February 22, 2007

Teaching Spanish without Spanish teachers

Drake University has taken a novel approach to teaching foreign languages: Do it without foreign language instructors, and instead use a system "based on study abroad and individualized online instruction."

The Modern Language Association is putting the finishing touches on a report that will call for radical shifts in how undergraduate and graduate programs in foreign languages are taught, with a shift away from a language/literature model to one that places much more emphasis on culture, history, economics, politics and more. Philosophically, there are parts of the Drake program that appear consistent with the MLA push — both approaches argue that traditional teaching methods need to change, and that students need a broad understanding of the cultures whose languages they are studying, not just vocabulary and literature.

But there are key differences as well. Most notably, the MLA views faculty members as not only part of, but crucial to, instruction. Drake, as a university that did away with language departments, takes a different view, with most of the learning taking place in small student groups of four — coached not by a professor, but by a native speaker of the language, typically an international student.

Emphasis mine. This, in my view, is an interesting idea. I'm a big proponent of study abroad -- it really is the only way by which to gain fluency in a language (if that's your goal), and utilizing native-speaking international students may indeed serve as a catalyst for making that move to studying in a foreign country. However, a FL professor quoted later in the article makes a very good point:

Even if there is functional literacy, many say that the definition of college-level language instruction is being devalued and that the student experience is being cheapened. “There’s more than just the ability to learn to speak a language, which you could do in Berlitz,” said Ginny Lewis, who lost her job teaching German when Drake eliminated all the language faculty positions.

Lewis, who is now on the faculty at Northern State University, in South Dakota, said that “the students in my classroom have access to me around the clock — not only am I an educator with knowledge that goes beyond that of a 22-year-old native speaker, who doesn’t understand the how or why of language, but I offer students encouragement. I offer students a lot of background knowledge of why they are learning what they are learning.”

Lewis has an excellent point here, in part. For instance, would a 22-year old native Spanish-speaking student be able to tell us gringos when to use "por" and "para" -- the two most common terms for the English word "for"? Could this student adequately explain how to use the subjunctive mood in Spanish -- indeed, even explain just what the hell it is?

The article details what may explain why Drake made such a move: Language profs concentrate too much on language mechanics and literature. Students want to delve into more of the nitty-gritty of everyday language:

Robert Sanders, assistant professor of Spanish and coordinator of first-year courses at Portland State, said he was excited about adding the small group sessions on to more traditional language instruction. He said he viewed this approach as consistent with the “culture and languages across the curriculum” in which foreign language is not viewed through literature alone, but as part of a broader educational experience.

“The literature degrees have their place,” he said, but programs all over the country suffer because of “this institutional creep in which everyone is trying to copy the Ivy League and reproduce specialists in literature,” rather than focusing on globalization or culture or any number of other topics. “We need to break out of the fetish of literature,” he said.

Personally, I agree with that. I detested the literature courses I had to take in college. I would have much preferred something like the Drake approach instead of analyzing a novel (in Spanish). Discussing politics, economics, etc. would be quite intriguing and certainly would prepare students better for their travels abroad more than being versed in Cien Años de Soledad.

But even if innovative, the Drake approach -- using international students instead of professors -- sounds to me too much like the "cooperative learning" method used in [primary/secondary] schools where the teacher becomes a "facilitator" innstead of a teacher and merely "guides" students in their "learning." So, at Drake, instead of gutting the whole department, why not just utilize the expertise of your language professors in the revamped program? This seems like the sensible middle ground, especially when it comes to the instances where expertise is required (as I note above). And, as another professor (Rosemary G. Feal, the MLA’s executive director and a former Spanish professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo) mentions in the article,

“The first step in studying a language is acquiring basic fluency,” she said, and the Drake approach is well suited.

But as students advance, it’s time to ask questions like: Are there courses offered in the literature of Latin America? Feal noted that she could find plenty of English courses at Drake teaching foreign authors in translation, but wondered where the other courses were. And she stressed that this extends beyond literature.

“The question is: What comes next? After the foundational experiences, colleges and universities need to offer the opportunity to delve into academic content — in history, economics, popular culture, film,” Feal said, questioning how much of this could be taught without professors. She added that “professors with advanced degrees in languages are uniquely qualified” to offer such instruction.

Be sure to read the comments below the article where both sides of the debate (and the middle!) are represented [for the most part] intelligently and cogently.

Posted by Hube at February 22, 2007 10:08 AM | TrackBack

Comments  (We reserve the right to edit and/or delete any comments. If your comment is blocked or won't post, e-mail us and we'll post it for you.)

Interesting. My alma mater took a very similar approach. Language courses were divided into "Comp"and "Con". That is, composition and conversation. The latter used lots of role playing like going to the post office/bank/hospital. Upper divisions had boot camp weekends where no English was permitted. Even after that I was paralyzed when I first immersed in my study abroad program. Eventually you just worry less about making a mistake and just start talking. Alcohol helps in that regard.

Posted by: Duffy at February 22, 2007 01:40 PM

Duff: Alcohol definitely takes the edge off any nervousness regarding making any mistakes, that I can attest to. I'm always amazed at how much better Spanish I speak with a buzz! :-)

Posted by: Hube at February 22, 2007 01:49 PM


All language classes to be held in pubs.

Posted by: Duffy at February 22, 2007 03:13 PM

Seconded! Motion passed!

Am I wrong to feel a tad irked by this college? Perhaps they should do away with faculty altogether and just allow the students to direct their own learning. Who is in charge of their accreditation? And why aren't they outraged?

Posted by: Bronwen at February 22, 2007 11:56 PM

They seem to assume that everyone learns the same way. Sure, when you're a kid, just diving right in works. And when you're actually in a foreign country, total immersion is easy.

But for a lot of older kids and adults, some understanding of how the grammar works is necessary. Native speakers who don't know how to teach a language may not be able to answer questions about *why* you say something this way rather than that way. The answer is always, "That's just the way it is." But learning the rules helps understand how a language works.

This plan also assumes that young native speakers use the correct grammar. Anyone who's heard a native English speaker say "between he and I" knows that's not even close to being true.

Posted by: Jane at March 7, 2007 08:33 PM