnership with the Women’s University of the Sacred Heart in Lima, Peru, to help her students master the Spanish language with the help of social media. For the past two years, students in her classes have used Facebook and the messaging app WhatsApp to video chat with their peers in Peru on a weekly basis.

The partnership was modeled after an intercultural program called Cultura, which was developed at MIT to connect students from different cultures. Canavan said that students who participate in the program find that it’s easier to pick up a foreign language when they use that language to discuss an unfamiliar culture.

Northeastern students host a video conference with students from a university in Lima, Peru, in the lobby of International Village on Oct. 25, 2018. Photos by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

“I used to tell my students you should learn a new language because you might need it in the future,” said Canavan. “Now I say, you need it now. You should practice your Spanish not for the future, but because tomorrow you’ll be talking to a girl from Peru.”

Students in Canavan’s “Advanced Spanish 1” course chat with their peers in Peru about a variety of topics, including their weekend plans and what they’re watching on Netflix.

“What I’ve found the most interesting in talking to my partner in Peru is that our lives really aren’t that different,” said Kayla Collins, who studies political science and international affairs at Northeastern. “Obviously there are some cultural differences, but at the end of the day we can relate on a lot of levels.”

Collins and her peers study basic concepts and vocabulary on their own time and come to class prepared to practice what they’ve learned by speaking with their new friends in Peru. Canavan said this pedagogical approach, known as “flipping the classroom,” has improved her students’ grades and increased their classroom participation.

“We aren’t just reading from a textbook; we are learning Spanish for real life,” said Julia Mannix, who studies human services and communications at Northeastern. “It really gets in your head this way. I even find myself accidentally speaking Spanish in my other classes.”