There has been a lack of learner corpora studies in the research on the Spanish produced by Irish students and this small case study aims at opening the ground for further studies. Irish English examples tend to be subsumed in broader English-speaking corpora in the articles available. This small case study departs from our insights and intuitions based on our teaching practice in the Irish context, specifically in the West of Ireland. It aims to point out that the Spanish used by our students differs from other English speakers, due to the role of Irish in their education and/or in their upbringing as bilingual students. Irish students, regardless of their use of Gaeilge, are compelled to take Gaeilge throughout their mandatory school years in the national education system, from 4 – 5 years of age. Some students also attend gaelscoileanna and have Gaeilge as a medium of instruction for all the other subjects and of course, some students use Gaeilge as a home language and in their communities in the Gaeltacht areas and outside of them. The only students, who can avail of an exemption, are those who did not attend the primary school system. They can avail of supports and join in the learning of Gaeilge in secondary school or they can request an exemption. A third language is added during their secondary school years (11– 17), mainly French, German or Spanish, but Italian, Polish, Mandarin and others are breaking through into language classrooms in contemporary Irish schools. The Leaving Certificate system[i] allows students to take exams on some of the languages they speak at home, regardless of their availability in their constituency. Private schools and tutors can prepare the student to take these additional language exams outside of the school system. These examinations focus on a series of reading and writing tasks: reading comprehensions – literary and journalistic -, writing an opinion piece, translation of a role-play for a dialogue and a diary entry[ii]. There is also an aural exam, consisting on a few audio files and a series of questions to be answered through Spanish or English. The oral exam structure also includes a role-play and open questions[iii]. These exams have supporters and critics like any other state exam would have. One of the main criticisms that has been offered throughout the years is that it encourages the learners to memorize and paraphrase huge chunks of the language, instead of trying to use the language for meaningful communication. However, in our experience, the vast amount of texts and audio input to which students are exposed for this exam also produce excellent Spanish speakers. One of the drawbacks of the Irish education system, which is felt by a lot of my European colleagues and other experts in the language teaching and learning professional, is the lack of overt grammar instruction in L1, be it English or Irish. This is obviously a generalization because there are specific schools and/or teachers who emphasize the need for grammar competence and accuracy when studying a language and when using one’s own one language but the state curriculum does not reward any knowledge of L1 grammar as part of the grading system. This lack of emphasis on grammar instruction is detrimental to the student’s development as a multilingual learner and it hinders language acquisition at later stages in life, since grammar instruction aids and speeds the language learner process, especially in adult learners (Larsen-Freeman, 1995; Scott, 2001).
During the first COVID lockdown in 2020, the Department of Education decided to eliminate the Leaving Certificate state examinations in favour of a grade based on the teacher’s predictions of the student’s performance. I circulated a questionnaire via Twitter among a few teachers and students of secondary schools in Ireland, and through our community of practice ELE in Éirínn[iv] in order to get some grounded insights about the public opinion of these exams. The majority of participants in this survey describe the exam as a strategic exercise designed to gain more points towards a university degree, and not language learning oriented. I asked them to describe the parts of the exam in their own words. I have summarized their ideas in the next few paragraphs:
1) Description of the Exam:
- In the written exam, there are two sections: reading comprehension and written expression or mediation; and aural comprehension. The first section has three subsections: A, B and C. A presents the student with two genres, literary or journalistic. One participant affirms that they have not met anyone who had undertaken the literary option. Among the comprehension activities for these first texts, there are questions to be answered in English, a search for synonyms, several exercises to explain certain idioms and phrases through English and one through Spanish. There are also two shorter reading comprehensions through English. They report that it is very easy to gain marks in this section. B is more complicated because the reading comprehension – which involves again a search for synonyms, translations and a summary of ideas in English – also includes a composition about a topic related to the text. This is described as the dreaded opinion piece. C involves several written tasks: A dialogue or a letter. They both include guidelines in English but the register in the letter tends to be more formal. The final exercise in section C involves writing a diary entry and a note. This section tends to be very easy to predict based on exams from previous years, because the topics are very similar from year to year. The rubrics used to mark these exam papers focus on communicative competence and range of vocabulary.
- In addition to the written exam, students have an aural comprehension exam containing seven sections (one advertisement, two dialogues, two articles, the weather and one piece of news). They listen to each of the sections three times with a longer silence between the second and the third to grant the student more time to answer the comprehension questions. Most activities require candidates to mediate the audio that they are hearing through English.
