Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Thoughts about Languages

Have been thinking the past couple of days about how my students are doing and comparing this to my own achievement in a foreign language class. This then led to a comparison of teaching methods; they say one teaches the way one was taught, but this is definitely not the case with me. Some background...

I began studying Spanish in the seventh grade. Dad (as well as Sesame Street) had given my little sponge brain a nice little primer (numbers, basic greetings, feelings, etc) growing up, and I took to the subject eagerly and naturally OK, I'll be honest: I was and am, academically speaking, a dork in that I LOVE the hallowed halls of academia, so taking to the subject naturally wasn't too much of a surprise, if I can say that without sounding too arrogant...**grimaces**...what DID surprise me was how much I LOVED the subject itself! Math, science, even English--I loved the fact that I could succeed in these courses with little effort, but Spanish...I just LOVED learning it for its own sake. And I learned the traditional way--textbook vocabulary lists, grammar exercises, workbook listening and speaking exercises, etc.--with an almost innate ability to take the grammar rules I'd learned and put them to use in real-life situations.

So I go to college, double major in English Ed and Spanish, and wind up teaching Spanish in a non-magnet school environment (my high school environment was accelerated, AP-type stuff), and, sho nuf, I taught they way I was taught: worksheets, verb conjugation charts, etc. At the end of the year, though, something was odd: my students could conjugate the heck out of a verb or two, meaning that they knew grammar rules, but they didn't know Spanish; if someone came up to them and asked them ¿Qué hora es? they'd be stuck. So I investigated TPR--Total Physical Response--and it claimed to address this very problem. I read a couple of books on it over a summer, and implemented the stuff I gleaned from it the following year.

It was (and is) amazing. My students, in terms of actual communication, can do more after three months of instruction in TPR than my kids in traditional schooling could do after a whole YEAR of instruction. Rather than focus on grammar, we take phrases (already conjugated somehow) and assign an action to them, and every time I say the phrase, they do the action until the sound of the word triggers the meaning. Then, we put the words (along with the words they've already acquired) into a story (which they make up, mostly) and they can oftentimes retell the story with relative ease. They even write their own stories--over 100 words in nine minutes at this point for many of them--and we have quite a bit more fun than I remember having in my own, traditional Spanish class (aside from the dorky, "Wow-this-is-nifty-'cause-I'm-learning!!!" fun, that is).

So why the comparison? Well, like anybody who naturally achieves at something, I find myself feeling as though I'm depriving my kids. TPRS (the S being for Storytelling) doesn't stress formal grammar, correct conjugation, etc) like traditional learning, so it's hard for me not to cringe when I hear my kids say something like, ¡Mi necesitaba fue baño, Señor! (a horrible version of "I need to go to the bathroom, sir!") It's made me realize exactly what it is that I do when I take all those grammar rules and run them through my head real quick-like to communicate in higher-level Spanish: it's like doing calculus in one's head. On the one hand, I know there are bright kids who can handle the grammar, who can use the grammar (as well as the extensive vocab units) and go onto AP stuff. But the majority of these kids...man...this is just getting them to do basic (read: ROUGH) communication in Spanish; the use of the more intricate grammatical functions is and most likely will be lost on them.

So it's a matter, imo, of doing the most I can for as many as I can, and trusting that the ones who will go on and succeed are not going to be killed by going more slowly than I'd like (the premise of TPRS being "Teach less...but teach it more") and that, if they want to continue in this they'll catch the vocab later. It's difficult being someone who got all the vocab words and irregular verbs the first time he heard them; Lord grant that I would act wisely, without embittering or embarrassing those who do not have the gift You've given me.

Lord, have mercy. Lord, have mercy. Lord, have mercy! And blessed be the name of the LORD.


Mimi said...

Even though the bulk of this post went over my head, I totally agree. I have excellent word recall in other languages, but am horrible at making sentences.

Also loved the Sesame Street comment! Since we live so close to the Canadian border, I used to watch their SS with the kids so they could pick up a bit of French, as that's what I learned (words anyway) in school.

alana said...

wow, I wish I could take spanish from you! I'm a language geek myself. My language of study was French and I also know German as a second "mother tongue" from having lived there as a child. I think TPRS is very similar to the way an infant naturally acquires language, and it sounds like a great way to open up the human brain and pour another language in there. If a person sticks with it long enough I bet the grammar would come in time.

Like I said: I wanna lean spanish and I'd love to do with with that method. Sounds cool.

Rhology said...

That's funny, just today I was trying to compare from memory what it was like at 2.5 months of studying French (my 2nd lang) w/ how it is after 2.5 months of studying Japanese.
I guess I'm still ahead of myself back then, but it's still HARD.

Mi necesitaba a Japon vamos!

Ian said...

Great post! And I'm sure you're doing a great job: your love for it comes through so clearly and I can imagine the students responding to this.

