Evaluating CNU’s foreign language curriculum

Memo

To: Jana Adamitis, Department chair of Modern and Classical Literatures and Languages

From: Molly C. Russo, student at Christopher Newport University

Subject: Elimination/ Substitution of Modern Language Courses in the foreign language major

Date: May 21, 2016

The purpose of this memo is to propose the elimination of some or all of the Modern Language Course required for a foreign language major. I propose that these classes should be substituted with upper level language courses, which would provide a deeper understanding of literature, history, and culture of each foreign language major at Christopher Newport University.

As part of the Modern and Classical Literature and Languages department at Christopher Newport University, students are required to take four Modern Language classes that are taught in English. Because much of the major consists of lower level language classes as well as the Modern Language classes taught in English; many of the foreign language major’s graduate lacking fluency and in-depth cultural knowledge.

By eliminating some or all of the Modern Language courses, students would be allowed to take upper level literature, history, and culture classes in their foreign language. This would make the foreign language both more rigorous, and more successful in producing students with a higher level of fluency and greater cultural confidence.

In order to best delineate how students feel about the Modern Language courses in relation to their major, I used a phenomenological approach to my qualitative research study. Through a shorter narrative study, I have been able to interview various individuals about there personal experiences in the program, creating comprehensive data.

Please fell free to email me at molly.russo.12@cnu.edu with any comments or concerns about my proposal.

Sincerely,

Molly Russo

Molly Russo

 

Abstract

 

“Elimination/ Substitution of Modern Language Courses in the foreign language major”

Prepared by: Molly Russo

Foreign Language student

English (B.A.), Spanish (B.A.), Masters of Arts and Teaching

Christopher Newport University

In May 2016, I conducted research on ways to improve the foreign language program at Christopher Newport University. I specifically targeted the Modern Language courses taught in English, and aimed to discover if foreign language majors believed they were helpful or hurtful for their development in their foreign language major. I conducted a phenomenological study in which I asked students five questions on the helpfulness of specific Modern Language courses, the fluency of program graduates, and courses they would like to see added to their major. An analysis of my data has proved that all foreign language majors that were interviewed believed that most of the Modern Language courses were not helpful. Furthermore, students explicitly expressed that more upper-level classes should be added in their stead in order to create a stronger curriculum. It should be noted that most other colleges and universities do not require Modern Language classes, and offer a wider selection of upper-level language courses. Although our university is small, with the elimination of some of the Modern Language courses (and possibly some of the lower-level language courses), we would have the proper recourses to implement such classes.

 Key words: modern language, foreign language, students, CNU, elimination

Introduction

In order to graduate with a foreign major at Christopher Newport University, students must take four Modern Language courses taught in English. These courses include: the novel in translation (205), texts in context (310), intercultural communication (308), and a senior capstone (490). These courses are designed to cover literature, history, and culture all in a theoretical manner. It is believed that students should be able to have a firm grasp on such topics before they are made to interact with them in a foreign language. However, it is my belief that students are given such a background in the lower-level language courses, that the Modern Language courses are rendered obsolete.

With the elimination of some or all of the Modern Language courses, students would be able to develop further in their language skills, and ultimately perform the goals set in their Modern Language courses in their foreign language.

 

Based on my research, all of the foreign language majors I interviewed felt that many of the Modern Language courses were not applicable to their majors. Many shared the belief that the courses are structured more like an English literature seminar.

Students from another college (William and Mary) were also interviewed on the structure of their foreign language programs. Their “Spanish” major is actually know as a Hispanic Studies major. This is because they are required to take only classes

Theory

This qualitative research study was conducted using a phenomenological approach. For this, I interviewed three individuals from CNU on their thoughts on Modern Language courses, and the foreign language curriculum as a whole. Also, I interviewed a William and Mary student, in order to see what the foreign language program is like at another school. The interview questions targeted the student’s feelings on the program and if/how they would make changes to curriculum. This study was successful, because it allowed for more detailed dialogue on a personal level. By having the questions open-ended, students were able to draw their own conclusions on changes they would like to see. The fact that many of the answers used similar words, sentiments, and drew similar conclusions made the conclusions both clear and strong.

 

Research Methods

 

  1. I interviewed four foreign language majors at CNU, using the same five questions to prompt dialogue. With this small phenomenological study, I was able to get in-depth responses from each student. To view the interview questions, please consult the Appendix.
  2.  After conducting the interviews, I also interviewed a foreign language student from the college of William and Mary. This allowed a comparison between the William and Mary curriculum and the CNU curriculum.

