Spanish in the Far North. Hispanic Identity in the Canadian Academy. Interview with Mónica Soto, Ana García-Allén y María Carbonetti

Irina Goundareva and Érica Aline Meza Corona
Irina Goundareva: Could you give us an overview of Spanish language at universities in Quebec, Ontario, and British Columbia? 
Mónica Soto: According to the report El español: una lengua viva (Spanish: a living language), by Cervantes Institute (2021), 400,000 native Spanish speakers live in Canada, in addition to almost 300,000 with limited proficiency. In percentage of the number of students, Canada ranks fifth. In the province of Quebec, Spanish is present in all four levels of education (elementary, high school, and university), after the national languages, English and French.

According to studies conducted by the University of Montreal, between 1900 and 2000, Spanish language learning grew by 300% for several reasons, including the provincial program for teaching Spanish as a third language, which increased the number of students to almost 150,000. According to the same study, the main reasons for learning Spanish continue to be mobility, followed by cultural interest, work, and thirdly, personal and family relationships. Spanish is taught in 15 of Quebec’s 18 universities, but only one has a Spanish didactics program, while three offer literary studies and include didactics courses to promote employment opportunities for students. As can be seen, we do not have a significant number of university centers that train Spanish teachers.

As for the program at my university, the University of Quebec in Montreal, Spanish courses concentrate around a 30 credits online certificate and a 60 credits major. Completing both programs for a total of 90 credits becomes a first-cycle university program. We have just over 100,000 registrations for Spanish courses, ranging from A1 to C1 level, and we have two different profiles: language courses, which cover phonetics, grammar, writing, and oral comprehension, and content and culture courses, such as Spanish and Tourism, and Spanish and Media, which are exclusive courses at our university. We also have courses in history, cinema, and culture. Among the main activities in these programs is Hispanic week, which addresses linguistic, social, political, economic, and cultural issues, with the participation of local and foreign researchers. We also have a summer school in Bogota and four annual conferences on different topics related to the Spanish-speaking world.

Ana García-Allén: There is no Spanish instruction in Ontario’s elementary schools. but in secondary schools, starting from 9th grade, Spanish is the only language taught besides French. At the university level, almost all universities in Ontario teach different languages, but most students choose Spanish.

At the University of Western Ontario, we have undergraduate, master, and doctoral programs. About 35 undergrad students complete their minor in Spanish each year, as well as 40 grad students getting their major each year. They can also do an Honors Specialization in Spanish, which has an average of three students. To attract more, 10 years ago we created a certificate in Spanish under the minor, which has 20 students in average. Generally speaking, we are approaching 100 students per year in our programs. As for graduate programs, we offer a master’s degree in Spanish whose number of enrollees per year varies between 10 and 15, while doctoral programs have declined quite a bit in recent years, mainly because we have lost Spanish professors. Currently, we only have 28 doctoral students. There are 450 students in the first-year Spanish courses, 125 in the second level, and between 50 and 60 in the third.

María Carbonetti: According to the last census, there are 40,000 Spanish speakers in the province of British Columbia. Spanish teaching is scarce at the primary level. In the secondary level, Spanish is the language of greatest interest after French in all private and public schools, but there is a lack of teachers. As for the University of British Columbia, there is a special picture in the sense that there is a lot of interest in the language, but not in master’s and doctoral degrees. Students learn Spanish mainly because of job opportunities in the United States. Similarly, much of the program’s teaching involves service to other university dependencies, such as Business, Medicine, Mining, Engineering, and Forestry. This way, the large volume of more than 2000 students per year is distributed in courses from first to fourth year, and there are two types: language (first to fourth grades), where translation and Spanish for business are included, and those of cultural content, related to literature, cinema, and the like. The most popular are the language courses.

The hardest part in our province is getting master’s and doctoral students, which have decreased due to the lack of competitiveness of the programs offered to them. The reality is that there is work to be done in universities; this is a very important issue. There is now a big push in the department to promote everything that has to do with Community Engagement and also to offer students other types of Spanish language options that provide them with different opportunities. 

IG: Let’s talk about Spanish in the Canadian community, in particular, about Community Engagement at UBC and the University of Western Ontario…
MC: I run a Community Engagement initiative that hosts different types of projects. Spanish for Community (2011-2021) manages curricular and co-curricular projects; we work with community organizations in the Metro Vancouver region [a federation of local authorities] and also with some in Latin America. So far, more than 600 intermediate to advanced students have participated. A feature of this initiative is that all projects are classroom-based, in the sense that we do not travel. We address public health through translation and awareness, serving immigrant communities, refugees, people seeking asylum in Canada, different economic targets, people in distress, etcetera. We also support dialogue and intergenerational projects.

