I read and post regularly to various foreign language teaching interest lists, and recently on one of them there has been a rehash of the ancient argument “Does overt grammar teaching help?” While the discussion has been, um, lively at times, it has lately taken a rather poetic turn, and it was interesting to read what a grammar proponent felt a dreamlike experience in the classroom would be.

On Tue, Dec 30, 2008 at 11:53 AM, an esteemed colleague in the foreign language game wrote on a widely distributed e-mail list:

 

 

Close your eyes and dream with me for a moment, Terry—I want you to imagine
a classroom of Spanish Two kids. You’ve been using the language with the kids
for quite some time, they ARE familiar with the words, but they’re still nebulous
about it, not really understanding why you say “nos” here, but “nosotros” there,
or why you say “le” here but “lo” there. It’s simply time to tack down the concept.

You’re standing in front of the class saying “these are SUBJECT pronouns” and you
list them. “These are DIRECT object pronouns” (and you list them as well). “And
THESE are INdirect object pronouns” (and you add “le” and “les” to the list). You
have them written in order: first person, second person, and third person—singular
on the left and plural on the right. Still dreaming with me?

Now…imagine that they actually UNDERSTAND you, that they KNOW what those
terms mean in their own language, so now they can transfer that to L2. Now you
can go back to your entertaining stories, your skits, your dialogues, and your impromptu
discussions knowing that your kids are practicing a concept that makes sense to
them, rather than trying to forge out an understanding (that may or may not be
accurate) from hours upon hours of useage alone. You can wake up now–wasn’t
that a nice dream? 🙂 AHHHHH—I wish our classes came so equipped.

I tried. I closed my eyes, and I really tried to feel the wind rush, but I felt nothing…oops, let’s get out of reciting lyrics from “A Chorus Line” despite their outstanding fit to my feelings in this situation…

Anyway, as I responded, asking that the original “dreamer” not take offense, for me, if in the dream I’m standing there writing the subject pronouns and object pronouns in a list on the board and saying what each is, it’s not a dream, it’s a nightmare, probably subsequent to too much Mexican food for dinner. 😉

Here’s MY version of the dream:

In my dream, I have a classroom full of second-year kids, and I (and their first-year teacher) have been speaking the TL with them since Day 1, but always in a way they can understand. And I’ve been doing miniature pop-ups to emphasize and explain what certain morphemes or words *mean* in the context of a sentence since Day 1. So they do indeed already know when to use “nos” and what it means. They know what makes a verb 3rd person singular in the preterite. They know what the “animal” radical is and whether a consonantal initial sound is retroflexed or not. (OK, we’re mixing languages a bit there…slap slap!) They may not be able to label “nos” as direct or indirect in any particular sentence, but they know how to use it and they know what it means. They may not know the Chinese word for the “animal radical” but they recognize it and even use it as the basis of guessing the meaning of unknown characters when reading together as a class (I almost died of joy the day that happened last month in Chinese 1!!) And that’s good enough for me. I never have to leave my stories and impromptu discussions and my extensive reading to have the kids practice a discrete concept. They already HAVE it. They’re too busy talking about things that matter to them to talk about language.

Dream? Nope. I was awake and it really happened. 🙂

Heck, actually it doesn’t even have to be second-year kids, because in TPRS we don’t divide grammar into “easy” and “hard”, or “first-year” and “second-year” grammar. The Spanish folks teach the past and present together from the beginning, as is natural. I talk to my Chinese students in whatever time we’re discussing. And they “get it”, although the words “completed aspect” have not yet passed my lips (and won’t for quite some time, if ever.)

And I don’t have these kinds of nightmares, either. 😉