Can complexity be reduced?

Anyone who looks at a REAL grammar of a language knows the complexity we language teachers deal with. A recent comprehensive grammar of English has 3800 rules. Those who think we can teach a language by teaching rules and having students practice them might want to rethink that one.

The following post appeared on a listserv for foreign language teachers:

“A. Quien es. (asks to describe who it is)

B. Es mi primo. (statement describes who it is, shows relationship)

C. Quienes son los Hijos del Sol. (asks for description of who they are)

D. Son unas cantantes. (describes and shows occupation)

without being exact, I think these fall into the guidelines of DOCTOR Eve

D-description, O-origin, C-characteristics, T-time, O-occupation, R-relationships

As you are well aware, if one created a list of every instance of when to use SER or ESTAR, the list would be unmanageable for our students. Most of these guys just want to get through Spanish. I’m trying to give them the clearest guidelines to manage it.”

The poster makes her intentions clear: they are to simplify the grammar and give basic guidelines for students in an elementary course. For those who do not know Spanish, there are two verbs that translate usually as “to be”: ser and estar. The poster is using various forms of ’ser’. The mnemonic used- DOCTOR = description origin characteristic time occupation & relationship – seems to create more problems than it resolves.

“Description” is very vague and would fit under “characterisitc” because if the feature being described is not characteristic, then ’estar’ would be used. The poster seems to confound ’identification’ and ’description’. For identification, ’ser’ would be used but not necessarily for description. If someone is sick, I say “esta”; is that describing them? Sure it would, but it doesn’t use ’ser’.

Now I am not trying to account for all uses of these verbs. The poster makes it clear that that is not her purpose. The textbooks used carefully control the language appearing so as not to introduce anything not covered in the text. This is why many teachers fear methods using lots of input: they fear the unavoidable introduction of forms students haven’t been introduced to yet. That makes for very boring language. It also leads some students to believe that foreigners go around thinking of these rules all the time.

So my concern about using these handy-dandy lists is that they are confusing: you can describe something without identifying it. If I ask, Who is he? and the answer is The tall guy, then ’ser’ works. But if I describe you by saying, “Billy, you’re so tall!”, I would use ’estar’ b/c I am saying tallness is NOT a characteristic of Billy as I know him.

Can we come up with a better description, if you’ll pardon the word, of the uses of ’ser’ and ’estar’? Certainly, some have been written in a number of textbooks on Spanish. But does that serve this poster’s/teacher’s purpose? What if we were to trust the students to go as far as they can in learning the language by understanding messages (as Krashen would say), or by understanding stories (as the tprs folk would say)? Would they cover all the uses of ’ser’ and ’estar’? Most likely they would. Would all the students learn all of them? Of course not.

But how much will they learn in two years of being given rules like these? If I tell you, a non-Spanish-speaker, that whenever you want to identify something or someone, you use ’ser’, what does that convey to you? Do most people, let alone teenagers in high school, think they are identifying someone when they say, “He’s my sister’s boyfriend”. No, they think they’re telling you who he is. WE the great abstractors have labeled this “identifying” but most people think of it as just telling you who the guy is.

Such abstractions are difficult to grasp. Most of us don’t speak with such abstractions in mind. It is a testament to the genius of our minds that language is so complex and we speak without knowing all these grammatical categories CONSCIOUSLY. So why do we think that if we teach these categories for conscious awareness that that will lead to proficiency in a language?

Therein lies a tale. To be told another day.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *