How Grammar Instruction Works

Recently I’ve seen some posts on teaching the subjunctive. Most often the requests are for fun ways. That made be wonder what role fun plays in acquiring a language. Some, for sure. In fact, humor plays a big role. I have a photo of a Latin class from the early 19th century – no fun there.

Despite the paucity of fun ways, it is still left to the teacher of many FL to “teach” the subjunctive. It appears in the languages I study: Latin. Modern Greek, Urdu, Russian, the Romance languages, not so much the Germanic languages except German itself where it is entirely active. In Russian it has no inflectional manifestation, just a use of a particle (same is actually true for Greek; in both languages the term subjunctive reverts to its original meaning of a form of subordinate verbs).

But how we teach grammar under the grammar method (variously known as grammar-based, deductive approach, traditional, legacy, and, incorrectly, grammar-translation). While most of us short-sightedly think of the traditional method as being traditional, in reality it goes back only to the turn of the last century, although Latin and Greek were taught via a strong grammar method based on the theory of mental faculties).

Here’s how this method works…… or is supposed to.

We teach students that e.g. in Latin the noun has endings like the -s for plural on English nouns. We teach the word for ‘house’, ‘villa’, and then point out that the grammar concept of possession shown by the word ‘of’ or ‘-s’ is shown in Latin by changing the ending of villa to villae. The next step is to show the students a picture of a house and say or write on the board, Ecce picture villae, followed by, “See how that works?”

Students are then given worksheets with a list of first declension nouns for them to change into the possessive case and advanced students are taught the term ‘genitive’ (“Genital, Teacher?” “No, Rocko, genitive.”)

We then point out that just like in English and unlike Japanese (???), Latin has plural endings corresponding to the English -s. So the plural of villa is villae. (more ???????). “Well, they happen to be the same, Rocko.” Now Rocko is the only kid admitting to confusion; the rest dutifully and unquestioningly write out the assignment.

You have yet to explain the other 3/4 cases not to mention the five declensions. And how adjectives parallel these but not quite (3rd declension adjective with 5th declension noun?). Verbs come next. Joy!

Besides the obvious, that this is really hard and boring and pointless, can you point out just where it is that acquisition is to take place? Is it in the explanations? In the comparisons to English? In the drills? When students eventually get to read Latin about twelve steps above their level?

Many Latin teaches are getting away from this. Others focus on gladiatorial combat (Rocko finally gets an A). Nevertheless, Latin and Greek (as evidenced by the Modern Greek textbook I just purchased where I have slogged through to chapter 5; only 7 more to go) continue to resist and hope that this highly conscious cognition, what is called (another approach more recent than the first batch I mentioned) cognitive code. Contrastive grammar is another method. The Natural Approach was the beginning of the post-60s methods (the 60s again destroying hoary old tried and true methods requiring fortitude and grit) but another method very similar to it was used before the 1900s, the Natural Method.

With all of these approaches, the key element is the path of acquisition, i.e. how do the language patterns get laid down in the brain?

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