Wednesday, 11 March 2015

"outdated, inefficient methods"?

I was reading the 19 don'ts of language learning.* I totally disagree on 5:

5. Don’t use outdated, inefficient methods

Grammar-translation methods and tedious memorization of words and rules have been standard practice for centuries all over the world.

They’re outdated and totally ineffective.

I’ve worked in Georgia and Turkey for example where I’ve seen students who have been learning English for years – sometimes decades – and still can’t communicate ‘at all’. They can read and they know English grammar better than most of us do but they can’t respond to the most basic questions.

Whether you’re in a classroom or learning on your own, focusing on conversational, functional language use is crucial.

Learn in context through interaction with other people.

Sorry, but reading is more often done than responding to the most basic questions in the target language.

Apart from migration, and I have been in France for a few years, being able to answer the most basic questions may help you over a tourist situation or two, while reading ability in a foreign language is a gift for life.

Nonetheless, reading ability also involves learning in context, but it cannot be achieved without mastering paradigms. When you hit a form, you need to know if it is a simple past, a pluperfect, or a language where the distinction is only made by context.

And writing stories in French is still difficult for me, because I was not taught passé simple properly. Conversely, the conversation centred training I got certainly helped me part, but when I arrived in France I had to ask people often enough to speak slower. Since Belgians and Swiss speak slower than French, I asked them to speak to me "eeen Beelge ou eeen Suiiisse, s'il vous plaaîît".

And I got a reputation of not knowing the French I nevertheless write in. Partly from non-mastery of passé simple with adjacent subjonctif de l'imparfait (the form for conditional statements which would normally come most natural to me anyway, since I am Germanic), and partly through my initial slowness of conversation. And improving a conversational level in target language can be acquired by reading too : there are Comic books.

Here is a related better rule, but a very erratic one in results:

4. Don’t speak English (or any other language)!

Don’t speak anything other than your target language unless absolutely necessary!

This is such an important point.

I’m currently working as an English teacher in Korea so my job requires me to speak English.

Outside of work and apart from times like this where I have to write a blog post in English or communicate with English speakers (rarely), I use Korean.

I saturate myself in Korean every day.

If you’re not living abroad then you need to allocate as much time as possible every day to do this.

For those of you living in a city where your target language community can be found, make a habit of spending your spare time in that area.

In my home town of Brisbane we had a very small Arabic-speaking community who all lived around one particular area of the city and I used to hang around that spot constantly just to get as much language action as I could.

If you achieve the situation where you are doing the method, fine. As a second stage after an initial learning through rules and grammar, it is great. But achieving that situation is a point. I was in a language course for foreigners in Oxford, so the rule was not "don't speak English" but "speak English only" - and the Spanish men and women and a very pretty young lady had come in a crowd and never followed the rule. My mother was sent to Switzerland to learn French - but instead learned to speak her German with a slight Swiss accent. Yes, Lausanne is Suisse romande, but all of Suisse romande also knows Swiss German. And since she had already learned German, that is what they spoke with her. There is a rule which says people tend to speak their best common language together - the one that is best for both. There is a subrule, which only applies if they love secrecy and discretion : they can also speak their best common secret language, the one where they get an advantage of secrecy over surroundings. Obviously, apart from ma not being the greatest secrecy buff, that would not have applied to French in Suisse normande - since French is hardly a secret language there. So, method 4, while good if attainable, is so erratically attainable, that for most, especially for purposes of reading and of writing over internet, where accent is an extra, is not really a good substitute for the method rejected in don't n° "5".

There are languages for which the method of immersion is for most utopic. A Latin school of the 16th or 17th C. or a military academy teaching Russian, even among purely English speakers, discipline can be a substitute for what rarely occurs on personal levels of life : having to live among people speaking a language you haven't learned at all. But even there, ideally, rules and grammar drills will not be omitted, since they do contribute not just to correctness but also to understanding and to making it quicker through the necessary scale of expressions (what is the recipient like in verbs meaning give - is it a dative form or word order, is it same with pronouns and nouns or diversity between them?** - does the same apply to damage sufferer of verbs meaning rob, or not? etc).

But if it is Latin and not Russian, if it is now and not 16th C. you will hardly find very many environments for total immersion. Conversely, your main use, like nearly always for older stages of modern languages (like Middle High German*** written the century of St Thomas Aquinas or Middle English of Chaucer written a century later), the only total immersion you are likely to get outside live role playing is - books, usually written in epoch and printed and edited in 19th or 20th Century when it comes to earlier stages of modern languages, and when it comes to Latin or Greek, you may lay hands on volumes printed back in 1500's or 1600's and can easily get hold of volumes from 1700's or 1800's.

The total immersion ideology works pretty well even without grammar and rules between English, French and Spanish. Because their grammars are so similar. But when it comes to Slavic languages, the grammar is really dissimilar, and so it works less well. Even so it may work, partly by military discipline, partly by dsiguising grammar as sth else.

Hans Georg Lundahl
Nanterre UL
Saint Rosina of Wenglingen

* The Mezzofanti guild : 19 Things You Shouldn’t Do When Learning A Foreign Language

** Latin has dative form (not dative-accusative, but purely dative) both nouns and pronouns. Chinese has word order or preposition (not sure which) for both of them. English and Swedish have word order for nouns and dative/accusative for pronouns. In English and Swedish the sufferer of verbs meaning to steal is expressed as beneficiary of verbs meaning to give, in Chinese I have no idea, in Latin they aren't usually. "Aufero librum a te" is better than "aufero tibi librum."

*** A language in which "der Tag, des Tages" was "der tac, des tages", and in which "der Frühling, des Frühlings", unless more usually expressed as "der Lenz, des Lenzes" was "der friulinc, des friulinges" - to give you a feeling for the level of its difference with Modern High German.

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