Tuesday, July 19, 2011

David Sedaris on language lessons

Ah, grammar. How dry. How boring. Right up there with those tedious times tables and those soul-sapping algorithms of arithmetic.

But then here's David Sedaris in the latest New Yorker reflecting on the Pimsleur language program:

Thanks to Japanese I and II, I’m able to buy train tickets, count to nine hundred and ninety-nine thousand, and say, whenever someone is giving me change, “Now you are giving me change.” I can manage in a restaurant, take a cab, and even make small talk with the driver. “Do you have children?” I ask. “Will you take a vacation this year?” “Where to?” When he turns it around, as Japanese cabdrivers are inclined to do, I tell him that I have three children, a big boy and two little girls. If Pimsleur included “I am a middle-aged homosexual and thus make do with a niece I never see and a very small godson,” I’d say that. In the meantime, I work with what I have.
The problem is that Pimsleur is all about mimicry:
Pimsleur's a big help when it comes to pronunciation. The actors are native speakers, and they don't slow down for your benefit. The drawbacks are that they never explain anything or teach you to think for yourself. Instead of being provided with building-blocks which would allow you to construct a sentence of your own, you're left using the hundreds or thousands of sentences you have memorized. That means waiting for a particular situation to arise in order to comment on it; either that or becoming one of those weird non-sequitur people, the kind who, when asked a question about paint color, answer, "There is a bank in front of the train station,"or, "Mrs. Yamada Ito has been playing tennis for fifteen years."
What are those "building-blocks which would allow you to construct a sentence of your own," and, equally importantly, the rules that tell you how to put those building blocks together? That dry, tedious, soul-sapping entity known (or sort of known) as Grammar.

However tedious and soul-sapping it is to do so, mastering a language's grammar rules is the only way to move beyond mimicry and use the language creatively: the only way to move from  "I have three children, a big boy and two little girls" to “I am a middle-aged homosexual and thus make do with a niece I never see and a very small godson.”

Pimsleur isn't alone in presuming that you can master a language without learning its grammar; the biggest seller of this fiction is Rosetta Stone (whose slogan, ironically, is "More than Words. Understanding.") Other grammar-denialists (as I discuss here) are k12 foreign language curriculum developers, as well as (as I discuss here) autism therapists and the general American public. It's a vicious cycle that worsens with each succeeding generation of mis-educated students, more of whom need to spend time attempting to converse with Japanese cabbies before foisting their language lessons on the rest of us. Thank you, David Sedaris, for yours!


Learn Things Web said...

I find this very surprising. I have done some language learning myself and learning vocabulary and grammar seems like the only way to learn. Memorizing common phrases does help but it definitely doesn't allow you to go that next step of putting your own sentences together.

I used a Teach Yourself book and it focused heavily on grammar, which was very beneficial. I was able to listen in on conversations among native speakers after a few months and get a good idea of what they were talking about. I wonder if Pimsleur and Rosetta Stone users could listen in on native speakers and understand what they are saying after only a few months. If all they are learning is common phrases, I can't imagine that they could.

EricMR said...

Thanks for what is basically a review of Pimsleur and Rosetta Stone; I had been considering getting one of these, as both my wife (Mandarin & French) and I (Czech, German, Russian, and Arabic (sort of)) had been saying for a long time that we wanted to learn Spanish.

My pertinent experience is that when, in the '80s, the Army was teaching me Czech, they (apologetically) used a very old course that still had pictures of WWII military technology. Every day, we learned one grammar rule, read a short text, and had 10-20 new lexical items, just enough that a hard worker could learn in an evening. I worked hard and excelled, even qualifying for a special, advanced 6-month add-on course.

After the Cold War, I needed a new language, so I went back to the Defense Language Institute to learn Arabic. This time, they had been taken over by a Whole Language approach called the Global Method, complete with a PhD in a suit to tell that "this is better because that's the way little kids learn their first language." I was astonished, since I knew from my undergrad linguistics classes that adult language learning and small-child acquisition are completely different.

I worked very hard at the whole language approach just to barely pass; fortunately I was now "crusty old Sarge" whose duties were more to keep the young hotshots' noses to the grindstone. It was very unsatisfying to someone who likes to be actually functional in a foreign language, though.

It taught me something about learning styles. There _were_ some talented people who excelled at whole language, but they would have excelled no matter what, even if you just threw a pile of books and tapes at them. I learn much better (in every other field, also) if I am explicitly taught rule by rule, conceptual-brick by brick, and I learn very poorly if I'm just supposed to pick up a bunch of unwritten rules by osmosis.

Anonymous said...

If you still read the comments on your old post I would like to suggest a online language learning "course" which isn't deficient, duolingo. It really suited my more analytical approach to life as it takes a more traditional translation
approach to langue learning with plenty of practice including of grammar. Though it may not be suitable for primary school pupils.

Anonymous said...

Oh I also forgot to mention it is completely free.