Suddenly it makes sense

Response to this post:

“At one point in my career, a colleague who taught Spanish 3, and taught her students lots and lots of verb tenses. However, when her students went on to the next level, not only did they not really know the conjugations, more importantly, they did not really understand how to use the various tenses in context.

Additionally, the colleague in question spoke a lot of Spanish (a native Spanish speaker), but, most of the time, it was not comprehensible to the students.

MY question: How to repair the aforementioned, when the students come to you in Spanish 4? I hope to get some good feedback and suggestions. Thank you in advance for considering my question.”

I doubt we will ever be free of the grammar kings and queens. They do not read research which in the most conservative aka legacy realms does not advocate teaching the structural features of L2 as a way of teaching/learning L2. Besides, it would be a career altering shift to drop the drumbeat of tense modification and accent rules and simply engage the students in L2. And we must be tolerant b/c it is indeed frightening to imagine classroom control and grading without the support of grammatical scaffolding.

So what can you do? I’ll repeat my experience on taking over a third year Latin class whose students were all top-of-the-line academically. I came in speaking Latin, much to their consternation, but as they realized I wasn’t suddenly going to ask them to conjugate a deponent verb in the future perfect subjunctive, they relaxed. One even dropped the class b/c she didn’t think it would be rigorous enough (her dad was the state superintendent of education ).

BUT, as we kept reading stories and talking about them, they began saying, “Oh, that’s what that’s for.” You see, they had learned the grammar but , as you put it, they did not know how to use the various tenses in context. Multiply that by declined nouns and adjectives, John McWhorter’s “bristling morphology”, and you can see it was quite an accomplishment but also quite useless. NOW, as I spoke to them about what was happening in the stories, they heard and saw how the grammar features were used for communication and wound up loving the class.

Perhaps the best thing you can do for these students is to demonstrate to them that Spanish is not an academic subject to be “got through” but a means of communicating stories, anecdotes, jokes, a means of teasing, having fun, inviting, scolding, directing, informing, describing, and so on. Lots of humor helps. As you do that, maybe all the grammar they studied will fall into place and make sense. One guy who had gone on a mission for his church and had studied German mightily said that one day a while after arriving in Austria, he stepped out of his apartment, looked up at the sky, and suddenly German made sense. You might be that trigger.

Pat Barrett


  1. teachermrw says:

    Pat, I appreciate your comment. I am grateful to you and for you for posting a response on your blog. It is truly a view of the proverbial glass half-full, as opposed to looking at the situation in its worst context.

  2. But was that grammar basisthey had maybe a necessary prerequisite to their enjoyment of your “whole language” approach?

    I know the grammar is boring and hard and unmotivating to those with gifts outside the language realm, so I can see how “whole language” ought to come first with them, but with strongly motivated adults and language-gifted younger students,
    would the grammar first approach ever be ok? These latter groups don’t take me seriously or maybe I am just afraid they won’t, so I don’t even try : )

    1. Pat Barrett says:

      That’s often advanced as how direct, explicit grammar instruction works: it allows the whole language or comprehensible input approaches to operate on this previously acquired grammar base. I have read a lot of second language acquisition material, usually books which summarize the research. Some of these books propose what you do; others are friendly to my approach. I have often stated on the listserv, we have no solid proof that one of these methods works. What I feel we do have is an unscientific survey, one I and many others have conducted for decades: we talk to people about their fl learning experience and see what it did for them. I am talking hundreds of people over the years (I am 75 and got interested in this as a teenager). It was only when I started teaching languages that I realized I had never come across anyone who had learned the language via grammar study. What they offered was various experiences which we would classify as a natural environment, such as working in the L2 environment. Now you might want to know if these people had had earlier grammar instruction. You might want to know if those learning entirely without grammar instruction wound up at a decent level, say, Intermediate High or Advanced. Here’s what my constant surveying has shown me:
      No one learned a fl via grammar study alone (this would include “practice”). Many people learned another language by living in the natural environment e.g. my wife’s cousin, a Navy man who lived in Sicily many years and in Japan for some years, learning both languages with very little academics beyond a high school diploma and maybe that in the Navy. Moreover, whenever I could closely question people, I heard routinely that those who had taken classes left them with little to no knowledge of the language and that the grammar they had studied seemed unrelated to what they were learning “in the field”, so to speak.
      To summarize: grammar study is a waste of time in learning another language. Personally, I study the grammars of many languages all the time, e.g. Japanese, but that does not teach me the language; I do it b/c grammar fascinates me. And as someone who loves grammar, I would be thrilled if I could find a shred of evidence that there is transfer from the part of the brain that learns grammar to the part that learns the language – I see no evidence for that either in my personal survey or in the many books on SLA I have read (not in the classes I took in it either). You might glance through my blog categories Learning and Teaching FL to see my reviews of books by people like Cook, Butzkamm, Larsen-Freeman and others who try to convince us that regulated and planned teaching of structures helps. The only exposure to structures that seems to work is when, in Krashen’s immortal words, people understand messages.
      Hope this helps.

  3. Pat Barrett says:

    And an aside: I don’t think grammar is boring, hard or unmotivating. Taught properly, it can be a lot of fun as students translate, diagram, and so on. I did that before I moved to a more CI format and kids loved my classes. I just realized that it wasn’t teaching them the language (I taught Latin, Spanish and Russian)

  4. Wes Groleau says:

    I’m one of those who had years of grammar and vocabulary in Spanish with little (if any) actual¹ communication.  And while it’s true that my first “sink or swim” experience (as interpreter for thirty teenagers and six adults) started out VERY poorly, I believe that the grammar and vocabulary can be credited with rapid progress over the two-week trip.  However, I also firmly believe that if all those prior years had sacrificed some of the grammar and vocabulary to more actual¹ input and/or output, I would have been somewhat fluent at the beginning of the trip.  (For what it’s worth, a mere ten Italian lessons with Judi M. were definitely worthwhile!)

    ¹“Actual” as in negotiation of meaning, not artificial utterances designed to illustrate grammar rules in phrases a native speaker is unlikely to say.

    1. Pat Barrett says:

      Actual communication is never the goal of the grammar-driven class. Learning grammar is. In fact, that’s not totally bad since the study of grammar has its own rewards, they just aren’t communicative ability in the language. Krashen’s term “monitor use” labels what you were doing and most of us do when we stitch together words and a grammar rule here and there.

  5. Wes Groleau says:

    That’s what I was doing _at_the_beginning_. My point is that all the grammar and vocabulary, while admittedly not the ideal way to learn, nevertheless provided a foundation for rapid progress once “immersed.”

    1. Pat Barrett says:

      And I’ll just say that the CI folks would say that the grammar and vocabulary were a waste of time better spent in immersion. But for most of us, we can’t get immersion and so we get textbooks and classes. I’m doing the same sort of thing with Greek and Norwegian and Dutch – doing grammar and vocab work but proceeding with reading as best I can at that level. My immersion will continue to be reading except for Spanish and Urdu where I have some access to immersion. Yeah, the real world does not conform to The Ideal.

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