Learning a foreign language at a university

We have just started another semester here at UT. In today’s world there are so many options for learning a foreign language, I sometimes wonder where universities fit in.  If you go back to one of my earlier blog entries called “General principles in learning a foreign language”, most of the items on the list are pretty independent from a classroom situation (e.g, time on task, context, schema theory, input, intake, narrow listening, cultural factors).  In my own case, most of the languages that I speak were acquired through personal study, tutors, travel, podcasts, etc. and not through university courses.  I’m also the first to admit that in general the results of our university teaching of foreign languages are dismal (we’ll save that blog for another day).

However, this blog today is to reaffirm the positive side of teaching foreign languages at a university.  This comes at a time when I have been observing (and have been impressed) with the sense of “community” that goes along with the language learners that subscribe to chinesepod.com and spanishpod.com.  I have great admiration for their approach to language learning and in fact I subscribe to them myself.  Those that feel part of the community of learners create support groups, help each other out, provide feedback, answer questions, get involved in forums, practice with skype, and identify as part of the group.  What’s clear is that the mere podcast lessons are not enough, and things are enhanced with community activities.

I have also observed this sense of “community” among the students in my courses this semster.  This semester I am teaching a Portuguese language course.  It is an advanced grammar class and there are 15 students enrolled (which for an advanced Portuguese class is already impressive). On the very first day of class I noticed that healthy buzz as the students chatted among themselves.  Some had spent the summer in Brazil and they were sharing experiences with others.  Some of the students had participated in a study abroad program and it was a sort of reunion among four or five of them.  Other students had known each other from previous semesters, and so they were already friends.  Since Portuguese is a less commonly taught language, learners clearly bond together.  In all, there is a gigantic sense of community.  I love to feel the energy and desire that the students have for learning and improving.  I feel that my job, as professor, has to include strategies for taking advantage of this sense of community.

This semester I’m also teaching a large lecture-style course which is an introduction to Spanish Phonetics.  There are 90 students enrolled in this class.  Again, although very different from the Portuguese class, there is impressive energy in the class.  Lots of the students already know one another and you can see the support they give to each other.  Many are Spanish majors, others met during during study abroad experiences.  In all, they feel like a community of learners.

Do university courses automatically have this sense of community?  No, clearly not.  But the circumstances surrounding these courses are ideal opportunities to create this feeling.  And that is where I hope to put my focus with the students this semester.

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One Response to “Learning a foreign language at a university”

  1. Tamara Says:

    I have been seeing the importance of a sense of community in a learning situation. Not with language, but in my physical therapy classes. We are going to be together for 2 years, so I have been making an effort to get us to lighten up together and look out for each other. Yesterday I showed a YouTube clip on my laptop to the class during a break. It made everyone laugh. I also helped talk a girl threw some meditation/relaxation before our first test. I think we will learn better if we can feel like we are all in it together. Good observation!

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