Bring back the foreign language tutoring lab to help struggling students

My high school had a limited foreign language department, which is an unfortunate reality of many secondary schools across the country. Spanish and Italian were the only two languages offered, and the programs were superficial and surface level. After four years of Spanish under my belt, I graduated far from fluent, but looking forward to ample language options in college. When I got to GW, I enrolled in Basic French I. It was my first time ever speaking the language.

In my experience, the style of foreign language professors at GW is notably superior to that of high school teachers. Professors are commonly native speakers themselves, or have lived in a native country, which brings valuable, authentic experience into the classroom. But this wasn’t the case at my high school, where classes were geared more towards grammar and structure than conversational skills. Fortunately, in college classes, many professors use a communicative teaching method, placing emphasis on speaking and communicating the language you are learning.

Although my years of Spanish helped me in this new pursuit, French pronunciation is unique among other Romance languages, and I found myself struggling in my conversational skills.

Many colleges and universities have a similar language program to our former foreign language lab, further proving it’s time for us to bring it back.

In addition to the natural struggles of learning a new language, there is now an additional factor impeding students’ ability to learn languages at GW. The University stopped coordinating the foreign language tutoring program – known as the foreign language lab – last spring, according to an email this week from University spokesman Tim Pierce. Similar to the Writing Center in Gelman Library, the foreign language lab was a place where students could practice their skills or find hassle-free tutoring when necessary. This free space acted as an important supplement to the skills students developed in class. Ending this program was the wrong choice. To help students trying to learn a new language, the University should bring back the foreign language lab.

GW’s Language Center had supported the foreign language tutoring program since 2005. Last spring, however, three language departments started coordinating the foreign language tutoring themselves in place of the program. The new set up is vastly different. For a couple of hours a week, selected languages have designated extra help times with various tutors. Depending on how many students arrive for a session, there may not be adequate time for students to receive individualized help.

These tutoring sessions are run similarly to office hours, and it’s expected that students come with specific questions or concepts that they need help in, as opposed to casual practice of conversational skills. Additionally, the tutoring hours for some languages are hardly accessible to students due to their course schedules. French, for instance, meets between 12 and 1:30 p.m. on Mondays, and between 10 and 11:30 a.m. on Wednesdays. All tutoring sessions end before 6:15 p.m. There are no sessions, for any language, in the evening or weekends – when most students are available.

The service, although not entirely unhelpful, also fails to provide a casual atmosphere for students who wish to work on their conversational skills. At the former foreign language lab, students were able to make appointments at any time with more advanced speakers to either tutor or work on general speaking ability. This allowed students to find help that fit their particular needs and availability.

The tutoring program was shifted to the language departments after leadership in Columbian spoke with the three language departments, individually and as a group of chairs, to hear their views on the program, Pierce said in an email. Additionally though, tutoring positions in the lab were often filled by fellow students who were advanced or fluent in a particular language, and some tutors felt inadequately compensated for their time. According to a former employee of the center, students were reimbursed only with civic engagement hours, and some tutors quit in response. Soon, the Language Center was unable to admit the proper number of tutors to support the demand from students.

The best way for students to receive help learning foreign languages would be to reinstate the language lab immediately.

As a replacement for this program, the Language Center started the Language Exchange, a program in which students can be matched with individuals who wish to practice a foreign language with someone who is fluent. Ideally, the fluent individual will in turn learn about the native language of their partner. At surface level, the program sounds worthwhile, but unfortunately it presents a slew of issues. Finding partners who suit each other’s individual needs can be difficult, especially for speakers of more uncommon languages. Often times, students will wind up on waitlists until a partner can be found. There is no specified wait time accompanying these lists, nor is there a promise that a partner will ever be found. Furthermore, the Language Center is involved solely in the matching process. Afterwards, individuals are responsible for meeting and depending on the partner they’re matched with, which leaves the program up to chance and can – at times – be entirely unsuccessful.

Many colleges and universities have a similar language program to our former foreign language lab, further proving it’s time for us to bring it back. American University has the Center for Language Exploration, Acquisition and Research, which provides free language coaching for students, hosts cultural-events and has an ever-growing collection of language-related resources available to students. It’s open until 9 p.m. on weekdays and 5 p.m. on weekends — more reasonable hours for students than GW’s offer.

The best way for students to receive help learning foreign languages would be to reinstate the language lab immediately. Like any student employees on campus, the  tutors should be paid a fair hourly wage. If GW allocated sufficient funds to this program – the way they do for the Writing Center – the lab could be brought back so students can thrive in their selected languages.

Julia O’Connell, a freshman majoring in political science, is a Hatchet opinions writer.

Want to respond to this piece? Submit a letter to the editor.

The Hatchet has disabled comments on our website. Learn more.