Thursday, March 08, 2007

Life in Class and Out

The spring iteration of evening Czech class has commenced and is decidedly underway, not without its difficulties. This time, fortunately, I was not obliged to take a placement test while jet-lagged, because in the fall we had an end-of-class test which I had no problem passing. On the other hand, this time I did have to get paperwork from the school in order for my university to pay, which took awhile to take care of.
The class is, of course, a repetition of material I've already had. It would be a very fine thing if I could get all the case endings to stick in my head at last, along with various other beginner-level things that seem determined to trouble me the rest of my days. One does get tired of reading things for class that tell, yet again, about the lives of foreigners who come to Prague, or the lives of stereotypical Czech families. I read through these simple paragraphs in a flash and don't even notice that I don't know all the words, since as with most things, not knowing a word here and there is no bar to overall comprehension. (Of course, I am often expected to define one of these unfamiliar words, which is another matter. It means what all by itself?)
Our class spent the first week or so with one instructor, as our intended instructor was on vacation. For some reason this always seems to be the case, that Czech teachers have their vacations during some portion of a course. Or that it is simply deemed better to switch instructors halfway through to give everyone a change of pace. I've had classes with this instructor before, and have always been content with her.
The new instructor began last Tuesday, when I happened to be having a small adventure in Pardubice. This Tuesday, the majority of the few students who had come to class announced to me that they intended to ask for our first instructor back because they were already dissatisfied with the new one.
I had no major problem with the new instructor, but she does speak much more quickly and although I understand most of what she says, she makes much reference to grammatical terms that I don't really know very well in any language, plus she tends to throw questions very suddenly that have little or nothing to do with whatever last went through my head. She speaks clearly, but I would have trouble following her even in English because it requires paying such constant attention. Fielding rapid and unexpected verbal material has never been my strength.
Consequently, while I was willing to continue with her on the grounds that more practice listening is always desirable, I could certainly understand that students with less experience in Czech would not care to put up with this. I signed onto the letter.
Well, naturally our first teacher is not available. We are to continue with the one we've got; she is supposed to work on speaking more slowly and providing more explanations, and we are supposed to let her know if we have further problems.
In theory this is reasonable, but I am not optimistic about how it will work in practice. I don't think our instructor is bad, but she strikes me as one of those intense characters who is no more likely to manage to speak slowly than I am to amble along at a speed comfortable for my friends who limp. She is probably just fine with a class of Slavs, who understand a lot of Czech without trying and have the perfective and imperfective in their own languages. The whole thing will probably just make her nervous about her teaching and have no positive effect.
On the other hand, when I went out after class with the other students, I was quite impressed with their ability to speak Czech. The non-Slavs have much less experience with the language than I do, but outside the classroom (where none of us sound very advanced) they are able to carry on a perfectly good conversation with very little recourse to English or German. Their pronunciation is good and they plunge right in. We think we will probably go out every Tuesday after class.

Language classes, I think, are quite problematic once students have gone past a certain point, unless of course all the students in the class have been learning the same material all along. I'm convinced that it is very difficult to be a really good language teacher, because there are so many different factors to take into account for the different students.
I've also come to have strong opinions about the teaching of "less commonly taught languages" in the US. Granted that there is little funding or demand for most languages at a given school, but improvement is needed. When I studied French, we had class five days a week, homework every day, a language lab (not that I went to that), and one was supposed to do five quarters of this at the college level before taking a literature class. (I won't go into how I could have a year and a half of a good high school French class and four years of a bad high school German class and still test into the university's beginner level because the high school texts didn't really get as far as the past tense.) In any case, I had a good grounding in basic French, which has served me well.
My first Czech class was run on the same five-day-a-week principle and I learned a great deal. Unfortunately, second-year Czech was focused on reading Czech literature and met once or twice a week. That bore no relation to my needs at the time, which were purely to become a fluent speaker. I decided that it was pointless to spend a huge amount to struggle through literary texts, and promptly forgot most of what I had learned because I had so few chances to use it.
Unfortunately, this is what people are usually stuck with in learning a language like Czech. If we're lucky, we get one good year of the basics. After that, we either have to take literature classes that, while doubtless interesting, often have nothing to do with our reasons for learning the language--or we have to come up with funding to spend a lot of time in a place where the language is spoken. Pretty much only upper-division and graduate students are in a position to get funding to spend summers abroad, not other people who might have a serious interest. Furthermore, I don't think it makes much sense to take an intensive summer course without first having a year or more of less intense coursework. There's just too much to learn at the beginning.
All of this means that very few American students become fluent in Czech or Polish, and people are impressed that we can function at all in such languages after years of study, while plenty of Americans become fluent in Russian with barely a second thought. It's very annoying.
Could I work harder on perfecting my spoken Czech? Certainly. If I were striving to become a Czech teacher, I'd really have to. But while I'm pretty good at languages, my energy tends to go where it's most needed. It goes into being able to skim what can be hundreds of pages of text per day and notice what might be significant for my dissertation or is just plain interesting to me. It goes into being able to figure out decent translations of things I actually want to quote. I fear that this has little to do with such useful things as remembering when to say "tomu" or "tohoto" or how to talk about vacuum cleaners and ironing.

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