Why Do Certain Things?

Over several decades on foreign language teacher listservs, a debate could be found over whether teaching the language should focus just on the language, not what is called its external history – national history, linguistic history, even culture had to be questioned in the interest of embedding paradigms and sentence patterns. I recall one stalwart member of a listserv writing that first teach them the language and then the rest follows by reading the literature, etc.
I was quite the opposite and tended to agree, with some misgivings, with those who said we had the students for only a couple of years for the most part and we know that will not teach them the language, so we should use the opportunity to broaden their knowledge base. For most that meant the history of France for French classes, and so forth.
For me, it included a better understanding of language and I saw parts fitting together. For instance, how teach the origin of words unless students realized languages change over time? How teach the history of any Romance language without some understanding of what Latin was as a language and, again, how languages change and why some people jokingly call French a dialect of Latin? How appreciate the diversity in any language without understanding dialects? How deal with institutions like royal academies of language without some sense of sociolinguistics and issues like prescriptivism? And on and on.
So I always showed a video called American Tongues. One kid I ran into much later had been in my class only a few weeks but remembered that video with delight. Admittedly, I sometimes held videos till a space where I needed a break from teaching to get something else done but it never worked for me because I always watched the videos, often for the umpteenth time, with the students. You just have to model the behavior you want and make sure no one is dong their math homework (why is it always math?).
The video itself is fun but instructive and teaches respect for what nowadays people call diversity. Most major dialect or regional varieties were treated and with a decidedly liberal slant as when to Southern ladies were recalling the “terrible” speech of those who they initially labeled White Trash but softened it to a euphemism. And then there are “the Blacks,” of course. An earlier scene has a White man disparaging Black speech, offered as an example of language attitudes more about the people than the language.

There was always a method to my madness.

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