As someone who only got Sesame Street in English, it's rather interesting to imagine it in Spanish and French!

Here in Oz there is a big emphasis, following the Europeans I believe, on context-driven language learning. Everything must have a theme and a context and that is how language is learnt, at least at the beginning. Full sentences without worrying so much about conjugations and such. Your TPRS method sounds very useful.

> in a non-magnet school environment
> (my high school environment was
> accelerated, AP-type stuff),

What is "a non-magnet school environment"? And "AP"? Thank you.

Rhology said...

He refers to the environment of his own school, which is not a magnet school, in contrast to his (our) own high school, which was a magnet school (ie, a public HS for which one must apply to enter and maintain high grades and such to stay in).
AP = Advanced Placement.

Ian said...

Thank you Rhology: they sound similar to our "selective" schools. Does "magnet" have a particular meaning, or is it an acronymn? It sounds strange to my ears, but I'm sure it's normal to your ears!

[And I greatly enjoyed having a quick skim of your blog: as someone considering English teaching, though probably in China, it is intresting reading (and great photos!) and I wish you all the best. God bless.]

Paige said...

Do you have your students sing?

The only thing I seem to recall from my two years of high school Spanish is a song about having a cow named Beatriz who liked to put on festive clothes.

We had a horrible Spanish situation, as all three levels of Spanish (I, II, and AP) met in the same room at the same time with the same teacher. Utterly pointless. Needless to say, nobody from my high school ever passed the AP test.

David Bryan said...

Ugh, Paige. That sounds horrid. No, I just can't make myself do the cheesy Spanish class songs. I DO, however, understand somewhat the burden of multiple ability levels in one classroom; I have to straddle teaching those who are trying to acquire Spanish and those who, already Native Speakers, need to work on becoming literate in the language.

Mostly pointless, but more so for the natives, as I basically give them bookwork to do while I really work with the non-natives ('cause that's who I'm contractually obligated to teach; the natives shouldn't even BE in there anyway, but whatever...)

Laura said...

Hey doll!! I have a question for the Spanish expert. Since my high school/college French in absolutely useless, what would you recommend for a struggling medical student needing a crash course in Spanish?? Thanks!!

Laura (Lauderdale) Haws

Anonymous said...

I know we've talked about this before briefly but my comments again :)

I understand that for teaching communication, TPR is pretty good (sort of like Pimsleur in that regard). However, for a person like me, I can't actually learn well with TPR. I had a college professor in a language class for a language I was learning try to push TPR on me and guess what? I could not pick it up. But go home and read the grammar and I learned a heck of a lot. But he was so inflexible, that I would ask him a question and he would say "let's try to figure this out" and try to get me to intuitively figure it out. Well guess what: nada :)

So while most kids will need something like TPR, there has to be room for people like me who not only have a hard time with TPR, but simply can NOT learn a language that way. :) You seem to be very flexible but unfortunately not all language profs are.


Paige said...

Did I mention my Spanish teacher had to teach everyone at once because she taught ALGEBRA the other 5 periods? Imagine Peggy Hill from King of the Hill, but with less Spanish knowledge.

David Bryan said...


Hey, girl! I'd recommend TPR for anybody wanting to learn a good amount of communicative Spanish in a short period of time. Go to the Fluency Fast page (they'll put up the 2006 schedule sometime soon) and sign up.


Yes, it is frustrating for us language-prone, grammar geeks who can do all the complex conjugations in our heads on the fly and find comfort in knowing the "whys" and the correctness of the language's structure, but for the other (literally) 99% of students out there, this teaches communication, and teaches more thoroughly, which builds confidence to say anything at all and promotes ownership of the language.


Oh, I LOVE Peggy Hill! My favorite episode is when she gets accused of kidnapping a Mexican girl and is hauled before a Mexican judge and makes an AWFUL defence in AWFUL Spanish. My sypmathies are with you, however.

Anonymous said...

This sounds like a good idea. I wonder if they have something like this for Chemistry. I know most people didn't ever learn a thing from Mr. Hames just constantly talking and writing on the overhead. I've done a few activities, but nothing seems to get through. I'll have to search for something like this, but it is a lot different then learning a language.


Chris Maricle said...

You may not believe this, but TPR sounds a lot like the way I was taught French in high school back in 1964. We learned little dialogues and acted them out, then answered questions orally from the teacher. There was almost no English spoken in the class. We didn't see a textbook until sometime in the second semester and had no idea how to spell anything! But our pronunciation was great! It worked so well that I went on to major in French, although I must admit that my first French classes at the university were pretty challenging, since I hadn't spent as much time on grammar and translation. However, I picked it up and my composition skills in French were much better than most. And I enjoyed the language so much more! I even spoke it to my little first-born son, who turned out to be a French major and foreign-language lover!