Laying the groundwork for learning

As I was sorting my picture files out in the garage and thinking about how students will talk and write about the pictures after we have discussed them and related them to stories, personalized them, etc. a thought hit me.

When I entered the graduate counseling program in 1971, I had already had over five years? experience as a counselor and social worker. As I went through the program over a two year period with a cohort of about 60 other grad students, I often got a comment from them that has stuck with me.

They said that for them, mostly classroom teachers, what the professors were telling us had little meaning and was hard to grasp and to apply. But since our classes were informal, often just a bunch of us sitting around on the floor (ah! those were the days, my friend), I would give examples of what the professors were presenting as counseling principles used in actual settings with clients.

The students said that this helped immensely to grasp the application of principles like physical context, family environment, encouragement to talk, non-directive therapy, cultural styles in conflict, role expectations, etc. The professors often had little “field? experience whereas I had worked in a welfare office, in a job training facility, and had had several other personal experiences that served as examples of how these otherwise abstract principles work out in practice.

Fortunately, our counseling training included a practicum. That gave students some context in which to put all these things. But then, how do I relate this to language learning?

I stumbled around in Spanish-speaking environments quite a bit when I was younger (I started teaching languages when I was about 47). Because I love grammar and language books, I would always look up stuff I heard. But I heard it and understood it FIRST. Only then did I seek an explanation.

A good example is “Ahi viene el patron” – here comes the boss. I alway heard that as “Hay viene….” Eventually, that it was “ahi? cleared up the confusion in a nice way that really locked the two words in for me. After all, historically they are related, I believe. It is not hard to confuse the two.

Most of my Russian comes from reading but there the same thing applies: read it and understand it, then look up grammar stuff to figure out why it is done that way. Then the grammar rule elucidates. Even phonetics can be done this way. Two sounds in Russian really bothered me: the “i kratkoe? or “y? sound at the end of words like “moy? (my) sometimes sounded like a whispered velar “h’. Also, the “i? at the end of words sometimes sounded like “ye? instead of “i’.

After lots of searching, I finally found explanations in books on Russian phonetics: I wasn’t hearing things, those are clearly established variants in Standard Russian. I since have checked them out with native speakers but they are not reliable since they typically overlook such variants and just don’t hear them. One person even told me, when I said “russki,? “Yeah, we say it the same: russkye”. It can drive you nuts.

So my point in all this is that presenting lots of grammar rules FIRST doesn’t help as much as engaging the learner with the language as a form of communication FIRST, then clarifying things with rules.

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