A good blog entry re grammar as a way to cull the unworthy

Well done. The blog item misses the point, however. The idea is to throw in as much abstract and confusing material as possible to show how smart the teacher is and to cull the ne’er-do-well students who can’t/won’t memorize all of it. Then we can parade the few who do and laud them for having a “talent” or an “ear” for language.

Subject: interesting blog post
Here is an interesting post called “avoiding ’pet’ grammar.” It starts off talking about the vosotros form in Spanish then moves on to a discussion about grammar teaching in general. http://musicuentos.blogspot.com/

Way too long ago I saw a few tweets from some Twitter friends, also Spanish teachers, retweeting and agreeing with this post about how students in U.S. Spanish classes should learn the vosotros. It caused a twinge of guilt in me, I’ll admit, because I don’t teach the vosotros. We call it “that y’all -ais isteis ending they use in Spain” every once in a while when it comes up in conversation, but I don’t explicitly teach it, not even in AP Spanish. Why? Because I like to think I’m on a mission to get my students communicative in the comparatively tiny amount of time I have, and vosotros isn’t part of it. But what if they’re right? What if I’m cheating them out of something, just because never in my Spanish-speaking 20 years have I ever used or needed the vosotros form? So, I thought, I’ll ask. I do have one student in my six years of teaching who did study abroad in Spain. Also, my colleague who teaches lower-level Spanish with me studied abroad in Spain. I’ll ask them. My colleague told me that she thought it’s a good idea to introduce it so they can recognize it when they see it, but other than that it’s more or less a waste of time. As for my former student, here’s what she told me via facebook message:
“Having spent time in Spain I think I would still agree with you that spending a lot of time teaching vosotros isn’t really needed. I think as long as you told your students what it is and maybe went over some of the verbs like ir, comer, and hablar to give them an idea of how it works. I think the best explanation of it is to tell them it is the form the Spaniards use for y’all.”

Whew, mental forehead wipe. So the two people I know who might have told me I’d been cheating my students reassured me that as long as they know what it is, it’s not a big deal if they can’t really use it.

What makes me think this even more is the Latin American use of vos. I had friends in Texas who regularly used the preterite conjugation of vosotros with me as a conjugation of vos, which isn’t taught in any textbook. What about that?

This got me thinking more about pet grammar and about my own shortcomings. How much time do we as teachers spend teaching stuff that’s just uncommunicative junk that doesn’t matter? Take me, for instance. Would you believe that at the beginning of this year I actually spend a few days and a good part of a test teaching and evaluating the presence or absence of the definite article before a qualified or unqualified profession word? I mean, come on! (If you’re as lost as you should be, what I mean is, ’él es abogado’ vs. ’él es un buen abogado’.) Where in the grand scheme of communicative language teaching did I need to waste time on that?

Another example: I distinctly remember having to memorize in college a list of the country words in Spanish and which ones typically did or did not take the definite article. I remember memorizing that you have to use la Argentina instead of just Argentina. Fast forward to now when I regularly read news articles in Spanish on website and see en Argentina, de Argentina, desde Argentina. Wait, where, what? Why did I memorize that again?

Let me hit a little closer to home–verb conjugations. Oh how we love to drill them, practice them, mark them wrong, am I right? A few weeks ago Laura Pausini put on her twitter feed @officialpausini that she wanted people to donate to Haiti or Chile earthquake relief, can’t remember which, and “yo también lo hizo.” ¿Hizo? Sure, you say, but Laura is actually Italian. But she speaks Spanish quite fluently and makes more money singing in Spanish than in Italian.

But let’s talk native Spanish speakers. My students and I were doing some class activities regarding the wave of violence in Ciudad Juárez and watched some videos, including one showing a protest sign that read “Señor Presidente, hasta que encuentremos el culpable…” What a minor detail, that stem change that shouldn’t be there in an -ar subjunctive, but I remember how much we studied those little details.

Pet grammar. If it’s your goal, fine, but I’d argue that’s when you’re really cheating your students–cheating them of the opportunity to be communicative. Grammatical accuracy comes with a whole lot of time and comprehensible input, and in the meantime, why not just have fun with communication? My most communicative students are the ones whose verb accuracy is all over the place, but their affective filters are low and they’re willing to experiment and have fun and just lay it out there and try it and negotiate meaning. One of them just won first place in level 4 oral proficiency at the district language festival and I can assure you my college Spanish professor would be appalled at her verb accuracy. But when she goes to a restaurant and tries her best to chat about whatever she can think of, I can assure you the people there couldn’t care less.

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