Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Language Issues and Spanish Community-based Learning

In any community-based learning course, you have to be sure that students actually have the skills to be able to benefit the community partner. If students are setting up a local area network for the computers at a community organization, like a graduate student described at the last "Campus-Community Summits" workshop, they have to actually get that network up and running as promised.

But when you're dealing with a second language and community-based learning work that is not based on a concrete project, students' skills are sometimes harder to assess. Is their Spanish actually good enough to help the community partners? Does their language performance in the classroom truly reflect their capabilities in a real-world setting with native speakers? How many or what kind of mistakes are allowable before communication with a non-English speaker breaks down? Sometimes it's hard to tell.

Our SPAN 232 students wrote letters to a second-grade classroom in Los Angeles, and a few of the letters were written in perfect Spanish with appropriate content for second-graders.

The majority had grammatical mistakes that the students themselves probably could have caught if they would have carefully re-read what they wrote or asked someone else to read the letter for them. The most common errors were:
  • Agreement, like "Querido estudiantes." Students in 232 should catch that themselves. I believe those errors show carelessness.
  • Prepositions. Students often directly translated things like "I am a student at the University of Illinois." They also left off the "a" that always goes after "asistir."
  • Personal "a." The vast majority of students never put this in their writing. It seems to not even be on their radar.
  • Gerunds versus infinitives. This is trickier and less surprising. Many students simply wrote gerunds in Spanish whenever we would use them in English. But this error actually interfered with my understanding of what they were trying to say.
  • Subjunctive. It is not surprising to find that students don't have the subjunctive under control at this stage. Still, I think the more formulaic and frequent instance of "Espero que..." should at least trigger the question in thier mind, "Is this subjunctive or not?" They can then raise their hand and ask the instructor.
Still, there were some letters that were riddled with errors and non-native-like constructions that made them difficult to comprehend.

I decided to mark the mistakes on the letters and return them to the students so that they could correct and re-write them. It is important when working with the community that you do your very best--in your language, work ethic, initiative, etc.

Mistakes happen. And if you get nervous about mistakes, you'll only make more! That still happens to me. But students should understand that they need to work on their language skills inside and outside of class in order to be respected and work more effectively in the community.

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