Saturday, October 3, 2009

Literature and the Spanish Major

If you are or were a Spanish major, most of your advanced classes were probably in literature.  This is almost always the focus of this degree program as it is with other foreign languages.  It's not unusual for non-native students to express their frustrations about the difficulty of these courses.  They can be more specialized or very broad such as a two semester suvey course covering the history of Spanish literature. There are several problems in such classes for the non-native student who has not yet achieved full fluency in the language.  To start, there is the very high level of literary language he faces when reading and the expectation on the part of the professor that he will be able to discuss it despite his limited vocabulary in speaking and writing.  Most of the words are low-frequency and therefore unfamiliar and the learner must look up many of them just to get the main idea. What's more, because there are so many new words, he cannot use contextual clues since that strategy depends on knowing a greater percentage of the vocabulary in the text.  Constant use of the dictionary slows him down and then time constraints add to the problem. One kind of solution that some departments have begun to incorporate into their programs is a 'bridge' course that will help the intermediate student improve reading skills and introduce him to literature as a way to ease the transition to the upper level classes that focus on literature and culture. This may help solve the problem of the gap in linguistic skill, as it applies to academic uses, between the beginning and advanced classes in university, particularly for someone starting their language major in college, but it ignores the fact that because literature is by and large the focus of language degree programs, there is really no significant effort made to develop the learner's professional communication skills for use in the real world after graduation.  It pushes aside the importance of the language for other purposes. Literature professors are just that, experts in literature and want to teach their speciality and no doubt as native speakers feel that this is the only justifiable area of study for anyone getting a degree in the language, especially a non-native.  That's OK.  Let's just be up front about it and call it was it is- a B.A. in Spanish Literature (not just Spanish).  The name is misleading to students and the public at large who expect  at least functional fluency for a variety of situations beyond social conversation.  Whereas there are bound to be students who major in a language because of their love of literature, this may just be wishful thinking on the part of the department.  Most students, even if they don't mind the challenge of literature, hope to use the language in some way in their future work.  Yes, courses such as Spanish for Business or Spanish for Medical Professionals are becoming more commonplace but they were meant for students majoring in those fields who want to learn or improve in the language so as to be an additional skill, a tool for communication.  Even though the level of language may not go above the intermediate level, the important thing is that they are introduced to vocabulary to talk about things other than literature or linguistics, if even that is achieved after four years.  Being able to read business contracts or import/export documents, describe cultural concepts from our own country, discuss insurance policy options with a new client, giving a business presentation or defending or critizing our country's foreign policy are examples of higher level language use that require a broader and sometimes more precise vocabulary than what is usually taught in an undergraduate program. Reading and being able to discuss el Quixote or the stories of Borges do not translate to competency in other types of communication.  Personally, I don't have a problem with literature per se.  But it's place at the center of the curriculum is at odds with the overall goals and expectations of many students who have other plans for using the language. Native speakers who major in English or Spanish in the U.S. for example, are truly specializing in literature and are aware of this.  In the case of English, if the student is interested only in language, there is Linguistics or a Communication major.  When Spanish is seen as a second language instead of a foreign language, then a degree with a name like Spanish Communcation will become available and bring more students to both the advanced study of the language and its literature.
I have been through all of this myself.  When I finished my B.A. I had strong conversational skills and I had done research on Unamuno (Spanish literary figure) and was familiar with the great works and writers of Spain and Latin America.  I was very adept at circumlocution but I couldn't have described a car problem or accident to someone or have been able to handle calls at a call center (because of the speed and taking down numbers and unfamiliar names spoken fast).  This was frustrating because I had hoped to be able to do these things if I chose to  with my degree in hand.  At those moments I began to question the validity of this piece of paper I got for my college work. Just what does it it meant to have a degree in a foreign language?


  1. Nice ending and all of what you said is so true!

    'Just what does it it meant to have a degree in a foreign language?'

    Currently, just what you said, to have a degree in a foreign language means that you can interpret literature of another language well (perhaps without actually being able to communicate in that language.)

    What should it be? Well, I believe it should cover a wide scope of topics such as conversation, medicine, law, etc. This is the best way to be become accustomed to a language. It's about utilizing that which you've learned in a college in the real world. I mean it's great that someone can tell me about Don Quixote, but I'd me much more impressed if someone could tell me what medical problem someone has or describe an accident that took place. This is the area that should be focused on. Literature, per se, is not bad, but when it becomes the central objective, that's when it becomes a problem . . .

    --André L.

  2. I would like to share a little secret I have. I do not like Spanish literature. I loathe it. I'll explain why;

    From 2nd to 8th grade, I went to English speaking schools. All courses except for "Spanish for Natives" were in English so I developed a pretty good vocabulary base in English but not in Spanish. My English reading was probably above average by native speaker standards, however my Spanish was lagging behind because of a lack of literature and exposure to it in class. When I went to a Spanish speaking school in 9th grade, my Spanish professor didn't miss a beat. We had to read classic and hard-to-read texts that had me reeling. "El Lazarillo de Torme" and "El Mío Cid" were assigned and I was getting incredibly frustrated.

    I barely passed my high school Spanish classes with a C-. And thanks to these unpleasant affairs, I have developed some ill-feelings towards Spanish literature, and most of any literature for that matter. I still enjoy some English literature, and that is because I was able to gain confidence by gradually introducing more difficult texts. If I could somehow develop confidence in Spanish literature, it might help mend the shattered relationship I have with it, but so far, I don't know what to do.

    I totally agree with the concept of a bridge course between the language and literature courses. My personal suggestion would be starting with modern texts and reverting to more classic works. Most modern literature uses modern terms and expressions, plus writing styles of authors like Hemingway and Albert Camus tend to be much more simplistic and precise. This would help the student get comfortable with literature without feeling intimidated by too many unknown words.

    I have a feeling that most literature courses operate in the exact opposite way, and this is definitely to the detriment of the student. My Spanish classes featured the hard-to-read Spaniard literature and then finished with the more modern and lighter PR literature. This is retarded to say the least. No wonder I detest Spanish literature...

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