Words, words, words… and why grammar instruction helps some of us

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Least favorite line when assigning vocabulary: “That’s too many words!”

My 7th period was problematic today. Too much sugar. Too many toxic red Cheetohs. Whatever. Maybe it’s just adolescence. Buggers. It’s Monday and I am already behind. A neat trick on their part. They were not exactly uncooperative, but I hit multiple protests and multiple objections to work.

Some thoughts on the two-year foreign language requirement in high school:

French and Japanese teachers have an advantage over Spanish teachers because students chose their subjects. A student taking Japanese wants to be taking Japanese. Language teachers in all areas have common problems, though, especially the need to help students understand how language itself operates — that is, to teach a language’s grammar. For example, English mostly uses a S-V-O structure, subject followed by verb followed by object. Japanese mostly uses an S-O-V structure, putting the verb last, except Japanese doesn’t always need an object or even a subject.

Sometimes teachers skip grammar in favor of conversational methods that work around the lack of understanding that students bring to the formal structure of their language, but conversational approaches have one big drawback: They fall apart once you have forgotten your vocabulary.

If you know how to conjugate one type of verb, you can conjugate all regular verbs of that type. First, though, you must be able to recognize a verb. You also have to be able to recognize the subject of your sentence, since the subject will determine the form of the verb. You have to recognize objects, possibly assign them a gender, and then figure out where they fit in the sentence.

I took at 25 year break from using my foreign language skills except for a few chance conversations. When I needed to reclaim my rusty, high-school romance languages, though, I was in good shape thanks to a grammatical framework. I knew exactly what to do with a verb when handed its infinitive form. I knew the rules for past, present, future, gender, agreement, etc. I knew where to place my words in a sentence. While I had forgotten many words, I recalled the basic structure I needed, in large part thanks to endless, boring drilling on the part of middle school and high school language teachers. To recover fluency, I only had to brush up on my vocabulary.

But I reclaimed my lost languages because of drilling and repetition, because of grammar instruction and other approaches that are considered old-fashioned today. I did many worksheets. I recited dialogs. I wrote essays. I memorized lists of words.

Students today too often resent demands for memorization. They want to learn a language without word lists and grammar rules. We often oblige them by trying to teach through conversational approaches instead. There’s a place for conversational approaches. What’s the good of learning a language if you can’t wander the streets of another country and talk to the people who live there?

But I am writing this post because I see a problem as I listen to that whining phase, “That’s too many words!”

Twenty words over the week is not too many words. That’s eighty words in four weeks. That’s 720 words in a school year. Fortunately, learning verb forms provides a big boost to a student’s active vocabulary. to supplement those 720 words. Because 720 words is probably barely enough.

A number of students did not do enough of their week-end assignment for me to effectively do my Monday lesson plan. I understand they are pushing back against an unfamiliar requirement: The requirement to actually memorize something. There’s no alternative, though, and I hope we can all come together in understanding this fact soon.