“You always speak Spanish in class,” a student said to me in an accusatory tone. “Jessica [the instructor who substituted for me while I was on medical leave] never spoke Spanish. And she didn’t ask us to speak Spanish.”

What I wanted to respond was, “Ah, Jessica really gave you your money’s worth in this course. It makes total sense to pay for a course in Spanish where no Spanish is ever spoken. So sorry for doing something as ridiculous as actually speaking the language you are trying to learn.”

But that would not be collegial.

Military Students

I really like students who were in the military. They are very polite, courteous, and respond well to authority. All I hear from them is, “Yes, ma’am.  Will do, ma’am. I’m on it, ma’am.”

I always get tempted to tell them, “Now drop down and give me 20 verb conjugations in the present perfect!”

Oral Exams

This post will bore most of my readers but maybe those who teach languages will find this useful.

One activity that is often used in language courses that I hate and never conduct is an oral presentation. I see no point in having students prepare a dialogue in English, translate it in Google Translate, and read it aloud (or memorize it and recite it) in front of the classroom. For one, students only get to speak for 5 minutes at most and then have to sit there looking bored while other people deliver their pre-fab presentations. Also, this format doesn’t replicate any real situation they are likely to encounter while interacting with native speakers.

So instead, I created oral exams. This is what my oral exams are like: I prepare activities based on all of the vocabulary and grammar we covered throughout the semester. Let’s say we covered job interviews, the airport, the doctor’s office, and giving advice to a friend who has problems in his personal life.

At the beginning of the exam, students are split into pairs and receive the first activity.

1. You are interviewing for a job. Make sure you talk about your work experience (using past tenses) and plans for the future (future tenses.) If you use one word in English, your grade drops to a B, two words in English, the grade drops to a C, four words and you can go home because you have failed the exam.

2. When 15 minutes are up, students move to a new partner and get a new activity. You are at the airport and are talking to a customs officer.

3. 15 minutes later, you get a new partner and a new topic, etc.

In the meanwhile, I run around the classroom, approaching every group, listening, and taking notes. I also interrupt students with unexpected questions because 10% of the grade goes to knowing how to react to unexpected situations.

For the first 30 minutes or so, students suffer hellish torture. They pout, grunt, wave their hands, moan, and send me hateful glances.

By the end of the activity, however, every single student begins to speak. When I tell them the exam is over, it’s impossible to make them stop speaking.

Students think that the purpose of the activity is to grade them but, in reality, this is simply a method to force them to speak, break the mental barrier that makes them believe that they are not ready to speak the language.

Of course, this is harder if we are talking about Beginners’ Spanish, but I did this exam in my Spanish 101 course yesterday and it worked. The students’ suffering was intense but so was their joy at the end of the activity. One student actually cried at the beginning. At the end, though, she was hooting with laughter.

In every group, there is at least a couple of refuseniks, that is, people who are profoundly opposed to saying a single word in Spanish. They react with self-righteous indignation to any suggestion that it is impossible to learn Spanish by speaking about Spanish in English. The oral exam breaks through their resistance. There is nobody there to listen to their explanations of why they should not be using Spanish. The partners they get assigned pressure them into speaking because they know they will let down their partners if they just sit there in a sulky silence.

This is one of the most productive activities I have ever designed.

Juan Cole’s Utopia

God, why are people stupid and why don’t these stupid people at least try to get educated? See the following, for example:

With robot labor, cheap wind and solar power, and a shrinking global population, post-2050 human beings could have universally high standards of living. They could put their energies into software creation, biotech, and artistic creativity, which are all sustainable. The stipend generated by robot labor would be a basic income for everyone, but they’d all be free to see if they could generate further income from entrepreneurship or creativity. And that everyone had a basic level of income would ensure that there were buyers for the extra goods or services. This future will depend on something like robot communalism, and an abandonment of racism, so that all members of the commune are equal and integrated into new, sustainable urban spaces.

The idiot who wrote this and who is actually a college professor seems completely unaware that the system he envisions as a utopia did exist. In the USSR, everybody – and I mean 100% of population – was given a basic income by the government that covered the basic necessities and that did not require anybody to work to gain it. Shockingly, the racism in that society remained horrifying. The standards of living were abysmally poor. People were so impacted by the knowledge that they didn’t need to work to cover their basic needs that even now, 20+ years after that system fell apart, they still can’t find in themselves any interest in creativity and entrepreneurship. All everybody wants is to get money for free and do nothing.

It’s been done, it didn’t work, let’s move on already. What needs to happen to convince people once and  for all that the Soviet way doesn’t work? A day doesn’t pass when I don’t see at least one post on how great it would be to give everybody a basic stipend. I always hope that the authors of these article are trying to be funny but then discover that they are actually that ignorant.

The Nineties Continue

I was talking to a colleague from Ukraine who specializes in the politics of the FSU and visits Ukraine regularly.

“It sounds like Ukraine has moved back to the nineties,” I said.

For us, “the nineties” mean bandit wars, gangs, corruption, and a complete collapse of all governmental structures. “This is like the nineties” has come to mean “horrible, hopeless, terrifying.”

“Oh no,” my colleague said. “This is even worse than the nineties. Then, criminals would come and take your business away but now government has become a criminal gang that  comes and takes your business away. It was kind of better when bandits were in charge.”