September 14, 2010

Spicing Up Foreign Language Courses

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Upon arrival at Cornell and escape from high school, it’s tough not to expect that college classes will be infinitely better than grade school classes. And for the most part, they are. While professors certainly assign exponentially more reading than teachers did at my (and hopefully your) high school, in college the student can manage that reading however she pleases — that means no more pop quizzes about the name of the character introduced on page 77.  That is, for the most part … In stark contrast, language courses typically assign nightly pages of grammar exercises and class time often gets devoted to textbook activities. Surely, this teaches language fundamentals and is a means to a clearly necessary end. The repetition also eventually lessens the awkwardness of having to contemplate each conjugation. In the end, a basic justification of this repetition comes down to the fact that you can only really learn a language by using it, and textbook exercises do a pretty good job of getting us to use a language.However, after a few nights of writing sentences about what Jean-Claude wants to eat for dinner, the exercises become self-defeating: Rather than engaging students and providing a meaningful place to utilize a new language, they feel mundane, tedious, meaningless, out of context and a whole lot like busy work. This by no means is due to poor professors or poorly run sections. In fact, I’ve been fortunate enough to like every language teacher I’ve had yet at Cornell — the instructors are not the problem but the method. Admittedly the monotony of language courses lessens as course levels progress — higher-level courses begin to focus on contextual language skills (reading and writing, or conversation for example). But if the departments could apply this method, this attitude, from the beginning and intensify the specificity, language courses would feel so much more appealing, worthwhile and, well, fun. If lectures served only to introduce grammar concepts, then practice could revolve around actual texts. We could be reading and summarizing actual children’s books instead of repetitiously writing variations of the same sentence. There could even be a variety of courses taught at the same level. Instead of a generic French 1220 course, students should be able to choose from a variety of specific subjects that happen to be taught in a foreign language: say, a French children’s literature course, a French film course, a French history course, a French cooking course, etc. For any of these courses, the lecture period could still be shared. The only difference would be the focus of each section. Students would then all learn grammar concepts, but apply them in different ways. In French cooking, periodically instructors could teach a new recipe, analyze food or talk about French food culture. The turnout of the dish would depend on the students understanding of the language. Dishes would become more intricate as the semester progressed. Writing assignments could revolve around creating recipes, chronicling recipe attempts or analyzing food.French film would revolve around watching and analyzing French movies, perhaps children’s movies to begin, and writing screenplays. Analysis and original work would provide ample writing practice. In other fields, it would seem absurd to take progressively more advanced but equally general courses. An English major might take Intro to Modern Poetry, but not simply English 101. Similarly, psychology majors take Psych 101, but then courses branch off and progress in various directions and focuses. If language courses followed this model, the language taught would immediately serve a concrete and specific purpose. Students could work towards a defined goal, not the vague end of “language proficiency.”  Students would learn the given language by usage in real contexts — just as other classes tend to be defined and contextualized — rather than limited and fragmented textbook work. The class would force students to pick up nuances of usage, tone and vocabulary authentically rather than reading about them hypothetically. Perhaps then, students would be more inclined to continue learning languages — the experience would be tangible and integrated into the study of a primary subject matter instead of isolated and full of practice for the sake of practice.Additionally, rather than assigning homework to teach grammar concepts and practicing them in class, this system could invert. Class periods could be spent learning the technical aspects of the language, allowing homework to consist of real-world application. This simple switch could potentially eliminate the drear of intro language class homework. Further, it would allow students to see and use the grammar as it actually gets used. Small improvements in the language program have the potential to drastically improve the experience of learning a language. Knowledge of multiple languages enhances any field of study — in fact, the study of language has long been an integral part of any education. In many other countries’ school systems, children begin learning multiple languages immediately upon starting school. At Cornell, the existing infrastructure already seems fairly amenable to this curricular proposal. Intro language courses already consist of a weekly lecture, plus small sections. While it would call for more planning, the sections are already in place. Language courses are too important to be taken only to the minimum level for fulfilling the requirement. They could be fun. Ruby Perlmutter is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences and a Sun Arts and Entertainment Editor. She may be contacted at Having Said That appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.

Original Author: Ruby Perlmutter