These types of projects are carried out by advanced student volunteers from our department, as well as Spanish-speaking students from other UBC departments. Some last several years; others are much shorter, but the important thing is that they have awakened a lot of interest in the students who want to put their skills into practice and has also help them create their curricula, so the response we have is very positive. Our community organizations, both here and abroad—Peru, Colombia, Guatemala, and other Central American countries—are very valuable for their general translation services and English classes. We managed to continue during the pandemic because we already had experience working remotely. Spanish for Community has recently been awarded by Publishing Humanities with the Humanity Engagement Award, which is related to the university’s goals of community engagement.

As soon as the studentes see that they can communicate with the community, they create bonds that last even after the course.

AG: We have had face-to-face Community Engagement since 2009. Although we couldn’t continue because of COVID-19, in 2022 we resumed. The project is part of the intermediate and advanced language courses, and we now do it also in first-year’s international option; students are enrolled in the language course. We have worked with many organizations, depending on what each community requires each year. Every year we work with the Irvine Cross-Cultural Center, an initiative that helps newcomers; we also work with the YMCA, with a program they have for young people who have just arrived from a Hispanic country, whereby our students mentor them and help them with the transition to university. We have also worked with the city’s public library and with a program called Lazos del Corazón (Heart Ties), which helps develop communities in northern Peru. We also work with Latino magazines and newspapers here in the community, as well as a Latino radio station, with a very successful show, where students love to talk, participate and choose the songs; they learn a lot. We have also worked with the Merrymount Center, which offers free programs for disadvantaged families. With the Brain Library organization, we created a children’s book on diabetes prevention; our first little jewel, made entirely by our students, who chose the main character, illustrations, and text. We also work with the elderly community with conversation groups where we meet to talk, play games, and share the afternoon with them. We also created Translating the Canadian Kitchen together with the City of London, with whom we do these programs, and we invest in food so that every week we cook with the children, an activity that resulted in a recipe book. On the international level, we have visited the Dominican Republic and for the last eight years, we have been traveling to Cuba during the reading week (in February). There we work on a farm where people explain to the students what they do and why. Then we go for a day and a half to a school for hearing and visually impaired children, an impressive experience, and to a residence for elderly people whom we help by painting or cleaning, then we play dominoes and almost always dance. These are the programs that attract students: as soon as they see that they can communicate with the community, they create bonds that last even after the course.

MS: In my program, unfortunately, we don’t have community activities; so I’m going to tell you about the situation of Latin Americans in Quebec. According to information from sociologist Victor Harmoni, from the provincial and federal government websites, and the report El español: una lengua viva, about 144,000 people from Latin America live in Quebec, representing 27% of Latin Americans in Canada. Thus, one in seven inhabitants is of Latin American origin, the second largest ethnolinguistic group after North Africans. The first wave of Latin Americans arrived in Quebec during the most brutal years of the military dictatorships of the 1970s and 1980s, such as Chileans, Salvadorans, and Guatemalans. During the 1990s, a wave of economic migrants followed, hoping to find prosperity. They left their countries during major periods of neoliberal adjustment, mainly from Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, and Peru. The third wave, in the 2000s, is formed by socio-cultural immigrants who came to improve their lives, find a good level of education, join networks, and, if they do not succeed, try their luck in a new destination. There are no longer Latin American immigrants who left their country to stay permanently in another. In 2017 the proportion of Argentine, Chilean, Peruvian, and Uruguayan immigrants was decreasing, while the proportion of Colombians, Mexicans, Brazilians, and Venezuelans was increasing. Currently, the majority group is composed of Colombians.

IG: Finally, could you comment on the challenges and opportunities for online teaching in the wake of the pandemic?
AG: Before the pandemic, we were already teaching an online course that had high demand among  students, but in which, personally, I don’t think they learn or advance. When we all had to go to online teaching, we gave the courses synchronously. The first year it worked quite well, although we realized that evaluation was very different. I think there are more temptations to use online resources. What we do now is a peer evaluation: first, one student works aided by another student, they evaluate each other, and then the teacher makes their evaluation, but allowing them to use resources that are available to all. There are fewer exams and more projects where they have to show their communication skills. For example, the students who work with the community, at the end of the year present a poster to the whole university, they prepare a small video, and we show  this during one afternoon so that people from other projects, universities, and programs come, and the students explain to them what they have done during the year. That is, to communicate their work in written and oral form. To me, this is what we ultimately want everyone to do.

