Alba Girons

Introduction

On April 1st, 2021, we had the pleasure to speak with Professor Alba Girons from the University of Chicago to learn about her course designs and experiences teaching Catalan for Romance Speakers courses at the institution. Professor Girons is a Senior Lecturer and Director of the Catalan Program at the University of Chicago. She has been teaching two Catalan courses per quarter on average at the university since September, 2014. Professor Girons also offers content courses taught in English or Spanish like Contemporary Literature or Catalan, Culture, and Society. Prior, professor Girons has taught Catalan courses at Georgetown University.

During the interview, Professor Girons provided her insight and approaches on teaching Catalan for Romance Speakers courses. She also shared her passion on the impact of technology in the learning process and discussed upon her vision to make language courses more accessible to students through online instruction.

  • Instructor: Professor Alba Girons
  • Institution: University of Chicago
  • Language Repertoire: Catalan, Spanish, French, Italian, and English
  • L3 Courses Taught:
    • CATA 12200 Catalan for Speakers of Romance Languages I (Autumn 2017, Spring 2018, Autumn 2018, Spring 2019, Autumn 2019, Autumn 2020, Spring 2021)
    • CATA 12300 Catalan for Speakers of Romance Languages II (Winter 2018, Winter 2019, Winter 2020)
  • Publication: Teaching Languages in Blended Synchronous Learning Classrooms. A Practical Guide

Interview

Did you create the Catalan for Speakers of Romance Languages program at the University of Chicago, and if so, can you speak to the process of designing this program?

Alba Girons: When I arrived (in 2014), I think one year before me, the previous person teaching Catalan had started offering Catalan for Speakers of Romance Languages. I did redesign the courses because I had taught a similar course already at Georgetown University. But the story of the Catalan program at the University of Chicago is that at the beginning, we had Beginner’s Catalan 1, 2, and 3 – like 101, 102, 103, like so many other languages. And very early on, the people in charge of the program realized that the students taking Catalan—I would say almost all of them, if not all of them—knew either Spanish or another Romance language, so it made sense to offer Catalan for Speakers of Romance Languages. For a while, both courses were offered, like the traditional track (101, 102, 103), but basically there were no enrollments, or very low enrollments, in that sequence, and all students enrolled in Catalan for Speakers of Romance Languages. So, in a very natural way, we moved towards that. Still, we don’t want to close the door to anyone, so from time to time, there’s a student who doesn’t speak a Romance language who is interested in taking Catalan, and we find ways of accommodating them. But basically, it was a very natural process.

Why did you decide to create a program for Catalan for Speakers of Romance Languages, instead of Catalan for Spanish Speakers?

AG: Well, even in our department, Romance Languages at University of Chicago, other languages have Portuguese for Speakers of Romance Languages, or even Portuguese for Spanish Speakers. But at the same time, they still have Portuguese 101, 102, 103. And basically, the idea is to make Catalan available to as many students as possible, so requiring Spanish was reducing that pool of students. Also, because that’s our main program, it would be a way almost to close the doors to make Spanish a requirement, like in order to learn Catalan, you have to go through Spanish, which makes no sense, in my mind. I think everyone should have access to it, so basically the idea was to make the Catalan language as available as possible.

How long did you teach Catalan at Georgetown, and have you taught it anywhere else?

AG: I taught it for three years, I think it was 2010-2013, and between Georgetown and University of Chicago, I was teaching Spanish one year in France, so I have this one-year gap in between these two. Previously, I had taught Catalan, but not as a foreign language, or L2 or L3, but I had taught Catalan in Catalunya, tutoring it with students from high school.

How were your experiences different teaching Catalan at the University of Chicago versus Georgetown?

