What’s Wrong With the Way We Teach Languages

Usually my experience in doing therapy tells me to focus on what’s right. I recall being directed to make treatment plans based on getting to behaviors that are positive, not getting rid of behaviors we don’t like. It proved revolutionary for me, granting a constant forward movement to the treatment as opposed to dashing yourself against a brick wall. But right now I am struck by the number of useless things fl teachers do either in the hopes that they will get to proficiency or just to follow the inane curriculum we are given.
We start like old-fashioned grammar books like Teach Yourself Estonian in Three Months: first we learn the alphabet, then we learn the sounds associated with the letters. After that we “learn” vocabulary via memorization, often vocabulary either with no discernable theme or a theme that is not usable in providing input. Part of learning the vocabulary is learning to spell correctly. Within short order we are combining the correctly spelled words into short sentences, disconnected sentences. In order to do that, we must learn the grammar.
The grammar is cast as various changes in words to make them go together in the sentence, subjects, objects, tenses, etc. The changes receive all the focus while simplistic purposes are assigned to these forms, like “past tense”. The word “aspect” hardly ever appears in textbooks unless they are treating Slavic languages; non-Slavic languages have aspect but it is always labeled a tense. The perfect forms are described as designating a completed action and it is left at that. Imperfect aspect is said to describe or label an incomplete action or on-going action.
Elements of sentences are seldom dealt with except to describe interrogative word order and negatives are introduced, sometimes haphazardly, sometimes as a “unit”. Adverbs of all kinds are lumped together as if students understand their function simply by being given an English translation.
Thus we stumble and crash to the end of the year but not the end of the book. We can count on teachers “covering” one half to three quarters of the textbook only to start over with a new book at the start of the following year. It is no wonder second year textbooks have extensive “review”, which often is a matter of going over material never learned and often not even “covered”. Somehow, teachers believe that if they “covered” a grammatical topic, the “good kids” can now use it to function in the language.
How did all this come about? First of all, we must recognize that most fl teachers have next to no knowledge of linguistic science. In fact, professors of fl often repeat language myths. Teachers of one language often speak of other languages in wonder, as if gender is specific to the language they studied in school or as if words borrowed into another language mean that the two languages are related genetically. Myths like the one that says Latin is the basis of all European languages or even of all languages, period. The focus is on grammar features that really play no huge part in communicating in the language, e.g. irregular verbs; mastery of those forms is seen as a sine qua non of a good fl teacher.
This focus on tiny details reaches its apogee in the typical grammar-based Latin textbook (believe it or not, not all are) where the entire first declension is presented in all its forms even though the students have no idea what a noun is, a declension is, or a case is. It’s all presented as a kind of magical charm, possession of which makes you a magical person called a sophomore or a second year Latin student. Smoke and mirrors. The corker is that these first declension nouns are shown to end in a and to be feminine, EXCEPT nauta, agricola and poeta, which are masculine despite ending in a. You can bet that those three words will appear on the first test and you had better get the gender right masculine.
A friend of mine introduced me to the phrase “the appearance of magic”. This sort of nonsense embodies this appearance of magic, this key to the kingdom of superior people. As one wag put it: “A gentleman need not know Latin, but he must at least have forgotten it.” Just the other day, the eighty-seventh person exclaimed on seeing my Latin textbook, “I took Latin. Veni vidi vici that’s all I remember.” I bite my tongue and refuse to utter, “What a waste.” A number of Latin teachers have sworn they’ll throw up the next time someone says that. Do we want to change that, so someone says, “You know, just last month I ran across a nice Medieval fable in Latin and read it.” We won’t get there if we introduce 17 year olds to Vergil.
On top of a failure to grasp how languages are structured, fl teachers are under pressure to conform to curricula ……. OK, curriculums I am a Latin teacher after all. Who designs the curriculums and to what purpose? Besides the more recent hail of demands from state and federal agencies, we have hoary tradition. Modern languages have been commonly taught for well over a hundred years now and have developed traditions. Those traditions are based on practices derived from mistaken notions of how people learn languages and on goals other than proficiency in the language.
