Tips for Potential Grad Students: Languages
By Dana Paramskas
These tips are applicable to all second language learning disciplines:
1. First and foremost, think deeply about your research interests. For example, are you most interested in literary studies? Or rather in applied fields such as linguistics for language learning pedagogy?
In the first case, try to identify a theme, an author or a period; then research the various universities to see if there are faculty there who are specialists in the area that interests you. If possible, contact such faculty and ask them for suggestions, describing your existing interests. This will not only give you food for thought, but should you continue in that vein, you might well acquire, ahead of time, valuable faculty allies.
In the second case, look for a university/department which has a strong record in that field. Check out the various sub-disciplines, and the publications described for faculty. Check that the institution offers the option of being a Graduate Teaching Assistant, specifically in the applied area of interest. While most graduate programs offer GTA experience, you may end up working in an area outside of your particular interests, which might not be all that useful as experience.
2. Look beyond the MA: these days, stopping with just an MA tends to be a handicap re: employment, especially in the literary field, where openings usually require a PhD. Even in the applied areas, having "just" an MA will most likely land you in the not-so-comfortable situation of being a contractual/sessional, not having a tenure-track position. Once in that situation, it is very hard to improve credentials, since contractuals often have a heavy teaching load, with little time for continuing graduate studies.
3. And finally, some considerations which may appear superficial, but which can greatly increase or decrease the graduate experience:
- Are you most comfortable in a small institution, or do you prefer the excitement of a large institution in a large city? While the smaller institutions may not offer all the expertise in your field, you will most likely be assured of close personal contacts and support from faculty. In a large institution, in a strange big city, there is, in addition to the excitement, a certain sink-or-swim effect which might make your debut there a bit more difficult.
- In the case of second languages: few students are bilingual in the strict sense of the term at the end of the BA. Take advantage of your undergraduate summers to immerse yourself in a region which uses predominantly the language you are interested in. If financially possible, go for a short course combined with cultural contacts (this is available for free for French/English in Canada: the Explore/Odyssey programs http://www.myexplore.ca/en/ and http://www.myexplore.ca/en/page/?agent). If finances are a problem, look into volunteering with any number of international agencies in a country which speaks the language you are interested in. You won't get rich, but you won't starve either, and the experience is tremendous on both a personal and cultural level, not to mention being very impressive on a Graduate Studies application... Several European nations (France, Germany, Spain among others) offer exchange programs with North American universities: the student goes to the country for an academic year, works as a teaching assistant at the secondary level in applied conversation seminars for English as a second language. You get only a living wage, but great experience and often many lifelong contacts in the other country. This is usually done after finishing the BA and before starting Graduate Studies. Most Graduate Programs will allow you to apply with an extension after acceptance, if the reason is this sort of improvement in your skills.
- Remember that the language skills you have acquired during the BA tend to be academic ones, even if you have participated in a year abroad with your undergraduate institution... a year abroad is certainly recommendable, but most often the experience is in a sheltered environment, with few chances of interacting on a daily basis with native speakers. To be a truly outstanding candidate for Graduate Studies, your skills need to include colloquial mastery of language, on-the-ground experience with the culture in question. These skills can only be acquired by actually living/learning on your own in the linguistic area of interest. For French, an anecdote: a student of mine, whose language skills were rather weak, decided to just go to Quebec and apply for a job after her second year, which job she found rather easily during the tourist season, since English is a prime requirement for employment dealing with tourists. She ended up being a cashier in a restaurant... hard going at first, but when she got back, she was not only colloquially fluent, but her accent in French was no longer painfully anglophone; she was speaking like a native. Her grades soared and she went on successfully to Graduate Studies.
Dana Paramskas, Department of French Studies, University of Guelph, and 3M National Teaching Fellow.
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