Saturday, August 24, 2013

10 Things an Arabic Course Taught Me about Spanish Programs

Are any languages really "easy"?

by Ann Abbott

Spanish doesn't need to work very hard to attract students to its courses. Spanish is strong in high schools, so many university students simply continue on the path they have already begun. It's also viewed as a useful language, either when traveling through Spanish-speaking countries or within the US. And, let's be honest, many people see it as an "easy" language to learn.

But Spanish enrollments and number of majors have been going down at the University of Illinois. All of a sudden, we do need to start working harder to attract students!

And that's where we can learn a lot from the less commonly taught languages (LCTLs). To attract students to their courses, they do several things well: form alliances, advertise strategically and often, create eye-catching flyers, connect with heritage speakers, and more. Turns out being a "hard" language makes you create a compelling message and offer a high-quality product, just to bring in students.

So when my daughter, Giulia, decided to take Intensive Beginning Arabic this summer through the Summer Institute for Languages of the Muslim World at the University of Illinois, I was curious about more than just the wonderful language she was going to learn. I was interested in how they were going to teach it.

To make a long story short, Giulia had a fabulous experience in her course and in the program. Fabulous. She learned the language--the basics. She made friends. She learned a lot about cultures of the Muslim world. She came to love languages (all languages) even more. And I can say that she also matured personally a lot because of the intensive (8-weeks of daily classes) nature of the program. She was proud of her accomplishments at the end of the program, and I was proud of everything she learned.

Here's what I observed about Giulia's beginning Arabic course and the SILMW program that I think all language programs should copy.

1. Provide a full package. Giulia got a lot out of her beginning Arabic courses. But those four hours of class each day were just one part of her learning experience. There were receptions, meals, talks, conversation tables, cooking classes and so much more. Every single one of those elements contributed to Giulia's learning. Honestly, until recently, when I thought about my Spanish courses and even our whole Spanish program, I just thought about the classes and course design. We miss out on so much when we only think about the learning that takes place in class and during homework.

2. Extra credit motivates students. This is what I firmly believed until this summer: students who want extra credit should just spend more time working on the "regular credit." But then I saw how motivated Giulia was by the extra credit system in her Arabic course. Yes, she was motivated to get the points, but not just for the sake of accumulating points. You earned extra credit by attending extracurricular activities and writing about them. She really did learn "extra" with her "extra credit." And mentally, emotionally, the extra credit system was like a cushion that helped her accept less-than perfect grades that inevitably occur when you're learning a language. That didn't make her a "lazier" learner, though. No, it made her a more engaged learner. I want to re-think what extra credit could do for our Spanish program.

3. Emotions matter. I knew this. I knew about the affective filter. I knew that I wanted my classroom to be a safe place, where you can make mistakes, struggle and not feel too embarrassed. But I had never seen the emotional turmoil the learner goes through when they're not with me! As much as Giulia loved her course, her teacher and her classmates, those eight weeks were an emotional roller coaster for her. The first days of classes she broke down in tears and said, "Everyone gets it except me!" (Which wasn't true, of course.) Her confidence waxed and waned all summer long, but the days leading up to quizzes and exams were filled with anxiety. We can't take away all anxiety, but we can create a supportive, friendly environment before, during and after classes.

4. It's good to learn in English, too. I speak the target language 100% in my classes. That won't change. But I saw the real value of the information Giulia received in English. Most of the extra-curricular events were in English (also because people in the program were also studying other languages). As one example, Giulia enjoyed a talk about Arabic influences in Spanish. If presented in Arabic, she would have understood very little. Instead, throughout the program Giulia came away with a lot of cultural knowledge that was presented in English. That knowledge matters! Is it more important that our students are perfecting the past subjunctive or that they gain a deeper, more nuanced knowledge of the cultures represented through the language? They're both important, yes, but I saw this semester that there are real benefits to providing more information in English. It's not just important in later classes. It's important from the beginning. We don't do nearly enough of this in our Spanish program. I'm going to start thinking about how we can thoughtfully incorporate it.

5. Create a sense of community. Language classes naturally create a sense of community. Classes tend to be smaller. Your teacher always knows your name. You work in small groups with your classmates often. The activities that you do--the information you exchange--usually involves sharing opinions and experiences, so you eventually end up knowing your classmates quite well. But Giulia's sense of community extended to the whole program--she felt supported by her teacher, the tutor and the other teachers she met during the extracurricular activities.And her community extended to those students in SILMW who were studying other languages, too. This was accomplished in several ways:
  • Classroom spaces being near each other.
  • Extracurricular events that included all the students in the program.
  • Friendliness!
  • T shirts. Yes, t shirts! Giulia has worn her SILMW t shirt with pride during and after the course. 
Beth Chasco, the Spanish undergraduate advisor, and I have been giving a lot of thought about how to create more of a sense of community among our Spanish majors. She has worked a lot on Mi Pueblo conversation groups, and I kicked of Mi Carrera workshops last semester. But we'll need to do even more.

