UP awards first master’s degree in Spanish

Posted on April 17, 2020

The University of Pretoria (UP) has awarded its first master’s degree in Spanish to Monica van Dyk of its Department of Ancient and Modern Languages and Cultures. Her thesis investigates how the listening skills of students learning the language improved with watching subtitled films.

Van Dyk is one of 11 000 University of Pretoria (UP) graduates who were awarded their qualifications in absentia on 6 April 2020, during a virtual ceremony necessitated by the global COVID-19 pandemic.

 “I feel extremely proud and happy to be the first recipient of a master’s in Spanish at UP,” Van Dyk says. “This journey was possible because of my supportive parents, friends and supervisors who encouraged and guided me. Receiving this degree means a lot to me – I hope it will show other students that it is possible as a South African to pursue a degree in Spanish up to a master’s or even doctoral level.”

Van Dyk’s love of languages began in high school, where she studied French; it was only when she arrived at UP that she took up Spanish. “My mother, who is from Argentina, always spoke to me in Spanish, so I was able to speak a little,” she says. “But my passion for the language was ignited in first year when I started my degree in BA Languages. I was very excited to know that the university offered so many foreign languages.”

Her thesis, which is written in Spanish, focuses on how the language is learnt and specifically on how the listening skills of students improve after watching subtitled films. Van Dyk says her aim wasn’t to find out if these skills improved ­or not – all of the studies she had researched concluded that listening skills do in fact get better with watching subtitled films. Her aim was to find out how this occurred.

“I used three theories to explain how the stimulus and input received from various channels – audio and visual – impacted the way students store this information in their long-term memories for later use,” Van Dyk says. “The types of videos used in each study were very different and not specific to any genre. What I focused on were the type of subtitles used, the way in which the videos were presented to students and the level of language used in each video, among other things.”

In an increasingly globalised world, learning another language has become really important. Van Dyk believes it is one way to gain a competitive edge in the international arena.

“We are very lucky that there are so many languages to choose to study at UP, specifically foreign languages,” she says. “It’s extremely important to learn another language, as it immediately sets you apart in the working world – this is especially true for Spanish as it is the second-most widely spoken language in the world, after Mandarin. It opens so many doors and opportunities for jobs in South Africa and abroad.

“Another incredible aspect of learning another language is the culture that comes with it. Spanish is spoken in so many countries, and not only do you learn the beautiful language, but you immerse yourself in a culture of new food, music, dance, literature and the rich history that comes with each country.”

Now a staff member in the Department of Ancient and Modern Languages and Cultures, Van Dyk is working on the Teletandem project, which gives students of Spanish an opportunity to practise the language outside of the classroom.

“A language school in Mexico approached us to take part in this project and we were very happy because the students would be able to practise their speaking skills with people from Spanish-speaking countries who are fluent in the language,” Van Dyk explains.

UP students are paired with a student in Mexico who they have hourly video calls with once or twice a week. “Our students speak Spanish and the other students speak English,” Van Dyk says. “The students are really enjoying taking part in this project because not only do they get to speak Spanish and learn new phrases and colloquial ways of speaking the language, but they also learn about other cultures and ways of life.”

Van Dyk is disappointed about the postponement of traditional graduation ceremonies, but happy that she was able to officially graduate – albeit in an online ceremony. “I am sad that I won't be able to celebrate my graduation at the usual ceremony,” she says. “But these are extraordinary circumstances and the university is doing its best to support students as best they can during this difficult time. For now, I will be celebrating at home with a paper graduation hat and a virtual party with my family.”

- Author Masego Panyane

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