The end of the semester is near. Students are exhausted and teachers are frustrated, all around. I find myself going to classes thinking about how demands are constantly reduced, how we continuously expect less and less from students; and I refuse to think that my students are not capable of learning the basics of a language within an intensive course framework. I refuse to teach them pub Spanish at university level, because they can learn that outside without paying the registration fees that we ask them to. I do not want to waste their time and money.
So in this way, I am one of those teachers who can stress students a lot because I expect a lot of them. The basis of this expectation is that I know they are capable of much more when their motivation to learn the language is there. And why do I know? Because I was a language learner when I was their age and I’m still a language learner now.
I also know that everybody can learn languages. The differences between people in terms of language ability are not quantifiable, but the differences between the time and type of practice that some people need and the time and type of practice that some other people need are the crux of the question. I demand they spend time interacting with the materials of the course, and practicing the language and I leave it up to them to figure out how much and which materials help them most, because we have hundreds of students in first year and a little below a hundred in second year and third year. Trying to elucidate learning styles and advising about individual time investment needed would be maddening for any curriculum planner or teacher.
The other issue I have is that I am quite old style in the sense that I demand grammar correctedness, not just communication and fluency. It seems this is exactly where my standards as a teacher and their own ones as students differ. I had a conversation with a student yesterday who came to dispute a fail on a presentation. This student’s Spanish, at that particular instance, was filled with errors typical of a beginner level (A2), or at least the A2 level that we teach in Spanish first year at NUI Galway. And that is another issue that I will come back to later: levels.
I don’t teach this specific student regularly so I cannot know what the general performance in Spanish in that particular academic year is, but in this presentation it was substandard for the year in which he is registered, which should be a B2 or thereabouts. The student communicates all right. But I would not particularly perceive such interlanguage as a European Language Level B at all due to these errors. Whereas the student was focusing on communication, no matter how many ungrammatical structures were present; I could not consider the presentation good enough for that college year.
I will spare you the details of our discussion, but suffice it to say that the argument for a pass was the amount of time and effort spent on the presentation, in other words, the process and not the product. I am all for continuous assessment and rewards for process instead of results, however, the nature of the subject I teach needs the products in order to assess the viability and adequacy of the process employed to finalize these products. Unfortunately, the subject I teach also requires time, vertical and horizontal. What do I mean by that? It needs investment in terms of time in a specific moment and improvement along the timeline, so that a language learner moves through different interlanguage stages towards native-like fluency.
So here’s the tragedy. If someone reaches final year level with serious mistakes that should have been assessed and corrected earlier on – by the student or the education system in question -, as it constantly happens, is it really fair to fail them? Have we misled them letting them through and awarding points to the time and effort spent on learning the language, instead of on the actual language produced?
So that is why I want to talk – and hear your thoughts – about teachers’ responsibility and learner’s responsibility. I am still a language learner – and a very self-conscious one at that. Let’s put it this way, Gaeilge and I will have still a long way to become good friends. The teachers in the Acadamh are very generous and they mark higher than some of my colleagues and I would do and it does encourage me, but I cannot help wondering what will happen when I get to the next level; if I will bump into all the mistakes that I haven’t put the time to correct or the many trips into the Gaeltacht that I have avoided to practice my spoken Irish. Our three hour evening diplomas are expensive – I get it covered by the Further Education Programme for university staff – but there are other students in my class that pay the fees every year (currently €970 per year if you are an EU national), so teachers worried about the expense on their students pockets help them through. I am guilty of that petty crime too. Who wouldn’t if you cared a little bit for student welfare?
Let me come back to the issue of language levels. I ranted a lot about this in my PhD dissertation. European Language Levels are descriptive and affirmative. In other words, they do not point to the areas of improvement. Most of our assessment methods are based on the quality and quantity of errors that the language learner makes and there are huge disparities within the same language and in the different languages taught even within the same institution in terms of what we understand for A level or B level or even C level. This lack of agreement and transparency makes for a very confusing system of assessment for students and teachers and I do not think it is helping anyone more or less than the loose labels we had before: Beginners, Intermediate, Advanced and all that jazz.
So see? These are all the issues. They feel like a maze or a much entangled yarn of wool now and I can’t see the beginning or the end of it. But that may just have to do with the fact that this is one day before the last day of week 12 and the semester is nearly over. Cheers to that! How did we manage to survive through another one, students and teachers alike? It is times like this when I cannot help but compare the university system for language learning to a huge Titanic boat, and together, teachers and students just keep busying ourselves hoping our heads will never be under water. I know at this stage many of you have probably classified me as a pessimistic human being; but in all fairness, the fact that I am trying to reach out to make you think, to make you contest me, to make you share your thoughts and solutions to these conundrums with me; means I am exactly the opposite.