Why I Quit French (at Australian universities)

why_learn_a_language_42One of the bloggers I read recently pointed out the sad news that many foreign language programs are being cut in Australian universities, as Jeannie points out it seems we are far from entering ‘the Asian century’ which the Government wanted to introduce last year. In a nutshell the Australian Government wants more children to be literate in an Asian language (specifically Chinese Mandarin, Japanese, Indonesian and Hindi), you can read my thoughts about it here.

The reasons for these cuts to foreign language classes are numerous, from the more than $2 billion funding cut to universities to lack of enrolment. Jeannie brings up some good points but I’d like to add my perspective because I may have been part of the reason for language class cuts in Australian universities.

Simply – I quit.Most people who meet me now, know of me as a self-confessed French nerd. I read novels and watch films in French for my enjoyment, chat in French with friends and go to French clubs in Melbourne where most of the Australians think I’m French. I’m not perfectly fluent, but I can and enjoy speaking in French.

But it wasn’t always that way. I studied French in high school because I liked it, however I wasn’t always the best in my class. There was one point in Year 9 where I was really struggling to understand the grammar concepts, but I soldiered on and finished Year 12 (the equivalent of senior year) French. I finished my exams with decent, but not amazing scores (a B+ on my written exam, an A on my oral exam)

Then I decided to fill one of my Arts electives with French for my first semester at university, and then began the semester from hell.

I remember sitting down in my first lecture and the entire lecture was in French. I was gobsmacked.

I had gone from a Year 12 class where 75% of the class was taught in English, to a French lecturer who was communicating entirely in French. I looked behind me at the 90+ students who were in the room with me, wondering if the blank looks on their faces meant they were completely lost or just board.

I remember feeling really awkward about asking a question, or daring to say anything in English. So I said nothing. I don’t think I understood more than 50% of what he said and I noticed that every time a question was asked, he would explain in French and not English.

Things didn’t get better when I went to my tutorials, I was already nervous and I really struggled to keep up with an entire class in French. Everything from instructions to explanations for tests and exams was in French, nothing was translated for me to help me understand. I don’t know if everyone else was in the same boat, but I knew I felt too shy to ask a question or ask for a translation.

We got grammar sheets and assignments, we were going through topics in one week at uni where I remember spending over a month on the topic in high school. When we had an oral exam, there was no practice with the tutor or lecturer available. We had to record our oral on a CD and submit to an office. I submitted my first French oral exam having no idea whether my French was grammatically correct, or whether I was pronouncing the words correctly. I just had to guess and submit it with my fingers crossed.

When I heard from other students that they marked the oral ‘quite harshly’, I didn’t even bother picking up my assignment to look at the grade.

For the first time in my life, I felt I was going to fail a subject. Nerdy perhaps,but I was always academic and had never faced the possibility of really failing something before.

When results finally came out, I almost jumped for joy when I found I had just passed the course with 57%, but needless to say – I quit French as soon as Semester 2 came by.

There were so many reasons why I quit French at university level, but I’ll try to summarise them briefly:

– Classes were taught by academics and profesional translators, rather than teachers

– We moved through topics so quickly I could barely keep up. I hear at Monash if you start with Level 1 of any foreign language they try to teach you the entire high school course in one year. That means six years of education squeezed into two, 13 week semesters.

– There were over 90 people in my class at times and I never felt comfortable annoying everyone else in the lecture by trying to go over topics I didn’t understand

– I never got to practice speaking and my speaking skills quickly deteriorated, my oral exams were recorded on a fricken C.D and I never got to practice with a teacher

– We focused on filling in grammar sheets, rather than working on practical skills

– It wasn’t compulsory for me to do French for my degree, it was just an elective.

– I wasn’t progressing in French, I was getting worse.

I know a lot of people who felt this way, and I didn’t touch French for a whole year after that. Eventually I found myself missing the language, so I bought a term of private lessons and found that so much more effective than my university course.

If all foreign language programs in Australia are like the ones I did, then I’m not surprised students are turning away in droves.

Is this a general problem in Australian universities or all universities around the world? Maybe we need to first start on making the classes enjoyable and then we’ll see more foreign language programs opening again?

What do you think?

 

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3 thoughts on “Why I Quit French (at Australian universities)

  1. Exactly how a language should not be taught. Sad. Where I live (USA) it seems more modern techniques of immersion and active use of the language are being used. I’ve never done a grammar sheet, our class sizes are small, and oral participation is encouraged. If I had to learn the way you did, I think I would have bailed, too!

    • I know, and it’s amazing how much my French improved when I left that course. The university style of working is just not suited to language learning – lectures with over 100 people in them, spending only one week on a concept, no one on one practice. You’re just supposed to be an ‘autonomous learner’ because that’s apparently what university is about. I forgot to mention that when I got my assignments back, they would mark a word or sentence but not tell you what the correct answer was. So there would be a word circled and then an ‘O’ which stood for ‘orthagraphie’ telling you there was a spelling error for example, but the tutor didn’t write what the correct spelling was – can you believe that? They told us it was supposed to make us ‘independent learners’ what a load of bullshit, they were just probably over worked and had too many students and wanted to make their marking easier.

  2. Yikes, your uni experience sounds awful!!! We don’t do lecture classes for languages. I had 17 students at most in my class. Plus the Direct Method? Ugh, that is not supported by research!! I would have dropped French too if that had been my experience!

    I can definitely see why students don’t take language classes. High schoolers think they are hard and boring from their experience in the school system, so they have no intention of taking more courses at uni. And with no Aussie uni requiring a foreign language, nobody takes the classes seriously since they’re just electives. It’s quite sad.

    It’s unfair when unis don’t offer any languages though. Some students want to take classes and some teachers actually know what they’re doing to make learning fun and enjoyable – we play vocab games and eat chocolate in my class, just sayin! 😉

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