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My experience learning English at the University of Porto, Portugal by Zuzana Maderová
Everybody knows that the best way to learn a foreign language is to go to a country where the language is spoken. That's why in my first year I checked what scholarships are available for students who would like to spend a term or two abroad. I study English in combination with Portuguese so I was considering England or Portugal. But because in Slovakia it is more difficult to study Portuguese than English, I decided to go to Portugal. There are several scholarship opportunities available for those eager to go to Portugal. One of them is the popular Erasmus program. I tried taking my chance, applied and was chosen. I spent the summer term of 2011 at the University of Porto. Although my primary goal was to improve my Portuguese, I did not want my English to become rusty. Therefore, I did not hesitate and included some English classes into my study plan. I did not know what level to expect, so I chose a Bachelor’s course for second-year students. It differed from our courses a lot, that's why I would like to tell you about it and share my experience with you.
Before the first class I was really curious. The course guidebook contained only a brief course description and the teacher's name. At the University of Porto there is a rule that only native speakers can teach practical language courses. In the case of English they must come from Great Britain. Practical language courses usually consist of 4 hours a week which are divided into two blocks of 120 minutes. In general, students do not attend more than 6 courses a term. Each is worth 6 credits, so they have fewer courses, but on the other hand the courses require harder and more intensive work on the part of students.
The first block of the practical English course was focused on conversation. At the beginning the teacher divided students into two groups and assigned them a motion to debate. It pertained to one of the two main fields that the course focused on. During the term that I spent in Porto, we talked about economy and languages. One group was expected to think of arguments which were in favour of the motion and the other of arguments against it. Everybody had to speak for at least 5 minutes, then students talked to each other and at the end, their performance was assessed.
I liked the classes a lot. As students did not have to study or prepare for them and they were only required to come and express their opinion, almost nobody skipped them. The atmosphere was relaxed, so students were not inhibited to speak and discussed things passionately. The teacher had a lot of creative ideas. Once we had to come up with a whole marketing campaign for some made-up products such as a self-driving car, floating furniture etc. The majority of students chose a self-driving car. We had to agree on who our target customers would be. One of the groups got a wonderful idea of selling the car to young people who love going to parties. With a self-driving car, they could drink and drive. They chose the Hollywood star Lindsay Lohan to endorse their campaign as she is known to have had problems with law enforcement as a result of drink-driving.
The second block focused on other language skills and required more preparation on the part of students. It combined listening comprehension, grammar and writing. We often listened to parliamentary discussions, TV and radio interviews or reports. Again, all the listening exercises were related to economy and languages. We did advanced grammar and writing as well. It is true that most of the things we did would have been considered laughably easy by Slovak students, but on the other hand, Portuguese students were incomparably better at speaking and communication than most of us as more time is dedicated to improving these skills at their university. I do not claim that grammar is not important – of course, it is – but speaking and communication are just as important. Unfortunately, our study program does not develop these skills as well as it probably should.
The teacher usually brought a stereo into the class. At first, I thought that it was only for the listening practice, but he also used it for a different purpose. While we did some exercises or worked on our own, he turned the stereo on and played some classical music for us.
The final grade consisted of five parts. We were awarded a participation grade that was determined as an average of our grades for individual speaking sessions, then we took a listening test, a grammar and vocabulary test, wrote an essay and sat an oral exam. For the oral exam we had to read a book, either Week in December, a novel by Sebastian Faulks, or Super Freakonomics, a funny book about economic issues. In my opinion, the final grade truly reflected a person’s overall knowledge of English as all the language skills were included.
Courses like this are an integral part of all language study programs at the University of Porto no matter if one studies interpreting, translation, philology or teaching. It may seem that they are not different from preparatory courses for school-leaving exams and they are easy to pass, but it is not true. One is not graded for what one has memorized from books but for how one can speak and react. And this skill is oftentimes more difficult to acquire than theoretical knowledge. I found the course of practical English I attended in Porto very helpful and I believe most of us would appreciate if courses like this were part and parcel of our university curriculum too.