Thursday, April 14, 2011

More Griping on Spanish in the Classroom

The constant refusal of my students to speak Spanish in class got me to the point where I almost barked, "Stop speaking English already!" at two complete strangers at the bus-stop. I have dreams where I come up to people and exhort them to switch to Spanish. Nothing works, however. Students keep thinking that the way to learn to speak Spanish is to discuss Spanish grammar in English.

Today, my level of frustration multiplied by the exhaustion of a sleepless night drove me to ask them directly why they couldn't bring themselves to speak Spanish in a Spanish class.

"Speaking Spanish in class feels kind of weird," a student volunteered. The rest nodded vigorously in agreement.

"Why does it feel weird?" I asked.

"We never had a Spanish teacher who'd speak Spanish in class. It's weird that you speak Spanish all the time," students said in an accusatory tone.

"I kind of like it," said one student in a small voice.

"Aren't you guys taking Spanish because you want to learn to speak it?"

"Yes," they responded.

"So don't you want to try speaking it now that you are in the fourth semester of taking it in college?"

There was an uncomfortable pause.

"I guess so," one student finally said. "But it's still very weird."

Of course, the best thing to do would be to require that all language instructors speak the target language in the classroom at all times. Since that's not likely to happen, we will keep having this problem for years to come.

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Anonymous said...

I always divided the people who learn languages in to the academics and the pragmatics.

The academics I knew could write beautiful texts with perfect grammar, read any kind of literature, depending on their specialization even translate, yet were unable to hold a conversation easily ( or fluently or without sounding foreign).

On the other hand are the pragmatics, who had been learning just by speaking with other people who never learned any grammar by studying or very little.

They could speak fluently and make themselves extremely confident in foreign circles, yet unable to write, or read proficiently (Their texts always sounded like conversations).

Among all the people who claim to speak a language, rarely do I find someone who has a blend of these two learning modes and has mastered both.

I always thought I wanted both, but the further I've been into learning foreign languages, the more I think the division is fine, and everyone should learn more adjusted to their goals.

That is, people who expect to use their foreign language skill for showing off, tourism, or basic conversational exchanges at work could do well mostly with the second strategy.

Translators, academics, and the like could do well mostly with the first method.

Now after having said all this, my question for you Clarisa, is what do your students expect to do with their command of Spanish? What kind of degree are they studying? Do they look forward to stay in the academics and do some form of text analysis ?

Perhaps this will make it clear and reasonable that speaking the language during class is not really a priority.


Clarissa said...

I don't really believe that an academic who can't hang out at a bar with Spanish-speaking friends or go shopping in Spanish etc.could produce useful criticism. I believe such people are hacks. That's just my personal opinion.

My students, however, are definitely not preparing to be Hispanists. They will need to be able to speak to people in their chosen careers that range from nursing to mass communications.

Spanish prof said...

Clarissa, I don't know at your institution, but at mine, the oral component of SPAN 101, 102 and 201 is 10% of the final grade. Meanwhile, test + quizzes + compositions are 75%. At the same time, the textbooks try to cram all the grammar in one and a half year, which is ridiculous and impossible. And I've seen many textbooks, and they all have the same grammar content.

I usually teach Intermediate Spanish II or Advanced Spanish I, and my classes are really conversational. But this semester I'm teaching Span 101, and it's impossible, because I have to introduce a grammar concept almost every day. Last week it was the direct object pronouns, tomorrow it's the indirect object pronouns, next week it's the preterite and the demonstrative articles. If you can explain me why it is necessary that a first semester Spanish student learns the IOP and DOP, I would appreciate it. Because I have no idea. But look into the textbooks, and it's there, no matter which one you choose.

Take into consideration also that usually there is a section coordinator, so you can't design your own quizzes or tests. In addition, most instructors of lower level Spanish courses are not principal faculty (tenured or tenure track), so evaluations count a lot for them.

To sum up, blame the syllabus and the textbooks. If I am teaching SPAN 101, and 75% of the grade is a written component, and my students have very little to no knowledge of Spanish, I will spend a lot of time emphasizing grammar and written exercises. Because otherwise, they will fail their exams, over which I have very little control.

Anonymous said...

