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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    University language classes inefficient

    Vanessa Valenzuelacolumnist
    Vanessa Valenzuela

    Hablan. Falam. Parlez. It is nearly inevitable that in UA language classes, the time professors intend for students to use speaking with partners is wasted from the moment the command is given. Usually, some awkward transfer of misused vocabulary and broken grammar occurs before students simply give up and resort to discussing their confusion with the homework or what they did over the weekend – in English.

    Surely this situation is confined to introductory or lower-level classes, right? Wrong. Sadly, this inefficiency is prevalent in classes ranging from 101 to those at the 400 level.

    During the first day of a Spanish 425 course last semester, the professor asked students to pair up and introduce each other to the class. Everyone immediately turned to their neighbors, speaking English to introduce themselves and find out basic information to relay to the class.

    Spanish 425 is supposed to be one of the final classes for a Spanish major. Its subject matter – advanced grammar and composition -ÿis supposed to be some of the most rigorous in the major. Students in the class have taken at least eight courses in Spanish and presumably have a strong grasp of it.

    But one by one, students got up and struggled to put together even the most basic sentences -ÿphrases like, “”This is my new friend John. He is from California and likes to eat Italian food and to go surfing.””

    Fifty minutes a day. Three to five days a week. Eighteen weeks per semester. While departments have deemed this a sufficient amount of time to learn a language, so much of it is spent speaking English with classmates that there’s simply no way students can learn the language. A realistic estimate of how much time students actually spend speaking the language themselves might be 5 or 10 minutes per class. When it takes years for children speaking English all day to learn it, five minutes simply won’t do.

    And it’s not only the slacker students: Even students who maintain straight “”As”” in language classes and attend enrichment sessions like Bate-Papos (for Portuguese) have major problems.

    However, not all language classes at the UA are created equal. The critical languages department, for example, offers a different method of language education for an additional class fee – in itself an incentive to achieve in the class.

    These small classes are usually taught by native speakers and are quite rigorous. The catch: The critical languages department does not offer instruction in most of the languages already offered by established programs at the UA. Those looking to this method as an option for learning French or Spanish need not apply.

    Some students opt to learn a language from a tutor. Those who can afford a private tutor essentially ensure that the time they allocate for practice and language acquisition is actually worthwhile. The one-on-one method allows students to get questions answered quickly and completely. As is the case in many subjects, professors are unable to correct every mistake and pick out who needs more attention in large classes.

    Many students find that the more effective way to learn a foreign language is to leave UA language classes behind completely by packing up and studying abroad. In a foreign place, students who venture away from other Americans have little choice but to learn the foreign language in order to be a part of

    day-to-day life in that country. Studying abroad offers students the chance to be simultaneously immersed in foreign language and foreign culture. Living where the language is spoken allows students to match acquired vocabulary with the context in which it is actually used instead of attempting to memorize lists of vocabulary from the back of a textbook or set of course lecture notes.

    For the majority of students, paying a private tutor and going abroad are not feasible options. For them, it is a shame that they don’t get enough from their regular classes.

    To be sure, it’s not just departments that need to improve. Students should do their part as well. Many teachers are merely overstressed grad students who teach only because they have to. They just as easily slip into English. By simply forcing the teachers to always speak the language, students benefit greatly.

    Learning a foreign language is a useful tool. It allows students to connect with another part of the world – never mind the additional job prospects. But at the UA, it’s far too difficult.

    Vanessa Valenzuela is a sophomore majoring in economics and international studies. She can be reached at

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