- Finally, the oral exam focuses on free-flow oral communication for about eight to ten minutes. Candidates taking Higher or Ordinary level exams undergo the same oral exam. They respond to different questions posed by the examiner in which the examiner tries to get candidates to demonstrate their use of different grammatical structures. They also encourage conversation rather than memorized answers. In the oral exam, candidates also perform a role-play, but this tends to be memorized, in spite of the last question being a surprise question.
2) Disadvantages: Among the main drawbacks of the State exam, the participants in our survey state a problem with the denomination of the school year as Leaving Cert Year, which focuses the student mind on the exam target and not on a lifelong language-learning goal. They add that the total focus on performativity on a given day is detrimental to the continuous nature of language learning. They add that some of the exercises in the exam are very mechanical and foster memorization rather than language use as well. They express a dislike for the recurrent abstract essay topics and disagree that the oral exam should be the same for Ordinary and Higher, even when the weighting is different. They find there is a huge leap from the Junior Certificate exam, which students sit after three years of post-primary schooling, in terms of level and expectations. Most of the skills required for the Leaving Certificate exam are crammed in during their sixth year in secondary schools. The marks of these examinations do not count towards any particular purpose other than benchmarking the student for career orientation purposes[v]. They report that the Leaving Certificate syllabus does not clearly align to what is being tested. Some teachers comment that a greater alignment to CEFR skills would also be desirable through the inclusion of more specific learning outcomes. The length of the written text does not seem to be adequate for this level (B1/A2), compared to other state exams such as the DELE examinations by the Instituto Cervantes. Some other issues rise in the participants’ answers. Some report a certain lack of inclusiveness for students with learning disabilities and that there is a perception of rewarding socio-economic privilege for those students who have had the benefits of immersion in Spanish. Some teachers involved in marking indicated that the marking scheme is vague too.
3) Advantages: Among the main benefits, some of the participants in our survey report that it offers comparatively a wide range of skills at which you can show off your performance regardless of your learning skills and that it is rather inclusive in this regard. This proves that there are marked contradictions on the perception of inclusiveness in the exam by different individuals. Most find that the openness of the oral exam is conducive towards communication and towards playing to the strengths of the candidate. Most assess that the memorization involved in the role-plays can serve as the basis to build a communicative competence, but they emphasize that the teaching of these role-plays needs to be focused on meaningful interaction, analysis of the memorized input, and not just repetition. Most regard the vast vocabulary learning opportunities as an advantage.
4) Suggested changes: This survey moves on to ask participants to highlight some of the changes they would suggest for the scheme. Some teachers would like to see the Leaving Certificate exams modified to align with the new junior cycle, which assesses communicative, linguistic and cultural competences. They would get rid of the distinction between Higher and Ordinary levels. They would like to see different varieties of regional Spanish included and to shift the focus on the exam towards a lifelong learning goal, probably through the inclusion of different exams throughout their years of language instruction at school, and not just at the end of the cycle. Some teachers would like more contact with Spanish departments in the different universities to bridge the gap between secondary and tertiary levels. They also recommend the inclusion of more transparent rubrics for the oral exam so that both examiners and students are clearer of what is expected in this exam. They suggest that more training of oral examiners should be available too. A plan to support efficiently students with different abilities in language learning should also be in place, according. Some teachers mention that the French exam includes a document, which involves research that the student takes on about a project in which they are interested. One participant points out that the lack of explicit grammar practice generates the belief that grammar accuracy is not important at this level of language learning. Unfortunately, some of the errors that have not been corrected for six years get fossilized and prevent the student from developing their Spanish or require a level of investment that could have been prevented in the early years of their learning.
These specific characteristics, namely the presence of Gaeilge in the student school life, the lack of grammar instruction in English or Gaeilge, and the way modern languages are focused on a university entry examination are factors that need to be taken into account when we examine the Spanish produced by Irish learners in their first year in college.
[i] Leaving Certificate Examinations are a set of official written exams for students wishing to go into third level studies. The exams occur during the last month of the school year and are carried out by the secondary schools and corrected by secondary school teachers. Their last year of secondary school is dedicated to these exams and they constitute a 100% of their mark towards their university entry points. Modern languages also have a practical oral examination component. Some other subjects also have practical exams, such as music.
[ii] For further information you can consult the actual papers used in different years in: https://www.theleavingcert.com/exam-papers/spanish/
[iii] For further information you can consult: https://www.examinations.ie/?l=en&mc=sc&sc=ox