I have never understood any argument that is not vehemently opposed to breaking from the target language in a foreign language class. I realize that at certain (hopefully brief) moments, especially in lower-level courses, one must use the native language to explain basic grammatical structures and rules, but apart from that I simply do not understand why any foreign language instructor would break from the target language, ever.

I realize from experience that numerous qualified and intelligent professores constantly break from the target language but as I said, I do not agree with the practice. Clarissa, do the offending colleagues of yours have a reason for speaking English (and not strictly forbidding its use by all parties) or is it simply apathy with respect to the students' progression?

Clarissa said...

Spanish prof: we don't have such strict (or, actually, any) supervision in language courses. The only thing in terms of uniformity that we tried to institute this semester (and it didn't work) is asking people to cover the same number of chapters in the 2-part courses that use the same textbook. For example, if I'm starting to teach Intermediate II, I need to know that the previous instructor finished the first 5 chapters of the book. We asked the instructors to do it, now it turns out they didn't.

As for the rest, we I make up my own grade distributions, exams, quizzes and everything else.

Anonymous: I agree with you completely. This is incomprehensible. And I do believe people do it because it's easy and requires very little effort.

Pagan Topologist said...

When I was taking Chinese in 1965-66, I remember feeling very frustrated when I could not express in Chinese something I wanted to say in class. I was once told to say something in English by the TA, since she had no idea what I wanted to say.

Natasha from Russia said...

Wait, but you said that in the USA the communication method is considered traditional.
Why they so are surprised by your requirement to speak Spanish.

Spanish prof said...

I really envy your freedom.

There is another problem, which is the assumption that in one and a half year you can teach basic grammar, and everybody will remember. I was talking to a Intermediate SPanish II instructor the other day, and she was complaining that her students had completely forgot the preterite and the imperfect because Intermediate SPanish I is devoted to the subjunctive in all its forms. I think everybody would be better served with a "slower approach". For example, the present, ser and estar, ir +a and the present progressive in the first year; Preterite, imperfect and plusperfect indicative in the second year; subjunctive in the third year, etc... But that would assume recognizing the difficulty of a major like "Spanish".

In fact, I don't know in Europe, but in Argentina and other Latin American countries that I know, you can have a "licenciatura en letras" (BA in literature), with a concentration in a wide variety of literatures. But they don't teach you the language as a for credit course. You either already have a good grasp of it, or you can take optional courses.

Clarissa said...

Natasha: not only is it considered traditional, it is also accepted as the official method at my department. Which is precisely why this is so annoying.

Clarissa said...

Spanish Prof.: I agree that the grammar is gone over extremely fast. You are completely right about how the students forget preterito/omperfecto completely after 2 semesters of subjunctive. But the only remedy for that, in my opinion, is LESS rather than more language courses. The best way to learn is through speaking and reading. I only took one single language course in Spanish. The rest were literature courses. And the result is quite good.

I have a student whom I allowed into my literature course while she is still taking Intermediate II. She is doing much better in the literature course. Her explanation for that is "Because the literature course is fun!"

Natasha from Russia said...

But, if this method the official, why your students told "We never had a Spanish teacher who'd speak Spanish in class. It's weird that you speak Spanish all the time"?

Clarissa said...

Because our instructors (unlike professors) are unionized and there is no way of making them do anything. I tried having a very nice, polite conversation about these things but the only reaction to my suggestions was resentment.

Natasha from Russia said...

At me to you one more question and how you learn to a correct pronunciation of words?
Some people (as at me) absolutely don't have ear for music. At school learned us how we must open the mouth correctly and to arrange tongue that the correct sound would turn out. At such method it is simply impossible to mispronounce.

Clarissa said...

Honestly, I'm not good at teaching pronunciation. But we have a new colleague coming in July who specializes in that. So, hopefully, he will offer some advice on that.

Shedding Khawatir said...

I can sympathize, as I'm going to be dealing with this problem in a major way in the Fall. One thing that has helped me in the past though is to make students repeat things you overhear in English in Spanish, initially targeting things you know they know how to say in Spanish (like which activity, I have a question) and then moving on, to help them realize they do know how to say stuff, and then push them harder. Sometimes, if it is a student I can joke with, I will call them out by saying something like, "Wow, you speak English really well" or "I didn't understand that, what language were you using?" It's a really frustrating situation, and you've probably already tried these things, but if you can get the majority of the class (and especially the mediocre students) on board, they will switch, and I've seen it happen.