 Findings

I focused my finding on a group of themes that were present in each of the interviews I did with CNU students.

  1. The MLAN classes function more as a literature course or a culture course, and are not helpful to the foreign language major.

Nearly all the students interviewed asserted that MLAN 302 and 310 were very similar and were structured more as literature classes rather than foreign language classes. Many students noted that they enjoyed these classes, however they do not believe they are useful to the development of their foreign language major. One student stated: “I think that they are helpful in being culturally aware, but I do not think they are helpful to any specific foreign language major.” This shows that to students, these classes do not connect to their major, or their advancement in their foreign language. Another student shared:”To me, most of the modern language classes I have taken were structured more like an English literature class [with the exception of Intercultural Communication]. Because of this, students are not actually advancing their foreign language skills, but instead their English reading, writing, and analyzing skills. It should be assumed that college students already posses these skills, and therefore they should be immersed in the language in all of their foreign language classes.” The Modern Language courses are in place to help students develop writing, analyzing, and culture skills to then utilize back in the foreign language classroom. However, this powerful statement describes the ineffectiveness of these classes. The university should set it standards high for their students, and allow them to take upper-level language courses that are structured like the Modern Language courses. This would dually enhance the students’ writing, analyzing, and culture skills while at the same time improving in their fluency.

  1. Lack of difficult classes in the foreign language

The difficulty level of both the lower-level foreign language courses and the Modern Language courses was a concern to many of the students interviewed. One Spanish student stated: “Beginner/Intermediate Spanish classes are a joke.  The only language classes that pushed me were LIT with Rocio and Translation with Miller.  I learned so much more in MLAN classes and picked up most language understanding and development abroad in Spain.  That combination really was the best scenario for learning.” This shows that the most helpful courses are the upper-level language courses. Unfortunately, there are not many, because the curriculum is watered-down with lower-level language courses and Modern Language courses. Anther student asserted: “If these Modern Language courses were substituted for upper level language classes, students would achieve a deeper understanding of the culture, history, and literature through their foreign language. These type of classes are extremely helpful and interesting; however there are not nearly enough of them built into the program.”

  1. Usefulness of the MLAN 308 course

All students that were interviewed said that MLAN 308 (intercultural communication) was a helpful course. One student said that it helps in “becoming more culturally aware.” Another student said: “308 was more relevant to my major, because most of us hope to get jobs where we interact with people from different cultures. “ This information helped me to conclude that MLAN 308 is a helpful class to the foreign language major, and should not be eliminated from the curriculum.

  1. The lack of fluency in students upon graduation

The lack of fluency seemed to be a concern for many of the students interviewed. One student said: “Most of the seniors I know had no business being foreign language majors.  They struggled with grammar and could barely express themselves without flashcards that had word for word google translations.  It was not completely their fault, they went from talking about dogs, cats, colors, and the weather to jumping head first into metaphysics, communism, and social justice in literature courses and other higher level courses. “ This statement was really eye-opening, showing that many of CNU’s foreign language graduates may not have been able to graduate with a foreign language major at a school with a tougher curriculum. While I don’t think CNU’s foreign language program should weed out students that are not as naturally gifted at the language, it should equip them with the proper skill set to succeed at using the language.

  1. The helpfulness of study abroad

All the students interviewed that had studied abroad said it was integral to their development in their foreign language. One student said: “It should be a requirement as a foreign language major to study abroad. I truly believe there is almost no other way to become fluent without such an experience combined with more rigorous classes at CNU.” This shows that more emphasis should be placed on studying abroad by the Modern Languages department. Each semester, professors should be required to have a student come in and talk about their study abroad experience and how it helped them in their language development.

I also interviewed a William and Mary student to discuss their curriculum so it could be compared to our curriculum at CNU. There are two aspects that especially stood apart from the CNU curriculum.

  1. Major name

One important aspect of William and Mary’s foreign language programs are their names. For example their “Spanish” major is instead labeled a “Hispanic Studies” major. This is because most of the required classes are not language courses, but instead they are learning culture, history, and literature through the language. One the William and Mary Hispanic Studies curriculum website, it states: “The Hispanic Studies curriculum includes studies of Spanish, Latin American and U.S. Latino/a cultural production. Through the study of cultural products (e.g., literature, film, art, popular culture and journalism) students learn about significant political and historical events and engage complex, socio-cultural issues.” This type of emphasis gives students a wide range of upper-level language requirements while learning about culturally important.

