I attended what may be my last AATSEEL meeting today. I knew few people, about 3, time moves on. I started attending in the 70s, 73 I think, b/c I was interested in the Russian language. I became a member of Dobro Slovo, the Slavic honor society, little knowing one day I would teach Russian. The presentations, 4 of them by grad students, were well done and interesting. Most were on civil society and I questioned that, was that a theme of the meeting. No, but it’s the interest of an organization with very large grants to give to study in Russia. It was a good example of how money drives the direction of research. That’s not to disparage the students’ work; they clearly had spent a lot of years in the field of law, addiction, and disabilities.
Of major interest to me was a somewhat heated conversation I had with a woman who has great experience in dealing with government programs connected with Russia studies as well as broader European concerns. She contended that the grammar was absolutely necessary for advancement in the language. Every time I tried to explain that by pushing grammar like that, she was promoting and reinforcing the grammar-based approaches used by the majority of high school level foreign language teachers. She insisted that the grammar was necessary to reach higher levels. I tried to agree with her but point out that grammar instruction at the beginning levels killed most students off, but she kept interrupting me with that phrase so many academics love to use to shut other people down: “The research shows….” You have no right to continue speaking at that point and are just being obtuse if you don’t totally capitulate to the other person’s pov. It is clear that people who are professional language users need to understand in detail the ins and outs of the language they use, to detect stylistic differences, tone, and so forth, what the jargon in the field calls the ability to read between the lines. Of course. But for a fourteen year old starting out in a language?
A few minutes later someone else engaged me in conversation and it went the opposite way: if you start off with grammar, you are going to lose most of your students.
And that is the key here: these university and agency people are interested only in specialists; they could care less about masses of high school kids learning to function in other languages. All they want to see is a highly selected group progressing into graduate programs and going on to the Foreign Service Institute, National Security Council, Interagency Linguistic Roundtable member agencies, the CIA, FBI, and military. She was not impressed when I mentioned the Russian teacher at the Defense Language Institute who was using tprs and attracting other teachers there to it.
It showed me just how impossible it is to get a dialog going and is a main reason for not attending any more. There are few high school teachers left in Arizona despite strong Russian and Slavic programs at both ASU and U of A as well as NAU. I am glad the numbers are beginning to grow again, but I fear most of the teachers will come from these heavy grammar programs where a kid who walks into their classes will be quizzed on soft adjectives and short form adjectives and all the rest and if they cannot respond in terms of grammar but only speak Russian, they will not be considered fit for the advanced programs. These folks really do equate grammatical knowledge with IQ. It’s just part of the tradition and will not die.