Why modern language study is afraid to loosen up

Much of the attitude toward rigor in fl instruction can be traced back to the struggle modern languages had to be accepted in the face of the dominance of Latin and Greek. Modern languages had to show not just their utility but how they added to the curriculum of mental, moral, and emotional development.

While those goals are worthy, they were interpreted, when it came to languages, as deriving from the level of logic and analyticity required to learn the language. Latin and Greek were deemed the most excellent of all subjects, along with mathematics, for mental development. Modern languages were easily learned, it seemed, by simple parrotting (pace Harley). The irony is that the rigid attitudes to the teaching of the classical languages arose at a time when a technique called the Natural Method for teaching modern languages was popular, a technique very similar to what is now called communicative language teaching. Krashen and Terrell developed something they called the Natural Approach; this is different from The Natural Method. This is why Krashen refuses to call the grammar-translation method and the behavioristic and cognitive based methods “traditional”; it was the communicative method, often in the form of The Natural Method that was traditional.

The rigidity of grammar instruction is illustrated in an anecdote related by Lawrence Levine in The Opening of the American Mind. He tells how a Harvard professor of Greek was reprimanded for going beyond the analyzing of the grammar and syntax of each sentence and encouraging the students to understand what the sentence meant! He persisted and was fired. The actual meaning of the words was considered subsidiary to the force of analyzing grammar in developing the mind. People should keep this in mind when they assume that persons of the 19th century could read Latin and Greek fluently. Simply by taking the languages for as many as eleven years would instill familiarity with the languages, at least for some, but the goal was not the sort of easy fluency with the written word we strive for now.

So the modern languages had to appear to replicate in some way the aridity and form-obsessed approach to teaching the classical languages. Thus was born the paradigm chart and the noun list. If the little darlings were learning to chant dozens of verb endings and memorize hundreds of nouns by their gender, then that must be good for something. Unfortunately, it did not stop us from falling into World Wars I and II. So much for logic – but then, they were studying Latin and the Romans were a blood-thirsty bunch, so maybe there was some effect.

So when you run into a language teacher who insists we must keep the focus on grammar and memorization in order to develop the minds of the students, just remember that you are listening to a relic, a vestige, a hold-over, and appreciate the teacher the way you would a fine vase in a museum.

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