AG: They weren’t that different because the program at Georgetown was also for speakers of Romance languages, but the students are different, I would say, than the students at the University of Chicago. Not better or worse, just different kind of students, so I had to accommodate my teaching style. And then, I think the program in Chicago is a little bit bigger. We do have a minor in Catalan Studies, we do have a BA in Iberian and Latin American Studies, so with that, some students incorporate Catalan there. We do have a visiting professor coming once a year from somewhere else – a professor specializing in Catalan Studies. Then, there are also professors in Literature and in Romance Languages that also work with Catalan Studies, so the program is a little bit bigger, and at Georgetown, I was almost the only person – it was a one-person show, let’s say. There was a professor in charge of the program, and I was working with her, but still, in terms of course offerings, I was the only one, while in Chicago, we are a bigger group, which I think benefits students and the program overall. But that being said, I haven’t seen huge differences between both programs.

How many students do you have currently, and about how many students do you have on average?

AG: Currently in the beginner’s class there are five students. I would say University of Chicago, in terms of universities, is a small university, and in language courses we have a cap of twelve and fifteen students, depending on if it’s beginner’s classes, it’s fifteen, and higher on, it’s twelve. But I have five students now in the beginners’ class, and then I have four students in the advanced, which is not Catalan for Speakers of Romance Languages anymore – it’s called Llengua, societat i cultura, and it’s an advanced course. And those are more or less the numbers, like usually, the beginners’ class, there’s between five and nine, ten, I would say, and then in higher, more advanced courses I think anything around three, four, five is the average.

But very often I think the big question is, “How many students do you have?” in terms of how big the program is, or the impact, and one of the things I’m happy about [is] how the program has grown through offering more courses and having students going further in their study of Catalan language. When I arrived, there were two courses, Catalan for Speakers of Romance Languages 1 and 2, and now we have two more courses, which is Llengua, societat i cultura 1 and 2—[which] are more like intermediate-high and advanced courses. We have the minor, we have now in the Masters in Humanities program, there’s a two-year language option. We have, for example, a student right now doing a Masters in Humanities specializing in Catalan language. We also have Reading Catalan for Research Purposes aiming [at] graduate students integrating Catalan in their research. So, the program has grown, not as much with how many enrollments we have at the beginner level – we have stabilized that, which is very nice – but especially on how far students can go.

What percentage of the students you have are Spanish speakers, and what are the other languages that are represented? Are speakers of other Romance languages also in the class?

AG: I would say that usually two thirds of the class speak Spanish always – I don’t think we’ve ever gone lower than that in terms of Spanish – and then Portuguese is a common language, Italian and French. I haven’t been keeping track of that, but that’s more or less. And then very often they speak other languages, like some come from a little bit of Chinese, Korean, Urdu, so for most of them it’s not even their third language, but it’s the fourth or fifth.

Do students have to have a certain level of fluency in those other Romance languages before they enter in the L3 Catalan course?

AG: As I said, because we offer 1-2 courses per quarter, we try to be as flexible as possible, also because with five students, it’s easy for me to provide extra help if a student has more of a beginner level of Spanish, but most of them I think would be between, in ACTFL terms, if that helps, intermediate-high/advanced-low. Some students come with a solid advanced-mid or advanced-high in Spanish, but most of them, I think, are in that range. Students that have taken two years of a language and they feel confident with Spanish, or Italian, or French, and they want to add Catalan. Which also, I don’t know if that’s relevant or not, but I would say also that most students arrive to the Catalan program in their third or fourth year. We have a few coming at the beginning of being an undergrad, but most of them come at the end often. So if they go to a study abroad program in Barcelona, or if they have some sort of interest, or they discovered Catalan language, or they’ve fulfilled some requirement and they have space to take Catalan.

How would you say the classroom experience is different for those who speak Spanish versus those who speak another Romance language?

