So what exactly is ‘the traditional way’ of language teaching?
Well, if you’re reading this blog then you probably have some personal experience of that, but to recap, I’ll give you a personal example.
As Sophia would say in the Golden girls: picture it, Cape Town 1985. It was my first year of high school and one of my two elective subjects was German. I was so excited about learning another language that I was already picturing myself roaming the streets of Germany and chatting away like a native.
So when Miss Fourie entered the class I practically had my hand in the air to start answering questions, I was that eager. ‘Right class’ she said. ‘Open your grammar books on page 1 and let’s begin by understanding the dativ, nominativ and akkusativ structures of a sentence’. And it went downhill from there. Yea, you know what I’m talking about, you’ve been there.
Two years later I was getting good grades in German, but I couldn’t speak a word of it, not one sentence could I string together. If the truth be told, I didn’t really know that much grammar either, it’s all a bit of a blur. When the next round of electives came by I reluctantly dropped German and to this day I can’t speak any of it.
What makes it even sadder is that I’m a native Afrikaans speaker, which is such a close cousin of German that if I’d been taught properly I’d have been babbling off in German very nicely after two years.
So what went wrong?
Grammar is what went wrong.
You cannot, you absolutely CAN NOT, learn a language by starting with the grammar. So where does one start?
We start by communicating because that’s what language is all about, it’s about communicating with one another.
Let’s explore this by looking at an example and doing a little exercise. I have a beginner’s Spanish guide next to me and it starts with the usual 6 pages of ‘Buenos días, me llamo Maria’. Then on page 7 we get to the meaty stuff and we’re introduced to the verb ‘ser’, which means ‘to be’, and we learn all its different conjugations. OK. Then on page 7 we’re introduced to the verb ‘estar’, which means ‘to be’ and we get all its conjugations. Hang on, two verbs meaning the same thing? Oh yes indeed. Then follows a page discussing, in detail, the different instances in which each is used. This all happens on pages 7 to 9 of a book that is teaching beginner Spanish. So some poor hapless sod who can’t string a sentence together in Spanish is introduced to the language with one of the most complicated grammar discussions a beginner can probably have in this language. No wonder people give it up.
Imagine if this book had thrown the grammar out the window and page 7 had looked like this:
Class, today’s 10 new words / phrases are as follow:
quero, puedo, comprar, pan, por favor, entrar, pagar, aqui, una tostada, un café
The meaning of each word / phrase is given, but we don’t yet get any explanation about conjugation or grammar. We are only told that ‘quero’ means ‘I want’, we are not given the infinitive ‘querer’ with all the conjugations and we are told that ‘puedo’ means ‘can I’ or ‘may I’, we are not given the other conjugations.
Class, today’s exercise is to make sentences using these words in different combinations. So you get your pencil out and start making sentences.
Quero comprar pan. (I want to buy bread.)
¿Puedo comprar pan aqui? (Can I buy bread here?)
¿Puedo entrar aqui? (May I enter here?)
Un café por favor. (A coffee please.)
And so on. Can you see the difference? In the first example we learned a lot of confusing grammar, but in the second example we’re already making sentences. We’re able to COMMUNICATE and this is exactly the purpose of learning a language. It doesn’t matter that we don’t yet know why we say un café, but una tostada, what matters is that we can go into a restaurant and order one.
I’ll say it again, you CAN NOT and you WILL NOT learn Spanish by learning grammar before you have the vocabulary and the experience to understand it and use it properly.
Learn vocabulary. Lot of it.
Then go and talk to people and use it. A lot.
If you don’t have anybody to talk to or you’re still feeling self-conscious about having a conversation then talk to yourself. I do it all the time and it works like a charm. In fact, I’m so much in favour of talking to ourselves that I’m going to write a blog post about it and when I have I’ll amend this article and add the link.
So off you go and go and learn words and use them!