Q: Regarding your recent column on foreign language instruction, I don’t know why an English teacher is qualified to answer this question. It would seem to me that maybe this is a question best answered by the language teacher of the year. However, as a native English speaker trained in teaching Spanish as a second language, I totally disagree with you. In. Every. Single. Way. Because comprehension. (See how i just used non-existent “grammar” in English but you still get what I’m tryin’ to say?)
A 2 year old starts with basic words, “Up! Cookie!” to communicate their point. As they progress their language becomes more complex. They continue to learn, verbally, until age 5 when they begin to focus on reading and writing. At what age do students begin to learn of nouns, adjectives, adverbs, and gerunds? 3rd, 4th grade? (So, after 8 years of exposure to the language and at least five of speaking it.) Knowing these things is useful, yet I’m sure a fair number of adult native speakers would struggle to define “preposition.”
Learning to apply grammar in a natural way, such as using the language and being corrected, or being exposed to the language, is a valid way to learn. Every native speaker is living proof of this.
As an English teacher, my educational background includes study in linguistics and language acquisition. So I’m not a dope. But you are right in your suggestion that I don’t know anything about actually teaching foreign language compared with real-live foreign language teachers. That’s why I have to rely on them to tell me what they are seeing in their fields and classrooms, which is what I did for the article. A number of them disagree with you and agree with my basic ideas (or, rather, I agree with theirs), and they’re not dopes, either.
I’ve examined the case for Comprehensible Input (the method the reader is advocating) and I am not closed minded on its use. I just side with the teachers who tell me that vocabulary and grammar are essential to truly understanding a foreign language. How can you communicate in a language if you don’t know what the words mean and you don’t understand how to use them in sentences? If you’re going to convince me those skills aren’t necessary, you’ve got a tough hill to climb.
But let me clarify some things: the issue here is typical language study for the average high school student. No one expects that student to be fluent after two or three required semesters. We expect her to know and understand the basic grammar of the foreign language she is studying and a good deal of the vocabulary involved. We want her to be able to carry on or at least understand a casual conversation about basic topics. We also want her to understand the culture behind the language. These are four essentials, yes?
If fluency is what we want, we would probably agree that immersion would be the best option. If the student could spend a year in Spain to study Spanish, I totally agree she would come out much more adept in her communication skills − without studying a lick of grammar or vocabulary − than she would in our public American classrooms, no matter what method of instruction is used.
But we aren’t talking about that. We’re talking about two courses, each taken sometimes an entire year apart, generally concurrent with high-level course work in math and science. Under those conditions, I agree with teachers who believe the most efficient method is to develop an understanding of the language’s grammar and acquire its essential vocabulary.
I was instructed this way, and, many years later, I still possess a basic comprehension of the Spanish language and retain enough vocabulary to understand more than I ever would have thought. This is because I had excellent teachers (I’m looking at you, Senoras Ferrell, Berry, Ford, and Fordham) who all, in various ways, inspired me to study and use the language. Things you have to work really hard for tend to stay with you.
Now, once we’re past those initial two years, I have no idea what would work best. I’ll have to look into that for another column.
I don’t mean this sarcastically, I mean it truly: I feel sorry for you. Your articles sometimes make it sound like teaching is an awful, horrible job. I wish it were better for you.
This is a good time to clarify that my articles are about teaching in general, not my personal situation. I am truly blessed to teach at a school where most of the kids are well-behaved, the parents are supportive, the principals are talented and professional, my colleagues are like family, and the climate is positive.
But as director of Charleston’s largest teacher advocacy group, I get to talk with many teachers in situations where what I’ve just described is sadly not the case. So when I discuss issues that sound negative, I am not describing the way things are are everywhere, just the way they are many places. Too many places, unfortunately.