ARCHIVED - 5. What Works . . . and What Would Work Better?

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Second-language learning at the university level in Canada has been the subject of less study and evaluation than second-language learning at the elementary and secondary levels. Nevertheless, there is a strong consensus among participants in the focus groups and key-informant interviews on what is important and effective in second-language learning, and what could be done to improve current university programs.

5.1 Students were clear about what they like in current programs and what they would like to see

There were important common threads in what students identified as effective in their experience in second-language programs.

Most students emphasized that what matters most in the classroom is the professor. The smaller class size of many second-language courses was also seen as being of great value, allowing more opportunities for interaction with the professor and fellow students.

"You canít separate learning a language from learning about the culture associated with it . . . Thatís what gives language learning meaning and reality."

"Iím looking for more than linguistics and literature."

"Iíd love to take a second-language course in my area of academic study, say business or engineering . . . Lots of kids would do that!"

Student focus-group participants

As noted earlier, many students emphasized the importance of content in second-language learning. By this students meant both cultural content and also more subject-matter content, linked to their academic and career interests. This is seen as making second-language learning more relevant, interesting and challenging. Students also expressed the desire to take courses in other academic subjects that were taught in their second language. They found the combination of second-language acquisition and subject-matter content learning was a "win-win" situation.

Students spoke as well of the importance of learning supports and assistance, such as tutors, monitors, writing assistance and social and cultural activities.

Students were somewhat divided on other aspects of their language-learning experience. In terms of supports and assistance, some liked having the option to submit papers and take exams in either language; others felt this undermined the objective of the language-learning experience. Some felt that being given pass/fail grades was beneficial, removing concerns about grades that might discourage some students, for example, from taking a program or course taught in the second language; others disagreed, feeling it was important to have grades for all subjects and to demonstrate that they had taken a more challenging approach to their university education and still succeeded.

5.2 Language-learning experts identified several key success factors

Language-learning experts emphasized that content-based learning has been proven to be very effective. Studying academic subject matter in the second language can lead to better results in the acquisition and development of second-language skills.

"We know that second-language acquisition is enhanced if students are learning other subjects while learning the language. This makes it more challenging and interesting for students, and can be very motivating."

Language-learning expert

Language experts also noted that a range of learning supports for students should be available, varying according to institutional and individual circumstances. Such supports could include the following:

  • early assessment, placement and streaming; 
  • a sheltered learning environment, particularly in the early years, for example, having a language teacher accompany students to class; 
  • supplementary language classes linked to course content; 
  • tutoring and assistance with writing, grammar and oral expression; and
  • preparatory or intensive language learning at the outset of the school year or in the summer.

Other important success factors were identified by language experts:

  • Second-language learning opportunities must be provided in favourable conditions, that is, they must respect the parameters and timetable for studentsí academic programs and not require excessive additional commitment of money, time or effort, if students are to be motivated to pursue second-language study.
  • Opportunities should be offered early in studentsí university experience, as students may lose both language competency and motivation by later years.
  • Recognition and credentials (degree, joint degree, certificate) are critical motivating factors for students.
  • A physical place to provide easy access to resources and opportunities for use of the second language can be very valuable.
  • The pedagogy of language teaching and learning is important; it is necessary but not sufficient for a professor to have proficiency in the second language.
  • Professors teaching an academic course in the second language are being asked to do a dual job (course content and language learning), and may also need some supports (for example, adjunct language teacher in the classroom).

5.3 Professors, administrators and government representatives identified important issues for the organization and delivery of second-language programs

Financial and funding issues were identified as critical. Additional resources are necessary to develop and successfully deliver effective programs.

Again and again, the point was made that leadership and commitment must come from the top and are absolutely essential. Universities must demonstrate that they value second-language learning, and recognize and promote it starting at the highest levels.

Coordination and logistics are seen as crucial, and require time and effort. This includes planning and organizing programs and initiatives, negotiating with other institutions and with other faculties within an institution and marketing.

Some spoke of the importance of second-language entrance and exit requirements. These send a signal about the importance of language learning and can have an impact on studentsí decisions.

Successful programs must also be built from the bottom up through community involvement. Consulting parents and involving school officials and teachers, community organizations and others is critical to identifying issues, needs and ways to respond to them in order to make for better programs and build support.

"The university, at the highest levels, has to communicate that it values this and sees it as important. It has to be seen as part of the mandate and mission of the institution."

"Someone has to take ownership and make sure it gets done."

"You canít just list something in a course calendar and Ďthrow it out there.í You have to identify and know the student clientele, you have to plan and organize, you have to set up the supports, you have to do the marketing and promotion . . ."

Participants, key-informant interviews

5.4 All agreed on the importance of real-life opportunities to use the second language and interact with persons from the other language group

Students, professors, government officials and second-language learning experts all underscored the critical importance and value of real-life opportunities to use the second language, through interaction with persons from the other language group, social and cultural activities, exchanges and opportunities to study, live and work in the second-language milieu.

Many identified this as the most important factor in determining the success of the second-language learning experience. True proficiency in another language can only come if classroom learning is combined with out-of-classroom experience and interaction with people who speak that language.

"If there is one single thing that would be most effective at the elementary and secondary levelsóand by extension at the university levelóit would be to do more to send these students on exchanges . . . This makes the second language real for them. It motivates them. And they can learn much more, relatively, within a short space of time by using the language with native-speakers . . . Exchanges are where itís at . . . The results can be amazing!"

Second-language learning expert

"Maybe we have to face up to the inevitable . . . that we can never really master our second language unless we live, study and work in that linguistic milieu."

"You have to live and study or work in a real second-language environment. . . You have to really grab the language and learn to speak it by using it. Itís not like studying history."

Student focus-group participants

Language-learning experts refer to learning through opportunities for interaction with people who speak the other language as authentic communications, or naturalistic learning. They emphasize that both formal instruction and informal learning are essential.6

Notes

6 See, for example, www.olbi.uottawa.ca/symposium09.htmlExternal site



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