  1. Field experience

William and Mary foreign language majors are required to complete a practicum in the community. According to one student “this type of field experience really helps students gain the confidence and fluency in the language. This has been more helpful for me than many of the classes I have taken.” Through this testimony, it is clear that such field experience is very helpful for expansion in both fluency and course application. Therefore, i conclude that CNU should have a practicum requirement.

Conclusions:

  1. MLAN 302 and 310 should be eliminated from the foreign language curriculum, and replaced with higher-level culture, literature, and history courses.
  2. Foreign language professors should emphasize studying abroad more.
  3. Foreign language majors should have a practicum requirement.

 

 

Appendix

Questions for CNU students

  1. Generally, do you think the Modern Language classes are helpful to your foreign language development? Why or why not?

student 1: Yes, they provide a cultural context to the way the Western world thinks and makes students more aware of their cultural surroundings. However, if these classes were taught in the foreign language they would be much more helpful.

student 2: Overall, I do not think the Modern Language classes are helpful to my foreign language development. I think that they are helpful in being culturally aware, but I do not think they are helpful to any specific foreign language major.

student 3: Not really, I think that the Intercultural Communication course was really helpful, but

 

  1. Specifically, which classes do you believe are helpful, and which classes are not?

student 1: I think that MLAN 308 was helpful, I don’t think MLAN 310 was helpful – MLAN 308 is a culture class which helps us to be culturally aware, but MLAN 310 was more of a literature class.

student 2: MLAN 308 was helpful and capstone MLAN.  MLAN 204 was exactly like MLAN 308/310 but 10 times easier.

student 3: 308 was more relevant to my major, because most of us hope to get jobs where we interact with people from different cultures. However 205 and 310 have not been helpful to my foreign language development.

  1. Do you believe your fluency, culture knowledge, written expression and/or literary understanding in your foreign language would be improved with additional language classes instead of the required Modern Language courses?

student 1: Yes, I do believe these aspects would be improved by taking additional language classes rather than the required MLAN classes, with the exception of 308.

student 2: Cultural understanding is most likely to be improved in MLAN due to the combination of French, German, Spanish students sharing different shared experiences and theories that expand across all of Western languages.

student 3: If these Modern Language courses were substituted for upper level language classes, students would achieve a deeper understanding of the culture, history, and literature through their foreign language. These type of classes are extremely helpful and interesting; however there are not nearly enough of them built into the program.

  1. Which type of classes do you believe are the most pertinent to your development in your major? Specifically what types of classes would you like to see more of?

student 1: I think classes that are about the history and culture of one’s specific foreign language major would be helpful.

student 2: Beginner/Intermediate Spanish classes are a joke.  The only language classes that pushed me were LIT with Rocio and Translation with Miller.  I learned so much more in MLAN classes and picked up most language understanding and development abroad in Spain.  That combination really was the best scenario for learning.

student 3: To me, most of the modern language classes I have taken were structured more like an English literature class [with the exception of Intercultural Communication]. Because of this, students are not actually advancing their foreign language skills, but instead their English reading, writing, and analyzing skills. It should be assumed that college students already posses these skills, and therefore they should be immersed in the language in all of their foreign language classes.

 

  1.  Do you believe that students are graduating with a sufficient level of language fluency? Why or why not?

student 1: Absolutely not.  Most of the seniors I know had no business being Spanish majors.  They struggled with grammar and could barely express themselves without flashcards that had word for word google translations.  It was not completely their fault, they went from talking about dogs, cats, colors, and the weather to jumping head first into metaphysics, communism, and social justice in SPAN LIT and other higher level courses.  it should be a requirement as a Spanish major to study abroad. I truly believe there is almost no other way to become fluent or at least partially without such an experience.

student 2: I believe that students who push themselves to take above the 200 level language courses are graduating with a sufficient level of language fluency – 200 level and below are more about vocabulary and grammar, which are helpful, but do not prepare you to go to that specific country and have an intelligent conversation with the natives.

student 3: Unfortunately, because the lack of upper-level courses, I believe that some students are not graduating with a sufficient level of fluency

Questions for William and Mary student:

  1. 1. How many lower level language classes do you have to take for the foreign language major?

student 1:  Really only the Intro to Hispanic studies (half in English, half in Spanish). This class provides us with the cultural context of the program as well as introduces us to upper-level Spanish seminar conversation.

  1. Which classes have helped you the most?

student 1: Definitely the practicum course which requires us to get community service experience while using our Spanish language skills. I volunteered teaching Spanish adults English. This type of field experience really helps students confidence and experience in the Spanish language

 

 

 

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