6. Provide tutoring. Giulia knew that she could go to her teacher before class, after class and during office hours. But she also liked having a tutor who was available and who was different than her teacher. She could sign up for tutoring through the learning management system (Compass) and get extra help. She needed that. And sometimes she just needed to know that it was available. Once, Giulia went to the tutor to get help with the sounds of Arabic. And it's so important that tutors also be positive and encouraging. The teachers get to know their students very well, so being encouraging comes naturally, I'm sure. Tutors don't have that sustained relationship with the students they see, but they also need to be positive and encouraging. Spanish has (had?) a tutoring room, which was great. But it was under-utilized, and I don't know how well TAs were trained in taking on the role of tutor. I'm sure we can do a better job with this.

7. Extra-curricular activities really do matter. Do you think that having a cooking demonstration for students is fluff? Would you consider organizing a potluck dinner at a local park to be a waste of your teaching time? From what I saw this summer, I can tell you that those things truly matter. They matter to students because they're interesting and fun. But they also matter because students learn. They do! Giulia learned food vocabulary during the cooking demonstrations. She "experienced" the cultural importance of socializing with friends when she went to the coffee shop conversations. Understanding Ramadan by going to a potluck dinner at 8:00 p.m. at Crystal Lake Park was eye-opening. The program also set up a way for students to have language partners with IEI students, and Giulia really enjoyed the time she spent with her language partner. (And at home we all enjoyed the figs from Saudi Arabia that he gave her!) In fact, she's still meeting with him, even though the course is over. We don't do any of this in Spanish. We should.

8. Give quick feedback. Giulia waited anxiously for the moments when her grades were posted to Compass. And it never took too long. (Although of course, after students have spent a lot of energy studying or writing a paper, they would love instant feedback. That's not possible, of course.) This made me realize that I take too long. Again, I saw how encouraging this was to Giulia. And it truly wasn't about grade-grubbing or caring only about the grade. She put a lot of effort into studying (most of the time...), and just wanted to see the results.

Here are a few improvements I would suggest.

9. Look at every thing from the perspective of your student/client. I found the information on the web to be a little thin and a little confusing. Certainly, the website and flyers did not reflect the richness and high quality that Giulia experienced. In other words, I don't think the program sold itself as well as it could have through its informational and promotional materials. And I, as the parent who was paying, found the registration and payment process to be pretty opaque and confusing. I would have like a price clearly stated on the website. Instead, I had to go through several different steps and phone calls to work through everything. I know that is difficult for a program like this--other offices on campus handle registration and payment. Still, every program should do a "walk-through" of their entire process from the client's point of view. Don't let your potential students/clients give up because they can't find the information they want or the payment process is too complicated.

10. Stay in touch. Giulia's knowledge of Arabic went from zero to 100 in eight short weeks. Her interest in Arabic and the Arab-speaking world went through the same transformation. Now what? How can SILMW stay in touch with its students, provide them with interesting information, sustain their learning even after the class is over? This is important because Giulia will want to take the intermediate level in a future summer. The other students might do the same. But out of sight, out of mind. I have found that my Facebook Group for my students ("like it" if you want!) is a great way to stay in touch with students who might take another course with me, or even alums who might someday donate their time or money to my programs. During the summer, especially, I like to post music videos, fun pictures, comics, links to articles, all kinds of little things that keep Spanish on their minds.

So that's it. Ten things I learned about Spanish programs from my daughter's Arabic course. And I learned this because I had an insider's look at the student's experience. These ideas didn't come from sitting around the table at a faculty meeting. And they didn't come from a student survey. I'm not saying that surveys aren't important, but they don't always ask the "right" questions. And my daughter wouldn't have been able to articulate everything that I just stated above. I brought my experiences as a language educator and as a parent together and was rewarded with really important insights into how to enhance our students' engagement in our courses, increase their learning, and attract even more students.

And I'm certainly not advocating that we have "taco dinners" and pass around sombreros for our students to wear. We can do these things with intellectual rigor.

Congratulations to Ercan Balci and the Illinois Department of Linguistics for providing such a wonderful learning experience for Giulia--and for me!


  1. I am a graduate of the Spanish program at U of I and I suggest that the professors have more of a presence in the classroom. I believe you were my "professor" for a couple of classes I took, but this is the first I'm seeing of you. I like the contact with graduate students and native-speakers, but they are more concerned with their career than teaching Spanish. I could have learned a lot more from an actual Spanish professor.

  2. Thank you for your reply! It's good to get feedback directly from students and former students. Yes, it would be wonderful if that could happen. (Although I would say that many of our TAs give just as much or more to the students than professors.) The problem is funding! There are simply too few professors to be able to have them work directly with students in all SPAN classes. We have to balance the requirements for professors to research and publish in order to earn tenure with our mission of (and passion for!) teaching undergraduates. We are certainly open to suggestions from students! So please stay in touch.