Beating a dead horse until it revives

Yesterday two more students came to me to tell me how much they were learning in my class. They are freshmen, one Spanish-speaking and the other Hindi-speaking. Both have had extensive Sp classes in jr hi and earlier. One made the comment that they remember the words in my class.
The other day, several others talked to me in the same vein.They, too, had taken some years of Sp with no results. One is currently in third year Sp at my school and still learning nothing.
Of course, I try to tease out of them what it is about my class that they think allows them to learn. That is hard for them. Mainly it is that we use the language whereas in other classes the main activity is writing verb conjugations on the board.
Time after time, I’ve asked students what they did in other classes. That is it: verb conjugations. They have no idea what the conjugations are for. Most of the students I talk to really would like to learn some Sp but feel frustrated b/c the only thing they are graded on is……… verb conjugations. One student jumped from French to my class b/c of ………. verb conjugations. Another opted out of Sp III into first year Latin just for one year, just to get an idea of Latin vocabulary. He wound up liking the class b/c he could actually read Latin, hear Latin, and understand.
We really do have to ask ourselves the question: why do so many teachers conceive of teaching/learning a language as nothing more than, as my daughter said when taking h.s. French, “changing something on the end.” How sad. But is why the question or is it how do we get them to start using the language with students?
Look at the uphill battle facing us. All of these teachers were taught via cognitive code or even G/T. Few of them have ever seen a teacher teach any other way. They have been told over and over by professors that “you have to know your grammar” to “master” the language. They believe firmly that learning a language consists of negotiating building blocks: you master one part, then go on to the next, then to the next, until it all comes together and you can read and speak the language. Except it doesn’t come together.
One man unwittingly gave a very good example of what happens to grammar-taught students who wind up speaking the language. He had studied German in school and had been trained in a language center for a mission for his church. Once arrived in Austria, he was dumbfounded, lost. Then one day, as he put it, he stepped out onto the sidewalk from his apartment, looked up at the sky, and all of a sudden German made sense to him.
What had happened was that he had been listening to German since arriving in country. I am not one to deny that the training in traditional methods did not play some role; it may have but research is just not refined enough to tell us it does. The pivot point is the experience of using the language for communication. It all came together for him at once. Too few language students ever have this experience.
Yet I have students tell me this sort of thing all the time, about my class. One student, as I related in an earlier entry, told me in third year that he had picked up the first year book and looked at the grammar that had puzzled him first year and now it looked ridiculously easy. 
Why is it our teachers do not understand that an understanding of grammar can come only in a language you already understand. Language proficiency does not come from grammar study. They cannot and will not grasp that. As one teacher told me when I questioned the thousands of worksheets he graded every week, they have to learn the grammar somehow. Do they learn it, I asked ? Smiling sheepishly, he replied, “No.”
But the structure is well supported. I’ve argued with professors who cite studies; they never cite the studies that show why those studies are wrong. And they dismiss anyone who denies the efficacy of grammar instruction. We are dealing with an entrenched elite who basks in the reputation adhering to multilingual people for being very, very smart. That disgusts me.
So what will happen? I think tprs will eventually swamp all other methods, based just on the ability of tprs to teach a language.

Leave a Reply

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