Or: What do you call the place at your university where you can independently learn up to 20 different languages for free?
The answer is, quite simply, the Self-Access Centre (or SAC for short), situated in Pinni B5071 in the Language Centre. As the name may, or then again, may not suggest (we’ll get back to this name business later on in this post), the SAC is a concrete space which both students AND members of staff can freely access – both physically and monetarily! – and where they can themselves start to learn a new language or then brush up or improve an existing one.
The University of Tampere SAC is now in its seventh iteration, with the first one dating back to the 1980s, making it nearly as old as the Language Centre itself. As you can see, language learning at the time was pushing the boundaries of technology – if it wasn’t on audio-cassette it wasn’t worth doing!
In addition, the cassettes were all marked with a code rather than the actual name of the language, rather similar to the system in Alko at the time (how on earth people worked out that ‘1514’ was a Saint-Émilion I don’t know!). Needless to say such a system was not conducive to browsing, either in Alko or in the SAC.
Since then, the SAC has changed in both size and location, with moves from E-wing to C-wing, and back to E-wing, before reaching its present premises in Pinni B in 2012.
Compared to the original SAC, there are number of important differences, one being the realization that learning happens best in a relaxed atmosphere, as witnessed by the colourful and comfy couches, so comfy in fact that visitors have been known to stretch out, close their eyes and indulge in what we pedagogical types call ‘deep learning’ (aka taking a nap).
Another difference is in the range of languages we have to offer, which seems to have developed in inverse proportion to the number of languages taught at the Language Centre. For example, although Arabic and Italian are no longer part of the teaching programme, they are now available for self-study via the SAC.
A third difference is of course the onward march of technology. Gone are the serried ranks of coded audio-cassettes (we realized they were no longer cutting-edge when students started to look at them in bewilderment!), replaced by CDs, DVDs, CD-ROMS, URLs, satellite TV, digital recorders and yes, even books (including novels you can borrow). We are now collecting information on the best language learning apps to add to our new website (a link to which will be available very soon via the Language Centre page).
Despite the explosion in the number of technological aids, one thing which we have learnt over the years is that paradoxically, when learning a language independently rather than as part of a taught course, just interacting with a machine is not necessarily enough, however good the interface may be. This then brings us to our fourth difference: the human element of (language) learning.
In the 1980s, access to the SAC was via a secretary, who would open the door for you and then leave you with the cassettes and the machine (so much for ‘self-access’!). Nowadays, not only is our door always open during opening hours (Mondays to Thursdays 10 – 16 and Fridays 10 – 16), but we also have a supervisor on duty, a student of languages or speech communication, who is there to give assistance with materials and facilities.
In addition, each of our supervisors is available to give help with questions you may have regarding a certain language through our ‘Language Clinics’. These are currently available in Finnish as a foreign language, French, German as well as Russian. We hope to add further languages in the future and also to provide sessions for university staff on how to plan a self-study programme and make best use of the facilities to improve their language skills.
The supervisors also organize language and culture related events on a regular basis. In the past we have celebrated the European Day of Languages, Chinese New Year and Fasching (German carnival) among others. At the moment we have a ‘Russian Easter Week’ ongoing, which will be followed by the ‘Summer Event’ to allow you to brush up on your useful holiday phrases in different languages before the SAC itself closes for its summer holidays on 13th May.
Our supervisors are also directly involved in supporting increased internationalisation among the student body, most noticeably through the ‘Language Link’ event. This particular event has allowed students – both Finnish and international – to meet up with potential ‘language learning buddies’ to enable the learning of each other’s language. We hope to run a Language Link event for staff this coming autumn as well.
In addition, the supervisors assist in enrolling students on the ‘Cultural Conversations’ course in the Intercultural Studies programme and in forming them into multicultural groups so as to best allow for the development of intercultural skills.
Finally, our supervisors are also regular contributors to the Language Centre and SAC Facebook page where they are currently running a competition to gather the best ‘Tips n Tricks’ for language learning. (And did I say that there’s a major prize to be won?)
Needless to say, it is this human element, our supervisors, which is the most important difference of all: without them the SAC would not essentially be so very much different from what it was in the 80s.
The final difference between the SAC in the 80s and the present-day iteration is in the Finnish name, which brings us back to the title of this post, “What’s in a name?” In 2012, with the move to the present premises, the original Finnish name of ‘Itseopiskelukeskus’ (‘Self-Study Centre’) was changed to ‘Kielten oppimiskeskus’ (‘Language Learning Centre’). Although this works in Finnish, the English translation of this, while perhaps being more descriptive than the present name, can however just lead to more confusion; after all, isn’t the Language Centre itself a ‘Language Learning Centre’. At least we hope it is!
The challenge therefore would be to coin a name which would be descriptive, short enough, and lend itself to an easily-remembered acronym. Somehow ‘Self-Access Language Learning Centre’ (SALLC) doesn’t quite make the grade. Maybe there’s a Facebook competition in there somewhere?
However, regardless of what “the place at your university where you can independently learn up to 20 different languages for free” is called, we are quite certain that it will continue to play an important role in supporting the language learning, and hence the internationalisation, of both students and staff for many years to come.
Lecturer and SAC co-ordinator, Language Centre
P.S. As for myself, I think I will be sticking with ‘SAC’; after all, it has a rather Gallic ring to it, “On se retrouve au SAC, d’accord?” And if you don’t know what that means, I’ll see you by the Romance languages section… in the SAC!