AG: I think from a linguistic perspective, yes, it might be a little bit easier for those coming from Spanish, but not always, especially compared to those coming from Italian; that’s also very helpful. But because most of them speak Spanish, they are part of the majority of the class, so it is true that when I use contrastive explanations, Spanish is usually the first language that comes, so they have a more shared experience with their peers. And for the rest – I haven’t done research of what is the big difference between someone coming from Spanish and other Romance languages, so I’m happy if anyone contradicts me, or can bring more to the table – I’m not really sure that the difference is that big. It depends on other things, like in terms of their strategies for learning a foreign language. I think there are other elements that are more important.

If the student has a Romance language as their L1 versus their L2, would you say that there is maybe a different effect on their ability to learn Catalan?

AG: I think it depends on their level. If it’s an L2, it depends on their level of L2. I would say it’s easier for someone with an L1 as a Romance language than an L2, but it depends on the L2 and their level of the L2, and again, their strategies of the L2 because very often they can find similarities of how they learned Spanish, and/or Italian, and how they are learning Catalan. So even though some of my students have Spanish as their first language, most of them have Spanish as their L2, so I would need a little bit more data to compare.

What textbooks or other kinds of materials do you use for your Catalan courses, and what were the processes you went through to select the materials for the class?

AG: The offering of Catalan textbooks is better now than it was ten years ago, but still, as so many less commonly taught languages, the offering is a little bit limited. I used to use a textbook called Veus 1 and 2, and now most of the same people that had worked on Veus have created a new book that’s called A Punt,and there’s A Punt 1, 2, 3, and 4, and they’ve recycled some of the material of Veus, but I think they’ve improved. I think they’ve gathered all the feedback that everyone has been providing in the last years, and they have created this new textbook. And it might sound extremely silly, but it’s not easy to find these books in the US, so very often I use Veus and A Punt for some courses, but in more advanced courses, I create my own materials because it’s easier to find them. And now we are very lucky, because in terms of A Punt, there’s a digital version now, which is very accessible, and I think that it has changed the use of textbooks of anyone teaching Catalan outside of Catalan-speaking territories, or anywhere where it’s difficult to find those textbooks.

Are those textbooks, Veus and A Punt, entirely in Catalan, or are they designed for English speakers or other Romance speakers?

AG: They are designed entirely in Catalan, by people living in Catalunya, and published in Catalan publishing houses. And I think part of it is certain European tendencies of teaching languages – we don’t see it as a problem of providing instructions and writing the whole thing in Catalan. Also, because Catalan is taught in a lot of places, it would not make sense to have like one version for German, one version for French – not enough students for that. But it’s interesting because everything is written in Catalan – it’s very centralized in that sense – but at the same time, in each unit there is a space for students’ L1s and L2s. There are a lot of [grammar] exercises that invite the inductive method, and then when students are guessing, there’s also a part of like, “How do you say that in your language?” “Do you know other languages that work similarly?” So, it’s not explicit for Romance language, but it doesn’t hide the fact that our students come with one L1, L2, and sometimes L3, L4, and that those languages are part of the learning process, and it creates spaces to integrate that knowledge, but keeping it open enough that, as an instructor, when the question is, “How do you say that in your mother tongue?” I can also say, “And how do we say that in Spanish? In Italian?” I can integrate all these. So it’s a textbook that is not designed for Romance languages, but it invites that knowledge.

Are you aware of any textbooks for Catalan that are designed for Spanish speakers?

AG: So, Catalan is my mother tongue—I speak Catalan with my family, at school, with my friends, everywhere—and at school when we would learn Catalan we had, I remember, an extra textbook that was a contrastive book contrasting Catalan and Spanish. Both like, “Oh, these are typical mistakes that people make mixing both languages,” or “Use this to remember that,” “Use your knowledge in Spanish to speak Catalan or to write in Catalan,” or “Use your knowledge in Catalan to write or to speak in Spanish.” An example: words like hormiga, horno (“oven”, “ant”) all these words in Spanish start with an “h”. And when you’re a kid, it’s difficult to remember that you have to put an “h” that doesn’t sound a[see footnote]. But, in Catalan all these words have an “f”. “Hormiga” is “formiga”. “Forn” is “horno”. There’s an etymological reason and as an adult you can explain all this, but as a kid it’s extremely useful to say, “Oh, so if in Catalan there’s an ‘f’, in Spanish there’s an ‘h’.” What I mean is because Catalunya is a bilingual – multi-lingual, but especially a bilingual society, this idea of the two languages and using your knowledge of one language for the other language, it’s something that I grew up with, and that textbooks, even as an L1, don’t ignore.

