UT’s introductory Spanish classes should focus more on speaking

Mayowa Grace Oyenubi

Most students at UT-Austin must take foreign-language classes. Many UT students enroll in Spanish courses to fulfil this requirement. However, UT’s Spanish program leaves its students ill-equipped to speak the language it teaches. If the Department of Spanish and Portuguese intends to prepare students for language proficiency, it needs to add more speaking practice to its lower-division classes.

Foreign-language programs that focus too much on teaching grammar concepts rather than developing speaking ability are common. This method does not adequately prepare students to speak a new language. Experts find that encouraging students to speak more in these classes increases proficiency of communication skills.

At UT-Austin, non-foreign-language majors usually don’t have to obtain more than intermediate proficiency in a foreign language class. If a student chooses Spanish to fulfill their foreign language requirements, they typically complete the courses SPN 601D and SPN 610D for beginning-level proficiency or SPN 601D, SPN 610D and SPN 611D for intermediate proficiency. In the syllabi for all three of these classes, oral assignments constitute roughly 15 percent of the total coursework.

Melissa Murphy, senior lecturer and language program director for the Department of Spanish and Portuguese, wrote in an email that every instructor receives pedagogical training on how to teach components of language acquisition well, including speaking.

However, advertising junior Casey Paxman states that professors who simply follow the designated coursework on the syllabus “will not adequately prepare students to speak Spanish.” Paxman mentions that the syllabus provides a few opportunities to assess speaking, but it’s up to the professor to incorporate more daily speaking practice into the classes. Professors who don’t incorporate more speaking into their classes don’t adequately develop their students’ proficiency.  

Students need more opportunities than those provided in the syllabus to engage in conversation-based learning. The syllabus’s standardized requirements are insufficient for achieving the speaking proficiency students need.

The Department of Spanish and Portuguese does have some courses that are more structurally oral and conversation focused: SPN 318 and SPN 319. However, Murphy wrote that “(SPN) 319 hasn’t been taught in many years and (SPN) 318 is offered occasionally.”  

Murphy further notes that SPN 318 incorporates oral components such as “daily in-class group discussions, oral exams and presentations,” and some writing components as well. But since it is only taught occasionally, it’s not a stable option for students.

Intermediate proficiency — completion of SPN 611D — is a prerequisite for SPN 318. Even if students happen upon this class in a semester when it is being offered, it’s unlikely that students will enroll in this class because it lies beyond the proficiency requirements for non-Spanish majors. As a result, non-Spanish majors would have to take a class outside the requirements of their degree plan and pay more tuition to get a language education that focuses more on speaking.

This is a disservice to students, as many nonmajors in these introductory Spanish classes will go into fields that require speaking ability — not reading or writing. It makes sense to incorporate sufficient speaking components in the structure of classes required for beginning and intermediate proficiency.

In order for the Department of Spanish and Portuguese to provide nonmajor students with an adequate foreign language education, it must incorporate more oral components in its introductory classes. If you want to teach someone how to speak Spanish, teach them how to speak Spanish.

Oyenubi is a Social Work junior from Temple. Follow her on Twitter @mazing__G.