Language Levels and Language Mistakes


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.


3 thoughts on “Language Levels and Language Mistakes

  1. seriously, though. Good, valid points. And in part linked to the notion of effort expended and the type of effort. The ECTS ratings for the number of hours spent (in deliberate learning activity, not just letting the clock tick by whilst a book is lying open) should be a guide, of course. But in reality? I also wonder though the extent to which we are able to convincingly, coherently get across the message about just how much self study really is needed, how much of learning is a hard slog but unavoidable to make progress. We all want to avoid effort and as the weeks rattle past and we spend time in coffee chatting about the pressures of keeping up, how much opportunity is being lost? Of course, we can’t burn up our students, our learners, but there is a question of balance and of a good study pattern. Then the question is in practice how easy is it for a student with an often disjointed timetable, with classes scattered around the place and little scope for finding a quiet place between timetabled slots to study. If we had, to twist Virginia Woolf “a desk of one’s own” would it make a difference? Or if we were able to create a smaller grouping of students in a setting (whether real or psychological) that values learning and engagement could we do better? I was thinking about a lot of this when at the conference in Durham last week on ‘collegiate universities’ and on learning communities……

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you, Iain.
    I agree with you in so many things! No surprise there.

    The issue of self-study and types of practice that enhance language learning or learning in general is a thorny one. My partner has a 13 year old daughter and I have more of an insight about what happens in a new reasonably forward thinking secondary school and it shows the general trend: teachers are fascinated with technology and innovation, without much time to consider why they are using it and the real benefits of it outside the list of benefits specified in the advertisement in question that promoted this type of technology. They do not consider the background or the previous experience required to use this tool to the max.

    So I do not even want to imagine what goes on in the general system. It looks as if the trend to go towards quantity and not quality is widespread. She has tons of homework but there is no challenge towards practicality, towards putting things into practice, even to work together from the different subjects there. It’s all task-based oriented, encouraging a very strategic approach, and disjointed there as well.

    I would love to move towards an academic culture of time used, instead of time spent and wasted, but as you said there are infrastructure issues here:

    – How many canteens do we have? How much space to eat and chat and browse the web and how many quiet study spaces – or even loud ones – are there on this campus?

    – My favourite paradox: There is no time in this crunched up semesterised system to train and discuss issues about time management and use with students.

    – And communities…? I have started to despair about this quite a lot. I have some groups that refuse to talk to one another and approach each other even though the atmosphere is relaxed. I have new-coming students in the second year course, from other universities, that complain about no one talking to them. They are communities of shared space but nothing else. I worry. A lot. Loneliness is a result of this functional approach to college.

    And a lot of my thoughts on this from last year will see the light next year in:
    (2014-5) ‘Bumping into Classroom Walls: How To Win The Timed Race of Language Learning In The University Classroom’ In: Third-level Education and Second Language Learning: Promoting Self-directed Learning in new Technological and Educational Contexts. UK: Peter Lang. [Details]

    Thanks for that, again! Let’s keep the thinking and acting on it rolling!


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