Sitting in the lounge area of a large furniture store, I looked up to see a familiar face, one of my students of yore. She yelled, “Mr. Patrick Barrett!” and we sat there for almost an hour talking over what we’ve been doing. I want to make this about education and language learning, so I hope I don’t swamp the joy of talking with her.
She took Russian. Along with several other Spanish-dominant students, she did the unexpected, signing up for a language other than Spanish. She was a bit of a rough kid and dropped out of school for a semester to have a baby (a big kid, about 16 now). She came back and finished school, including Russian. She was exactly the sort of kid so many of our teachers despised: poor, Spanish-dominant, a bit inappropriate at times – in reality she was a high performer and was in the AVID program, but those teachers could not look past her color and language. One teacher even said, “I wish I could get a class of intelligent students; I get so tired of looking out at all those brown faces.” Oh yes, tsk tsk, we raise our hands in horror, yet so many of our colleagues have a horror of poor kids, Hispanics, White trash, Blacks, and, I’m sure, in some schools, Russians, Arabs, Chinese, etc. Our society does not do a good job of dispersing people out of their enclaves.
Another four kids and she plays soccer (thus explaining her figure after four kids) and stays in touch with friends from her old school. She works for a sports medicine clinic and is half-way through a massage therapy program. Her husband was there and they were moving that day and buying furniture. Just a very sharp person and very nice.
But what I wanted to say here is that she told me that a couple of the students in her Russian class took Russian at the university and community college but dropped it. The reason? Everything being taught they had already learned in high school, in my class. I knew the teachers there and they all taught grammar. The belief was that you may be able to get by in simple languages like Spanish and French without grammar, but not in Russian. It’s too complicated.
Well, that is total nonsense. But these legacy teachers continue teaching grammar rules as if anyone can mentally sort through all the rules and apply them. And here’s the crucial nut: I did not teach grammar so much as speak Russian with the students. I wasn’t great but I really tried to be “communicative” and later I was transitioning to CI. She was in that latter phase of my public school teaching. Later I was able to take CI further in a private school teaching Latin (until I was caught and then I retired).
I can recount jillions of such encounters, starting from when I was in high school. I think I should begin writing them out and putting them in the Foreign Language Teaching and Learning category. Legacy teachers will discount what I write as anecdotal, but after sixty years of informally interviewing people about their language learning experiences (I can speak enough of most of the commonly taught languages to check out what they know – except Chinese), you would think someone would notice.