The other thing is, I know of two initiatives that, in fact, don’t work with Catalan and Spanish only, but they are European initiatives that came from academia, from universities and research groups. One is EuroComRom, with Professor Stegmann – this one is for reading. And there is another initiative, EuRom, and it’s from an Italian university. So, there are some initiatives. Then there’s this idea of intercomprehension, which historically makes a lot of sense. But those are the projects that I know about.

Had you done any type of research about learning an L3 before you started teaching Catalan for Speakers of Romance Languages?

AG: I checked EuroComRom and I did review textbooks. The first textbooks for learning Catalan – with some exceptions, there’s Teach Yourself Catalan by Alan Yates – were a mix of L1-L2 in the sense that [they] were aimed for people who speak Catalan or live in Catalunya, but maybe during Franco times hadn’t gone to school in Catalan, so they needed some formal teaching of Catalan. And also, for people from other parts of the world, other parts of Spain moving to Catalunya and needing to learn the language. And all those materials had Spanish present in [one] way or another because of the social context of Catalunya. So I didn’t do a lot of structured research because what I did was look at those textbooks, and not use exactly the same [thing] because those textbooks were aimed [at] very different kind[s] of students, but I did learn from the strategies presented in those books.

What additional resources did you use when you created or re-designed the classes that you taught in Catalan?

AG: In terms of resources, with [true] beginners I stick with the textbook, but then I try to integrate as much real content as possible. And in that case, teaching Catalan is not difficult because the presence of Catalan language on the internet is quite substantious for the number of speakers. Catalan TV has high quality videos and resources. There is also a strong media in terms of newspapers. We have YouTubers producing content in Catalan. Even Wikipedia — that’s something people don’t know — the Catalan Wikipedia was the third Wikipedia. The first one was in English, then they created one in German – I think they just created one entry – and then the third one was Catalan. So for some reason, the online Catalan community is very proliferous, so we have a lot of resources. And from very early on, I try to integrate real content in my classes, and I use a very wide range of resources.

We saw that you have written a book about blended synchronous learning. What are some of the major advantages of this style of learning, particularly for a Catalan as a third language?

AG: I would say that this kind of learning or this approach of learning is extremely useful for LCTLs, for Less Commonly Taught Languages, in the sense of, it wouldn’t make sense to offer Catalan in all universities in North America. And it can be Tibetan or Quechua – there are so many languages that probably there is no need to offer it in all [universities], but I think it is interesting to make those languages accessible to all students or as many students as possible. The big advantage in terms of less commonly taught languages, the idea of being able to offer Catalan not only at the University of Chicago, but I can have students from other universities, and other universities can have access to Catalan. And the other way around, our students at the University of Chicago can have access to other languages that maybe we don’t offer at the University of Chicago, because no university can offer all languages. In terms of the program, it provides some stability because with those enrollment numbers, like, LCTL programs are fragile in the sense of two students up and down change things a lot. And when you are a student and you start learning a language, you want to go as far as possible, right? So having students from different universities gives us stability in terms of enrollments that allows us to offer more courses, knowing that we will have enough students to offer all those courses every year. So, I think that’s the big advantage. Not as much in terms of how you teach, but in terms of programs.

How communicative or interactive is this course on the day to day?

