12 June 2011

Open University: learning a foreign language - is the OU better than evening classes

Question from a reader

"I hope you don’t mind my contacting you. I have read your interesting blog. I came across the sentence "the OU is trundling off in its own direction and making it hard for students like me to stay with them.".

Can I ask you how/why you feel this way? Is it expense, or quality of teaching, or what? I am seriously thinking of embarking on one or two language modules with the OU, and am interested in your views on whether they are as good or better than the conventional evening classes or even just ‘teach yourself’ books. I should add that I do have (ancient) O level passes in the languages I’m interested in, so I will not be a complete beginner…well, maybe not! Thanks for any help you can give."

1 comment to Open University: learning a foreign language – is the OU better than evening classes

  • The reason I parted company with OU is that the courses became too academic for me after the second level. I found this for French (L120) and for Spanish (L194/140).

    If your objective is to become a language teacher or professional linguist then the higher level courses would be ideal. I suppose what I really wanted is not “Open University” but “Open Polytechnic” where the emphasis would be more on practical communication skills rather than theoretical details. After L140/120 the workload doubles. So having followed two 30 point courses in two years, the prospect of taking a 60 point course with more academic rigour and only online tutorials, and a compulsory summer school, was a big turn-off for me.

    I have always found that when the OU say that you need to study “X” hours a week that is an underestimate. If you already know the material that is how long it will take you to cover the exercises and tasks that they set for you. It does not include learning time (unless you are blessed with a photographic memory – which I am not).

    Compared to evening classes/adult ed, the OU is going to make you work much harder and achieve a lot more in a relatively short time. However you will not have so many opportunities to practice speaking, face to face, with a teacher. In my last year of OU (L140 in 2010) the majority of tutorials were online using “Eluminate” which I found pretty useless and frustrating. The trend seems to be towards more online tutorials and fewer classroom experiences.

    I have continued to study Spanish, first at level 7 (Conversational) with Adult Ed and currently with a private tutor, once a week. And I am grateful to the OU for getting me jump started, to go from nothing to this level in 2 years exceeded my expectations but as you will see from my blog I did a few other things as well that helped my progress.

    So in summary, I am a big fan of OU. They provide good value for money and give you a solid foundation in your chosen language at basic/intermediate level. Be warned it will take over your life if you let it, and it can drive you to tears of frustration at its worst. It’s worth it though if you want to be good at your languages.


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Bill Ferguson
Bill Ferguson

Spanish Teaching Resources

Getting good quality teaching and resources

The information I am going to share is an honest account of what I have tried over the past year and my opinions are just that, opinions. I will share my likes and dislikes, what works for me and what doesn't. This is a personal experience, I am not an expert but if you share my ambition of learning to communicate in a third, foreign language, then maybe we can help each other along the way.

According to Friedrich Nietzsche: "One who speaks a foreign language just a little takes more pleasure in it than one who speaks it well. Enjoyment belongs to those who know things halfway."

I think he is right. Its hard to define halfway but I think the fun starts when you know enough of a language to be able to make yourself understood, given sufficient time to think. At this stage you are not merely tolerated but treated as an honoured guest in a foreign country. People see you bravely struggling to speak and understand, and give you credit for trying. They are nearly always kind and supportive.

Go beyond this to fluency and its like a toddler growing up, you are no longer cute and vulnerable. You are competing for resources, in the adolescence of language acquisition unless you have a definite role you are treated with suspicion. Maybe that is the stage to consider moving on to another new language ...

Getting good quality teaching and resources is vital to success: encouraged by an influential book by Harry Ferber I now view language acquisition as a military campaign, I need to use my resources efficiently to overcome all resistance, I need to capture vocabulary and not let it escape. I need to wear down the opposition by attacking daily and not allowing it time to regroup. I need to learn the predictable tricks that the new language will play on me and be ready for them (this means learning grammar). Like any military campaign good quality intelligence is vital.

Learning a Third Language

My current ambition is to be able to communicate comfortably in English, French and Spanish. I began to study Spanish in 2008. I have been a student of French, on and off, for about 30 years and up to last year ....read more

Strategic Planning

When I started to think about taking on a third language I realised I had two main worries: firstly I didn't want to lose my second language ...read more

Fear of Losing French

As I see it there is a simple choice ....read more