At this point, with so much criticism, it is time to make clear that much of the activity that does not lead to proficiency is not in itself bad. Latin mythology, grammar principles, foreign cultures, literary devices….. all those are worthy in their own right. But in a fl class one would hope to gain some level of proficiency, even if it’s only enough to understand a newspaper article or read a fable, and that after four years of study, the focus has to be constantly on using the language.
To go back for a moment to the pressure to conform to curricular goals: few governmental or non-fl agencies or institutions address fl. That is because, of course, few people in those places know a fl. They’ve only studied one in school and believe that the normal outcome of such activity is incomprehension. Just ask yourself how many training sessions have you as a fl teacher gone to only to find yourself placed with English or asked to work out something for yourself. I recall the shock I felt when I was sent to AVID training and they had a huge session the equal in numbers and time allotted to all the major disciplines like social studies and mathematics. In the past, I enjoyed being ignored because it left me free to teach the language. Recently, with curriculum mapping and so forth, the models often presented are grammar feature heavy. We are supposed to jump from tense to tense, direct object to indirect object, indicative mood to subjunctive mood, conjunctions to adverbs, and so on you know the drill.
At the state level, at least in my state of AZ and, I know, in many others, the standards do reflect communicative goals. Those tend to get subverted by the veteran teachers who have no plan to give up their blessed conjugation charts and see any challenge to that as a threat. It is funny they don’t have enough confidence in their method to let us do what we do and let them teach the grammar. After all, second year is a repeat of the first in much of the material and third year seems to go over and over the same thing.
If I may take Spanish as an example, most teachers and most textbooks want students to learn the system of various types of verbs, the spelling system, how to pronounce the sounds of Spanish, the use or non-use of pronouns, a phenomenon know as reflexive verbs, and at least two tenses: present and preterit. Some introduce the imperfect. All of these topics are intensely abstract. If you ask the typical person speaking a language how he nominalizes a clause, he’ll have no idea what you are talking about. If you ask him why he used the preterit instead of the imperfect, he will have no coherent explanation. If you ask him why he put a “le” before the verb which is then followed by an indirect object, he will not be able to explain. If you ask him why he made a verb reflexive, he certainly will not respond with “because the action comes back onto the subject”, especially if he has just written, “Venganse, muchachos!”
All the while, the teacher may actually be speaking a little Spanish, but it will not be carefully graded so as to contain language the student understands. Rather it will be formulaic and not meant to build an internal model of the target language. Essentially, it falls on deaf ears because the ears have not been prepared to receive the target language as input. Little will stick. And with not enough language to engage anyone, and therefore no opportunity, even those items will be lost. The student will emerge from two to four years of study with no functional ability in the target language. And pitifully, all he will remember is that you change something on the verbs that’s what Spanish is all about and he just doesn’t grasp how those Spanish-speakers go around thinking all the time about whether it’s time to use ser or estar.
I am going to take a day off soon and I am going to ask for a particular sub. This sub used to work at the school teaching Spanish. He would grade mountains of worksheets, spilling untold gallons of red ink and I would ask him, “You were raised in Phoenix right near where I grew up and about the same time. Why don’t you tell the students what it was like growing up here in Spanish?” I’ll try it with him. Before hand, I might give him a sample script to show him how to circle a la tprs, how to go slow, slow, slow; how to draw pictures on the board; how to check for understanding; how to use the one kid in each class who knows some Spanish from home. The latter proves that Spanish is a means of communication: if one of my buddies can understand that crap, it must actually mean something. I know he will be reluctant because he’s learned that Spanish is not something gringo kids learn; it’s just a school subject. Another thing about what we used to call Chicanos: Spanish is socially triggered, i.e you don’t speak it until someone speaks it to you, usually a relative or someone who “looks like you”, meaning another Chicano. The idea of actually conversing with people who are native speakers like he is seems a bit perverse, it’s not natural, it violates the natural order of things. Back in the old days, I worked with a lot of Chicanos and I remember how they used to marvel at a “gabacho” who could speak Spanish, or a Negro ese negro habla muy bien, man. No lie. Just amazing to them.
The other two native speakers in my school who teach Spanish are from Spanish-speaking countries, so I don’t think they have that problem.
There are other factors at work, but as long as we think breaking the language down into a bunch of abstract and simplistic rules and force-feeding them to young kids, we will continue to produce mutes in the TL. It will be nothing but something where you change something…… on a test.

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