AG: I would say that it is very communicative. The outcomes for the course are communicative outcomes. My purpose is to get students, after one quarter, to be able to survive in a Catalan-speaking context, so students in class speak a lot. We have exercises to prepare to come to class and speak and produce with the language. But I also encourage students to work on communicative activities outside of class in a more asynchronous mode. It’s a very 101 or basic communicative course where grammar and vocabulary is a tool to achieve communicative outcomes. And that’s how I designed the course and that’s how I put it into practice.

In fact, it’s funny because usually students at the end of the first quarter, especially those coming from Spanish – and that’s part of what you were saying, about how the expectations of someone who speaks Spanish is like “Oh, Catalan it’s going to be a small dialect,” or something. And on the one hand they are like “Oh, I was not expecting it to be so different,” but then they say “Oh, I’m amazed how much I can do with Catalan just in one quarter!” And that comes from watching, I will not say full TV programs, but clips and small videos – again, 10 weeks – but they can communicate basic information. Our final exam is an OPI (Oral Proficiency Interview). Basically, our final exam is an interview, which – it’s an OPI style, it’s not an official OPI – but it’s an open conversation. There are no scripted questions, and students can do that. Usually, they are surprised at how much they can produce and how much information they can share in Catalan.

That would be really cool if anyone in the country can take a course in any language.

AG: Yeah! Exactly! And it sounds utopian, but it’s not that utopian. I wrote the book years ago before COVID and now some of the things are like “duh.” But I think it is possible, and that would make a lot of sense in my mind.

How has your previous experience with blended synchronous learning helped you in the times of COVID?

AG: Well, I think it caught me less out of guard [sic] than most of my colleagues. And in fact, moving from blended synchronous teaching where I had online students and face-to-face students, and I was juggling between the two groups all the time – because you are teaching one class, but in fact you still have two groups of students; like I had the remote students and the in-person students and we were working all together at the same time. Somehow moving online was almost easier, because it evened out the playing field? It leveled the playing field? Yeah, English is my fifth language, like French and Italian are my second language, so as you can see… (laughs).

Then also my courses are very communicative, because I believe in teaching languages like this, but also, I think it’s what students want and it’s why they take Catalan courses. But my experience in [blended synchronous] courses forced me to [gain] experience with asynchronous communication – creating activities where students would communicate in asynchronous settings, outside of our in-class time. And I think that’s one of the things that was a big step forward and [a big] help in COVID times, because that helped me a lot in the transition and my courses didn’t change that much. And also I think that helped me help my colleagues in terms of opening doors and possibilities of how to create communicative courses in online settings.

It’s surprising to hear that Catalan was the third language made on Wikipedia!

AG: Yeah! And the Catalan Wikipedia is very active. Again, if you compare the Catalan and the Spanish Wikipedia, obviously the numbers [for Spanish are much bigger], but if you compare other languages with a number of similar speakers, it’s amazing how active that community is.

On the flip side, what are some of the challenges that you face or have faced in the past while teaching this course?

AG: I think all of that baggage of Romance language is a huge advantage, but at the same time it creates a lot of interference. Especially in terms of comprehension, it’s a big advantage. In terms of production sometimes it’s a little bit of an advantage, because sometimes students can gamble and sometimes it works. But very often, there is a tendency of going fast and just taking the Romance language and adapting it a little bit. So, I do have to insist a lot and work a lot on certain differences in terms of using grammar points, how we use prepositions, verbs ser and estar. Also, there are certain pronouns that exist in French, Italian, and Catalan that don’t exist in Spanish. For those who come with Spanish and are like, “Woohoo! No problem!” it’s like, “I’m sorry, guys.” I do think that with other languages, like if you learn a new language from scratch and they tell you there’s this pronoun, you are like “Okay.” You accept it without questioning it. But when you come with those expectations it’s like, “Oh! Whoa, whoa, wait a minute. I cannot find the equivalent.”  The moment that students cannot find the equivalent in the Romance language, suddenly it’s a bigger deal. But maybe it’s also my character that I try to focus on the positive rather than the negative. I have had to tweak things here and there, but I don’t remember big, big challenges.

