University is not the place to learn a new language

If you want to learn French, university is not the place to do it. At least not here at Ryerson.

Canadian job seekers with an ability to speak French and English are evidently at an advantage. The problem is that Ryerson doesn’t have a language program equipped to underscore the value of being bilingual.

Each year, the introductory French course FRE 101 is littered with fluently bilingual students who pose as beginners in hopes of scoring an easy grade.

What enables them to do so is a feeble online placement test, simple enough for an amateur to fool. With a few basic inquiries like “Are you a ‘true’ beginner?” and “Are your parents native speakers of French?” paired with a handful of optional multiple-choice and composition questions, the test can easily be completed even with answers left blank.

For the beginners, it’s a decent exam. For French-speakers, it’s an easy opportunity to cheat the system.

The result is a split class with half the students being serious about learning and the other half determined to get an easy “A.” For a class that states in its description the importance of “a communicative approach” and for which “a substantial percentage of the mark depends on class participation,” it is destructive to have students of vastly different levels in one environment. The pace of the learning, the motivation to participate and the overall integrity of the class, for which students are dishing out over $500, are jeopardized by the influx of experienced students.

Language courses at Ryerson should require an entrance interview to challenge skill levels and identify intentions behind taking a given course. In-person interviews also have the potential to reveal ingrained fluencies that can be easily masked by online tests. By establishing a barrier for students to jump over, the students who make the effort to attend an interview will be those who hold a genuine interest in taking the course.

But the sad reality is that as long as the tuition is being paid, the university doesn’t seem to have any intention to change its method.

From an administrative perspective, it is easier to assess hundreds of students by means of an online exam rather than staffing a professor to conduct interviews in person. But with bilingualism being such an important aspect of post-graduate life, and with the cost of language instruction being so high (language textbooks average $100 at the Ryerson bookstore), the value of the class merits more than a two-page online survey.

It all boils down to the same conclusion: whether students are dumbing down their language skills in hopes of an easy grade, or they’re genuinely hoping to pursue an education in bilingual studies, at Ryerson, the introductory language courses are a waste of money.


This story was first published in The Ryersonian, a weekly newspaper produced by the Ryerson School of Journalism, on February 12, 2014.

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