No Thinking, Please

I always wonder what new students — especially those who have taken a language before in a more traditional class setting — think when they hear that we’ll only be doing two or three items a session. Of course, an ‘item’ in this sense isn’t just a single word, it’s a combination of words that could be thought of as a structure or phrase, rather than just one word. But still, three items per lesson?

But what is fluency? I define it as the ability to use a limited subset of vocabulary (no one can possibly know all the words in any language, native speaker or not) with ALL the structure (=grammar) of a language, automatically and without thought. This is just a formal way of saying “the language falls out of the person’s mouth” while reassuring students that they aren’t expected to have the entire language in their mouths.

The great weakness of traditional language teaching is the shallowness of it, the failure to really put the words into the brain where they can be used effortlessly and automatically. We are not teaching a set of facts (the names of the planets, the countries of Europe) or a method (how to add and subtract, how to read a graduated cylinder); we are trying to guide our students in developing an unconscious ability. Other disciplines aim to store factoids and then to connect them, but their “higher level thinking” implies conscious thought to make connections and express patterns. We are exactly the opposite — our “higher levels” mean doing things without thought, and we aim to store information (vocabulary, not facts) AND — more importantly — to construct a grammar in the students’ heads.

It’s amazing to watch that happen. And if you go slowly enough, you can see it. You really can. The tiny hesitation before the new adverb pops out, nestled right into its proper place in the sentence. The realization that, all of a sudden, the student is speaking in complex sentences, when yesterday it was individual clauses.

How boring it must be to teach only facts.

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