In terms of those little niches in the language that are harder to grasp for the Spanish speakers, do you think that those particular functions are similar or different than what you expected that the students would have trouble with?

AG: It didn’t surprise me that much, I think, because Catalunya is a society where Catalan and Spanish are both very present. So, some of those challenges are similar to the challenges that I can see in Spanish speaker[s] that learn Catalan in Catalunya. Compared with, I don’t know, French for speakers of a Romance language b, I think the situation in society where these two languages co-exist, it’s not as common as Catalan and Spanish. Some of these issues or problems were things that I have witnessed previously. It’s not exactly the same kind of students or learners, but having these two languages in contact, it’s something that’s common in not all but in some Catalan-speaking territories.

How have the courses changed since you started teaching them, if at all, and are you considering making any other changes for the future?

AG.: The courses have changed, not as much in terms of strong pedagogic principles – that hasn’t changed that much because I’ve been teaching Catalan for 10 years now, but I’ve been teaching foreign languages for 20 years. My pedagogical ideas evolve, but not that much, in the sense that I have my strategies and my approaches. But I would say that one big step was CourseShare c and when we integrated the blended synchronous learning and, as I was saying, how suddenly I have to reformulate what happened in class, what happened outside of class, and what kind of activities worked better and worse, and again, what communication was. So that was, I think, a big change.

Then, in terms of the courses we’ve created, the advanced courses, that was not a big change, but we offered for the first time last year Reading Catalan for Research Purposes. And that’s another beast because here the purpose is not communicative per se in the sense that students don’t produce anything; the only thing they do is read. So, you’re focusing on reading skills, which suddenly changes a lot, like how you explain grammar, what’s the approach, how you provide input, what kind of input students focus on. Because all the parts of production disappear from the course. And it is interesting to understand the motivation for students to learn Catalan is different. It can be because they want to communicate with the language, and they want to move there, or experience the Catalan culture, or integrate the Catalan culture in their life.

Nowadays, some students are just curious and would like to go to Catalunya. Fortunately, their experience with Catalan will not be only those three months [or] one year that they will be there, but they will continue to be in contact with the culture thanks to the internet. Also, you have other students who learn Catalan for other reasons, like they want to be able to read in Catalan and integrate that in their research and that has also allowed me to rethink what to teach, why, and what are the needs and interests of the students.

Are there any other Catalan courses that you wish were provided and would you intend to provide any of those courses in the future?

AG: One of the objectives for me was to be able to provide students with advanced courses. 

If you check a lot of Catalan programs across the globe – not just in North America – students have one or two introductory courses and it’s more difficult there [to take] higher courses. But the idea there was to provide that, to provide students with the possibility of going to the advanced level, which we can do now, and offering more specific courses, for example a literature course in Catalan. Last quarter we did one on La memoria historica. The idea of offering advanced courses with specific topics is interesting, so I would like to move towards that direction. With all the flexibility in the sense of maybe you cannot offer those courses on a regular basis; it can be like a one[-time] thing or every other year, etc.

I also like the idea of exploring the field of Reading Catalan for Research Purposes, and the idea of integrating Catalan studies at the grad level. And it doesn’t have to be someone doing a full PhD but giving tools to integrate a little bit of Catalan studies in people’s research – that would be the purpose right now, anything we [can] offer to be useful.

Footnotes:

a. The letter H is silent in Spanish

b. French for speakers of a Romance language is a course presently taught at the University of Chicago.

c. The CourseShare initiative allows students within the Big Ten Academic Alliance–the fourteen Big Ten schools and the University of Chicago–to enroll in selected courses offered at other institutions. (see https://languages.uchicago.edu/courseshare-at-uchicago/ for more details)

Authors

This entry was posted in Interviews and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments are closed, but you can leave a trackback: Trackback URL.