Column: Foreign language learning frustrations

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There's a certain frustration that comes with trying to learn a foreign language in a classroom setting, and unfortunately the foreign language departments at UA tend to further that frustration in various ways.

As a student currently enrolled in a second semester Spanish course, I'm experiencing the struggle first-hand as I try to retain the language after a failed attempt at doing so in high school. Additionally, I have a close friend enrolled in a third semester German class, and through comparison I've learned that the two languages are taught very similarly and that the difficulty likely extends throughout all foreign language teaching. However, my experience in Spanish is the easiest to cite and pull examples from.

The redeeming quality of foreign language courses at UA is that all courses following the first semester of the language are to be taught mostly, if not entirely, in the foreign language. Doing so creates an immersion situation for the student that couldn't otherwise be easily achieved. Research has consistently shown that immersion is the single most effective way of teaching a foreign language, so placing a student into an environment in which they are primarily exposed to the foreign language improves comprehension skills and overall language fluency.

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But the tactic has its drawbacks. For one, because students are being taught new concepts and conventions in a foreign language without always being provided with the English equivalent, they can easily become frustrated and confused. For instance, Spanish has some tenses that English does not, such as the imperfect, which is a form of past tense. It was really difficult for my instructor to explain the concept since English has no equivalent. When we were given an assignment that required us to decide which Spanish past tense should be used in example sentences, the entire class struggled and made a lot of mistakes. I left class that day feeling like I had learned nothing.

Other teaching strategies unrelated to immersion cause similar frustration and hinder learning. One of these most obnoxious strategies is busy work that manifests in various forms throughout a class, but is always distinguishable. As language classes at the UA are typically four units, there is as expected a lot of work that comes with the courses. But a lot of that work truly fails to teach the language or help concepts stick in memory as are the intentions of the work.

An example with which I am intimately familiar would be the cultural flashcards required by the Department of Spanish and Portuguese. These are not typical flashcards that could be used to help memorize concepts or vocabulary by self-quizzing. The cards are required to be filled with a large amount of useless information that doesn't all concern the language. These cards do not aid in foreign language acquisition, yet they are required of first and second semester Spanish students.

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Beyond the busy work is the flawed content that is to be taught and tested. In my Spanish course, the primary example of this is culture material. A portion of the material in the textbook is information about Spanish-speaking countries. Having cultural information about these countries is interesting, but to actively be examined on this information is to require students to spend time memorizing material that does not actually help language acquisition in any way.

Similar things have occurred in my friend's German course, in which he was assigned to find something in Tucson that reminded him of Germany and create a postcard with an image. These activities in no way help students learn the language — they only waste time students could be using to actually study the language.

A final struggle to be noted is that many of these courses at UA are taught by graduate students who are not necessarily aspiring foreign language professors. As these students might not be comprehensively trained in how to teach the language, there is no guarantee concerning the quality of education they can provide. Some students may receive a better education than others, just because of the varying skill level of the instructors.

These problems together could easily ascend from minor flaws to detriments to a student's ability to learn the language effectively. The UA could improve this inherently difficult task if the language departments made a few changes (for example, allowing English to be spoken when it would make more sense to the student in doing so, removing busy work including education about culture or other non-language information, etc.) to aid student learning.

As it stands, beginner-level foreign languages are not being taught as effectively as possible.


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