During the first year of the pandemic, we were teaching synchronous online classes and, in my case, almost everyone turned on the camera, but in the courses I supervised, professors were teaching to a black screen and it is impressive to be talking for almost two hours to black screens. There is feedback in the chat, but it is not the same. It seems to me that we have lost the fear of speaking, that initial fear I think we have all overcome, although, from my point of view, you can’t learn a language online as you can face-to-face, unless you have very motivated students.

MC: Concerning academic integrity, this issue of online teaching has given us a lot of rethinking about evaluation: what is its meaning and why? We have incorporated online tools so that students can use them and, in turn, disclose the process of constructing and editing a text. Particularly, in the third and fourth years, the fact that they can do self-reflection in this process of managing between two languages, with a lot of tools, has ended up being very beneficial and has made us change practices that we used to take for granted. I feel this is the right way to evaluate, but the university keeps asking for tests that are not necessarily appropriate.

This, hand in hand with mental health, has involved a lot of modifications and a lot of teaching work concentrated in a short time, which has revealed a great impact in terms of numbers at the university regarding the use of counseling services and stress leave by teachers. The current number of students who need special care or have an attention deficit or anxiety diagnosis, or stress management problems is record high, so much so that in our area of the faculty of arts alone there have been more than a thousand students with special requirements, which has forced the university to adapt resources.

Concerning language teaching, in our courses, the topic of mental health ended up being included in the curriculum and in Community Engagement programs, and both students and teachers have appreciated it. Language, fortunately, is a vehicle of expression. As one student said: “There are things I can say in Spanish that I can’t say to my psychologist in English; I feel freer to say them in Spanish.”

The legacy of the pandemic period was very important for the creation of pedagogical tools and modalities. Now we are asking ourselves if we are going to do a fully face-to-face, hybrid, integrated course, or if we are going to allow students to choose how they want to do it. Language programs have acquired a dynamic character and, curiously, everything that was thought to be fixed and stable, was not. We live in perpetual movement and I don’t think it’s bad. I rethought the whole evaluation because nothing I was doing convinced me. What is true is that these years have brought an enormous amount of work, because there is a greater amount of material to prepare. On the screen having everything ready and handling the student’s written work in the chat, plus the oral speech has left us tired. It is very rich in that sense, but it has not been easy, even though we already have experience in this field.

MS: After two years, I taught three different modalities and I had never seen that in my 30 year career. All this is to tell you that we are in the process of drawing some partial conclusions from this experience that we were forced to go through. Without specifying whether the courses are synchronous or asynchronous, in general, we can say that the balance of this experience is positive in terms of inclusion. There is no doubt that a student in any physical state or any location can follow an online course. Time is also another positive factor; this distance learning modality avoids travel, which translates into an economy of time that can be used for other activities. However, some psychologists attribute mental fatigue to the fact that transportation somewhat buffers the passage from one activity to another, clearing our minds before addressing other activity such as work or study. Another positive thing is the inclusion of formats and platforms that have allowed the students to appropriate the content in different ways and at their own pace.

Among the negative points is fatigue. Teachers and students feel tired after spending many hours in front of the computer. Another point on which I agree with Ana is that the educational experience is not the same in face-to-face and online courses. In a brief survey we conducted in 2020, our students said that what they missed most was socializing among classmates at a café or chatting with teachers after class. Our campus is in downtown Montreal and at a time it was practically deserted; if this continues we will have to think about how to revitalize certain spaces. And distraction, especially among students, seems to be higher in online courses than face-to-face. At a French-speaking education congress specialists were cautious and recommended online courses only if there is a guarantee of added value; they do not recommend them otherwise. They also claim that backtracking would not only be impossible but counterproductive. In a survey, some very curious data came out: 84% of university administrators said that students prefer online courses, but 86% of the students interviewed expressed reservations concerning mental health (specifically personal, psychological, and social well-being) and 62% talked about technological challenges such as having a computer and a stable Internet connection.

I think it is necessary to reach certain compromises, perhaps hybrid modalities could be the way to go. Motivated students remain good in any modality. We will soon have to evaluate whether online courses really suit all types of students.
M.A. Mónica Soto teaches Spanish at the University of Quebec in Montreal. 

Ph.D. Ana García-Allén teaches Spanish at the University of Western Ontario, London. 

Ph.D. María Carbonetti is a teacher at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. 

Ph.D. Irina Goundareva is head of the Spanish Department at UNAM Office in Canada. 

Érica Aline Meza Corona is doing her professional internship at the Spanish Department at UNAM Office in Canada.
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