Four units or five?

I teach elementary Italian at two community colleges in two different districts. In district A the course is worth five units and the semester is compressed into 15 weeks. That class therefore meets for two hours and fifteen minutes two times a week. In district B the course is worth only four units and meets for one hour and fifty minutes twice a week over an 18 week period. The students and I can make so much more progress in the course in district A. Those additional 25 minutes per class are key. Why? Because building a language from the ground up takes lots of in-class time. Our non-language faculty, administrators and boards seem sometimes not to understand or appreciate the fact that language courses are performance courses. Students have to understand the material, learn the material, practice the material and internalize the material to be able to perform the task of speaking creatively, by which I mean say what they want to communicate, not merely repeat sentences they’ve memorized. Learning a language is not accomplished by merely memorizing some vocabulary and a few key sentences. That will not result in knowing the language. Students have to have ample in-class time to internalize, communicate and be creative, i.e., be able to compose original sentences within the framework of what they’ve learned in class. For the great majority of students, learning to do this is not going to happen outside of class. Solo work on a website, as far as I can tell, does not contribute much to student creativity. That is why a 4-unit class shortchanges the students. Teachers and students are expected to do more these days without being given more in-class time. Everyone should keep in mind the evolution of language teaching/learning over the last 50 years: In the 70’s we taught grammar with just enough vocabulary to illustrate the grammar, the students took notes, repeated, spoke to us once in a while (never to one another), went home and did their homework, then took the exams and finally the final. In the 80’s, in addition to all of the above, we were expected to flood the students with passive vocabulary and also give them time to do independent dyad or group activities in class. In the 2000’s we were told to add a lot of culture to that already rushed scenario. In order to attempt to accomplish all this in the same time frame, something had to give. I hear some instructorsare currently trying to teach the grammar and vocab using culture as a medium. Or maybe they teach culture, and the grammar and vocab are there to facilitate the learning of the culture. I’d have to experience such classes for myself to know what really goes on, how effective it is and if the students would be able to speak the language if their class time were spent in this manner. Because students’ being able to speak the language creatively must remain our ultimate goal. What’s more, to enable students to use the language for communication here and now, time must be spent on the vocabulary of daily life, i.e., the things we have and do and want and think, etc. That’s what students are most likely to talk about in the language outside of class. I’m not going to get that to happen by presenting units on Italian opera and the Renaissance, glorious as they are! Tracy Terrell once told me, “Students will be able to do outside of class what they do during class time.” Accordingly, to my mind it is obvious that all elementary language classes need to meet at least five hours a week and concentrate on communicating using the vocabulary of everyday life to for the ability to speak the language creatively to occur. Please let us know what your thoughts on this weighty matter are.

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