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Wednesday, December 01, 2021
Graphic of a professor un front of foreign words

Face masks have added an additional roadblock to the pathway to in-person language classes, but UF administration isn’t buying professors, chairs and directors’ reasoning to stay online. 

Japanese, Spanish and Russian professors said they would prefer to teach through a digital screen rather than lose the ability to read students’ lips, but Provost Joseph Glover argues otherwise. 

Four UF language chairs and directors sent a letter to Provost Joseph Glover on Oct. 13 asking for non-English courses to remain online during the Spring. Glover wrote that he wasn’t convinced by their reason to stay online and that they should redirect their questions to the dean, according to email records.

“Based on experience, I don’t buy the argument that students six feet apart cannot communicate,” Glover wrote in response to the letter. 

President Fuchs pledged on Oct. 9 to increase in-person Spring courses. UF administrators have encouraged Hyflex, short for Hybrid-Flexible, which offers courses online and face-to-face simultaneously. 

By doing so, language professors will have to wear a face mask. They argue it will make foreign language apprehension more difficult. 

Brittany Wise, UF director of communications, said that the administration is planning to give students and language instructors clear face masks for in-person instruction but is not sure when. 

Spanish lecturer Kathryn Dwyer Navajas, who has taught at UF for two decades, said language learning relies on close communication. Students sitting 6 feet apart with clear face masks would be an impediment, Navajas said.

She can’t envision standing in front of a fraction of students as the majority log in online in the Spring. It abandons effective communication, she said. 

“It's a little bit like being in the circus with the poles and the plates,” Navajas said. “We can only teach effectively one group or the other.

Some students struggle with the letter “R,” which sounds more like a “D” or is rolled to create the “erre” sound in Spanish. Face masks will only make it more challenging, she said.

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“Even in English, it's hard to hear people with masks when they talk,” she said. “Can you imagine students who are a little bit timid about projecting in a second language?”

Navajas said that students in language classes also have to group-up with other students to practice conversing. Most language courses have a 25-student capacity and with CDC guidelines, the smallest classrooms can hold as few as two. As a result, in-class students will be limited to less students, she said.

While she looks forward to being back in the classroom, she finds the Hyflex format to be ineffective.

“I don't know that there's any research that establishes that this is an effective way of teaching anything, never mind languages,” she said.

Japanese lecturer Yasuo Uotate said his assigned 25-person Spring classroom in Matherly hall doesn’t allow for much social distancing. 

“Do you want to sign up for a class with only you and another classmate?” he asked. “No, right.”

He added that in Japanese, words like “Florida” and “computer” are borrowed, but the pronunciation is not. The F-sound is replaced with the H-sound in hoop, forcing the lip to pucker.

“In person, I can say HOO-OR-I-DA pointing out my lip,” he said. “But if I'm wearing my mask, students cannot see it.”

Spencer Farfante, an 18-year-old UF exploratory engineering freshman, is taking a Spanish intensive communications course this Fall and said masks in the classroom would be an added challenge when understanding pronunciation.

“That would be awful,” Farfante said. “If the Spanish is just a little muffled, that would just be very difficult because it's not your native language.” 

UF professor Alexander Burak also sees teaching in a Hyflex format with face masks as a hindrance and technological inconvenience during his Russian course. 

It’s important to see what’s happening with students’ lips, tongues and facial expressions, he wrote in an email.

A petition, initiated by UF faculty in the history department, has circulated rejecting face-to-face classes in the Spring semester. More than 820 faculty members have signed it, including Burak. 

“Under the current dire circumstances, teaching language synchronously/remotely on Zoom as a temporary measure would be the best solution,” he wrote.

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