Monday, May 5, 2008

Left-brained epiphanies, part III: linguists and foreign language instruction

I've received no new left-brain epiphany stories since last week.  At this past week's linguistics conference, however, I found myself surrounded by people who'd experienced a particular sub-variety of left-brain epiphany.  It has two main archetypes:

Archetype 1:

Once upon a time, a left-brain student diagrams his or her first sentence. While drawing the branches for subordinate clauses, and for subordinate clauses within subordinate clauses, he or she finally gets excited about Language Arts. Language, he or she realizes, is much more than sentences and parts of speech. Underpinning it is systematic structure.  

What are its rules? Where do they come from? How do we learn them?  

A linguist is born.

Archetype 2: 

Once upon a time, a left-brain student takes his or her first foreign language class. The class emphasizes vocabulary, pronunciation, and, above all, systematic grammar instruction.  

The left-brainer starts marveling at how the foreign grammar differs from that of his or her native language. With each new grammar lesson, he or she finds new captivating patterns, both within the foreign language, and in how it differs from his or her native language.  What are the underlying rules and where do they come from?  

A linguist is born.


But, as I'll discuss in later posts, growing resistance to grammar instruction has made it harder for today's left-brainers to experience either of these linguistic epiphanies.


Myrtle Hocklemeier said...

Stephen Krashen is evil.

That is all.

lefty said...

Yes, Krashen and his ilk have done a terrible disservice to foreign language learners in this country.

Myrtle Hocklemeier said...


Krashen was presented to us as the Messiah when I was in graduate school and I have looked for critical articles since online and have not found any. Then again, I don't have access to professional journals.

lefty said...


There are a number of articles that criticize Krashen's position, at least implicitly. De Keyser, for example, has an article arguing that systematic grammar instruction is more effective than implicit learning. If you want, I'll track down the reference.

What did you study in graduate school? I'd love to hear more about how Krashen's work figured there.

Myrtle Hocklemeier said...

The MA is in "Spanish" but I applied to be a graduate student in the foreign lang department since it came with support and then got permission to substitute most of the required literature classes with courses in theoretical linguistics offered in other departments.

"Students show evidence of becoming life-long learners by using the language for personal enjoyment and enrichment."

You gotta just love it when they redefine the role of foreign language learning to such an extent that one can no longer make a principled distinction between playing video games (for personal enjoyment and enrichment!) and learning Spanish.

lefty said...


I'm hoping it wasn't in your theoretical linguistics classes that Krashen was worshipped!

Despite the dearth of papers available on the web, one interesting thing about second language learning is that there's a lot more real research out there than there is about math learning. Too bad it isn't being put to more good use.

Though I imagine no amount of good research would defeat Reform Math...