posted 2011-02-09 13:30:49

Learning a Language Abroad: More Than Just a Bunch of Talk

Studying abroad has unique beefits, no matter where you go. (Photo: Ryan Parsons, University of Mississippi)
Studying abroad has unique benefits, no matter where you go. (Photo: Ryan Parsons, University of Mississippi)
Learning a Language Abroad: More Than Just a Bunch of Talk

Scott Klocksin

Staff Writer

This past winter intersession, I participated in Hunter's Spanish Language and Literature program in Mar del Plata, Argentina. Even more than the friends made and the sights seen, the lasting mark of my four weeks abroad serve as a catalyst and springboard toward my mastery of a foreign language.

And that's a problem.

It's a problem because, in my experience, courses offered on campus that satisfy Hunter's foreign language requirement have done remarkably little to awaken in me the desire to attain fluency in our country's second-most spoken language. In a city with over one million Spanish speakers, not once in three semesters of coursework was I given an assignment that required interaction with Spanish speakers. Not once.

While I was able to pick up many important fundamentals of the construction of the language from the coursework I did at Hunter, the net result of the experience may have actually done more harm than good. It made me hate learning the language even though something deep within me yearned to be able to have a casual conversation with the guy from whom I buy pizza five days a week on 70th and Lex, or to travel to Latin America and share something of my life with people and learn of their experiences, free from the suffocating cloak of a language barrier.

For four wonderful weeks, I began to see glimmers of what it will be like to be bilingual. The program was so transformative for me that I even have plans in the works to return to Argentina after graduation for a year to teach English and — the hope is — return home a fluent Spanish speaker.

It took studying abroad and using the language every day to make the process of learning it an invigorating and fulfilling one. We had no choice but to use our Spanish for everyday tasks, but more and more as the program progressed, many of us wanted to practice as much as we could and would go out of our way to talk with locals. The fact that we were given assignments that demanded interaction with native speakers spurred us toward wielding our Spanish even when we weren't academically compelled to. There is no reason this same kind of process cannot go on even in a city where the primary language is English.

Of course, not every Hunter student is able to study abroad — which is a problem in its own right. But our foreign language curriculum can be adjusted to favor a more participatory approach to teaching and learning, one that takes much fuller advantage of the veritable Tower of Babel that our five boroughs afford us. An approach like the one used in the courses I took this winter deemphasizes rote memorization and testing in favor of the living, breathing practice of a language. The architects of Hunter's core curriculum need to ask themselves whether they take seriously the task of actually training well-rounded and intellectually robust students or whether the foreign language requirement is, in the final analysis, just a bunch of talk.