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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

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    UA Italian program thriving

    As a professor of Italian at the UA, I am deeply troubled by Vanessa Valenzuela’s Friday column. Judging from a single negative experience in one course, Valenzuela concludes not only that the teaching of Spanish – which already would constitute a gross overgeneralization – but indeed the teaching of all languages at the UA is ineffective. She only spares the department of critical languages from her negative assessment.

    Even though Valenzuela has never set foot in an Italian class, she perhaps unwittingly criticizes us in her blanket condemnations. The Italian program at the UA has been growing steadily over the past decade. In its latest assessment of university programs, the American Association of Teachers of Italian rated the UA as having the fifth-largest program in the U.S. In the current semester we are offering five sections of Italian 101, six sections of Italian 102, two sections each of Italian 201 and 202, and one section each of Italian 305a and 305b. Additionally, we offer a major, a minor and a variety of Tier I and II general education courses. Clearly, the ongoing student interest in Italian contradicts Valenzuela’s unsupported assertions about the ineffectiveness of language teaching at the UA, at least as it relates to Italian.

    Fabian Alfie
    associate professor of Italian

    Interlanguage important for language instruction

    In response to the Vanessa Valenzuela’s Friday column, “”University language classes inefficient,”” there are a few points that I would like to bring to light as a Spanish instructor at the UA.

    Firstly, it is important to have an accurate concept of what the language goals of a classroom are. A question that has intrigued second-language-acquisition researchers for decades is “”Can students become proficient in a second language in a formal classroom environment?”” In my experience, students can reach a certain level of recognized performance standards, but cannot reach near native fluency in a formal classroom environment alone. Therefore, one might ask, did the students from Spanish 425 that you mention attain the goals that the course set for them by the end of the semester, and was their performance on the first day in class simply rusty due to vacation and the common inhibitions that second language learners demonstrate in unfamiliar environments? This would be an important distinction to make. “”An awkward transfer of misused vocabulary and broken grammar”” – as you put it – is to be expected. The language that shows traits of the learners’ first language and target language even has a name: interlanguage. Interlanguage is a natural part of any second-language learner’s development.

    Departments have not deemed 50 minutes a day, three to five days a week and 18 weeks per semester as a sufficient amount of time to learn a language with near native fluency. This is not possible for most adult second-language learners. Possibly the most efficient way to learn language is full immersion. That is why our study abroad programs are such a success – not a failure, nor an indicator of the ineffectiveness of our formal classrooms. If our students are able to develop enough proficiency and motivation to study abroad, we as instructors have indeed succeeded.

    As far as the use of private tutors goes, in my experience, few UA students should have to get a tutor. All the graduate Spanish instructors hold three office hours a week minimum – most of which are spent drinking coffee and gossiping because our students rarely come to our office hours despite our repeated invitations.

    Also, bear in mind that we are not “”merely overstressed grad students who teach only because we have to.”” Most of us plan to continue teaching at the university level professionally. We are committed to an extremely high quality of instruction, which includes taking courses on what second language teaching and learning specifically entails, including the most successful and current methodologies, which do not include correcting every mistake during oral exercises. This has been proven to increase the affective filter – which means in terms you would understand: students are then put on the defensive and feel too inhibited to create their interlanguage, making it more difficult for them to practice speaking at all. For example, if we were engaging in an oral classroom exercise, I might not point out that you had incorrectly conjugated the verb “”hablar.”” (The plural command form is “”hablen.””)

    All this is not to say that Spanish should be used at all times during Spanish 425. Nor is to say that we as instructors do not face challenges in the classroom (namely unmotivated students who are there simply because they feel they have to be). Nor is it to say that it is not difficult for us to effectively balance our reaching with our coursework. My point is, despite these challenges, our classrooms may be much more successful than you think. That said, thank you for your concern with the quality of the education at our institution.

    Eva Romero
    graduate student in Hispanic literature

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