Sunday, December 22, 2013

Favorite comments of '13, cont: ChemProf, Anonymous, EricMR, AmyP, onebadbint and Catherine Johnson

On Language and culture: what matters most?


ChemProf said...

Scarily, one argument the language faculty make at my institution for study of a foreign language in college is that it does make students learn grammar, often for the first time in any context!

Anonymous said...
Ah, yes, I recall telling a college sophomore that the difference between bien and bueno is that one is an adverb and the other an adjective and having him reply:"What's an adverb?"I also had students who did not follow the instructions on tests to "reply in complete sentences" because they didn't know what a complete sentence is (and of course they considered that a fair excuse).This ignorance is the result of years of schools punting to the next level, hoping somebody will sort it out in the future. Children end up in college woefully unprepared for anything resembling work and learning, and it is then the job of the professor (or, more commonly, the grad student who is actually doing the teaching) to either teach him what he should have been learning all those years in grade school or to flunk him.The quality of high school language instruction? In my experience n years of high school language instruction is always equal to zero. It might give them a better chance of passing the first semester, but I've yet to see a case where it is the equivalent of the first year and could prepare them for the second year.

EricMR said...
When I was in the Army I had two opportunities to learn foreign languages: Czech in the mid-'80s and Arabic in the mid-'90s. The Czech course was very old-fashioned: one grammar rule, one short passage, and 10-15 new vocab items per day. I ended up doing very well and even qualified for an extra 6 months of advanced language training. Later, the Cold War over, I took Arabic. The language school had been taken over by whole language, where they just throw masses of "authentic" material at you to see what sticks. I worked even harder than I had on Czech, and didn't end up a quarter as fluent. It ws all too inchoate to approach with any kind of study method. I was flabbergasted that the PhD suit that was pushing this stuff was an ed school guy instead of a linguist (I had been a linguistics major in the '70s).Trying to teach foreign languages without a solid underpinning of vocab and grammar is like trying to build a brick house without either bricks (vocab) or mortar (grammar).

AmyP said...
I was recently having a good gripe about the Rosetta language ads with a relative of mine who speaks very good German as her second language. Our consensus was that the ads push the idea that it's going to be really easy with their program (no translating! no books! no memorizing!) and they push the idea that it will be as easy as learning your first language. Well, I'm not familiar with their particular program, but I think people are forgetting how hard it is for small children to learn English. My middle kid was two before he could say almost anything.

onebadbint said...
AmyP, your point about the difficulty of learning even a native language is SO important! Too often the old canard is repeated about how quick and effortless it is for kids (vs adults) to pick up a language. Au contraire, people only say that because they've forgotten the process and don't bother to observe that it takes a good 3 years of full-time effort for a kid to get even basic functionality in their native language, even with the strongest motivations in the world (no communicative alternative, and pleasing those they love most). A couple years more to get to a 5 year old's level with most grammar down (not all -- careful experiments show that kids at this age don't process passives correctly, for example, but rather guess the meanings of passive sentences based on real world knowledge). And even then, 5yo's have only about a quarter of the vocabulary of any teenager...you know all this, obviously, but it bears repeating.

Anonymous said...
My kid dropped his Japanese course (after 2.5 years) because the teacher never got around to teaching the structure of the language, and he found it too frustrating to just be learning phrases. TerriW said... I found Rosetta Stone to be great for reviving long-dormant (it'd been about 20 years) French from the dark recesses of my brain -- but I had learned it "the old fashioned way" the first time around, complete with a summer living with a French family. I can't imagine the experience would be as fruitful if I was starting with it, fresh.
Catherine Johnson said...
I teach "Basic Writing" at a nonselective college, and each semester I have at a minimum one student who is actively intrigued by grammar. These are students who have been taught very little grammar over the years & are being required to take the course. (My class size is around 15 students.) 
... 
Not only do I always have 1 or 2 students who are obviously excited by grammar, I don't think I've had any students who were actively NOT interested. The idea that grammar should be "caught not taught" because a) caught-not-taught is more effective and b) grammar is boring and anxiety-inducing simply does not jibe with my experience in the classroom at all.

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