Language barrier between FE and university

26th March 2004 at 00:00
Lifelong learner Neil Merrick discovers a disturbing gap in the quality of language teaching between university and FE college lecturers

"Thank you for coming in on a Saturday morning," said the man in charge of the examination as we tentatively turned over our papers.

"The questions have been set by your tutors to find out how much you know," he continued, as if to reassure any doubters. "It should be a lot of fun."

A lot of fun? Who was he trying to kid? It was nearly 9.30 on a Saturday morning in January and I was in a university lecture theatre with about 60 students facing the prospect of 90 minutes sitting a Portuguese exam.

Looking around, it did not seem as if many of these students would need reassurance. Most were in their teens, or early twenties, and looked as if they did this sort of thing every day.

But for me, and a minority of students in the room, the picture was rather different. The last time I sat an exam, Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister and Ron Atkinson was manager of Manchester United.

I felt as if I was pushing at the boundaries of lifelong learning.

In truth, the exam was not too bad. I even finished 15 minutes early, although not as quickly as some of those studying other languages who left the room after less than 30 minutes. Was I taking the wrong language or were they?

Having spent three years studying first Spanish, and then refreshing my French, in different FE colleges, I opted for Portuguese at my local university to see if lifelong learning is any different in higher education. There was also the minor issue that it was not on offer elsewhere.

The first difference was the price - pound;144 for 24 two-hour classes spread across two semesters (roughly 50 per cent more than in a college).

Beyond that I expected the approach to be much the same.

I was wrong. For a start, three-quarters of students were aged under 25 - many of them undergraduates at the same university. This did not bother me, as younger learners generally approach languages with far greater confidence.

But it did make a huge difference to lessons. Our teacher was a Brazilian woman in her mid-fifties and therefore of a totally different generation to most of the class.

In spite of regularly laughing at her own jokes, she struggled to strike up a rapport with the students. The lessons were poorly structured and we leapt hopelessly from topic to topic.

Hours were spent turning the pages of a textbook and reading out tedious passages. There was little opportunity to speak in pairs or in groups, and even less attempt by the teacher to inject any excitement or originality into the lessons.

In short, the teacher was a poor advertisement for the university and for language learning in general. Most Thursdays I would leave at 9pm feeling bored and disillusioned although, as Portuguese is similar to Spanish, I kept up with the course better than others.

The pace was quite incredible. We had to move fast to satisfy the university's insatiable desire for assessment.

Whereas FE courses prefer to reward progression and achievement, higher education seems keen to preserve its precious standards by - if necessary - setting tests that seem designed to trip people up.

For example, I only found out after three weeks that there was a written exam at the end of each semester.

What's more there was a 30-minute oral test during one of the regular classes as well as two written assignments.

The teacher stressed that we must spend at least a further two hours a week studying alone, which is fair enough. But to get the best out of students a course must be stimulating at the point of delivery, or the hours spent studying at home are nothing but a chore.

I considered giving up at the end of the first semester but, as the second term started I was still there. The class had halved in size to eight, but most seemed determined to see the course through to its end in May.

As an adult, language learning in an FE college can be frustrating. But given a choice again, I would always opt for the more consumer-friendly approach to lifelong learning in further education, not to mention its vastly superior teachers.

Neil Merrick is a freelance journalist

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