• Should foreign language teachers focus their pedagogy based on the student’s ability to speak or the grammatical theory behind the language?

    At the Central States Conference in St.Louis, MO March 2014

    A couple of days ago I stumbled upon a posting that caught my attention regarding a list serve of foreign language teachers. One teacher commented that a student’s mother, a native Spanish speaker, questioned her pedagogy. Although the student became more fluent in Spanish, the mother’s concern derived from her daughter’s inability to conjugate verbs and appropriately applying grammatical rules while speaking Spanish. Consequently, the teacher was offended because she focused on the speaking rather than the grammatical aspect of the language. My instant reaction led me to question why this native Spanish speaking mother failed to initially teach her daughter Spanish. Thereupon, I began to ponder what foreign language teachers should focus on? Should foreign language teachers focus their pedagogy based on the student’s ability to speak or the grammatical theory behind the language?

    That same day, one of my college classmates announced that she had taken a Spanish teaching test that certified her to teach foreigners in Mexico. Unfortunately she did not pass the test because she could not come up with superlative words commonly used in the Spanish language. Obviously she was puzzled since she considered herself a “qualified and experienced” Spanish teacher for foreign students. To console her, I wrote a note reassuring her that she was a capable Spanish teacher. In my opinion, those tests were created to frustrate teachers and to provide the linguists with tangible outcomes. My friend immediately replied stating that she was in half accordance with my opinion; however, she advocated that it is our responsibility to preserve our language by knowing the grammatical theory.

     These two stories had me discern our objectives as foreign language teachers. As an accredited communication major, I have always loved my language. Language is the tool that helps us speak our minds and keeps us informed about the outside world. I love the idea of spending hours discussing with other people who share my passion about languages. I realize, however, from experience that knowing a language through its grammatical theory does not help with fluency to communicate clearly.

    There are many linguistic experts who have written books and innumerable articles focusing on language teaching courses. Many readers are unable to understand the publications although the publications are written in their native language. The linguistic expert’s publications are too advanced for people’s comprehension that it keeps from protecting the language from becoming deteriorated.

     It would seem appropriate and logical from both perspectives that there should be a common ground amongst pedagogies. However, we cannot make assumptions without considering how language is naturally acquired. Research has indicated that infants experience a silent period before communicating clearly in his or her own language for up to two or more years. The two years are fundamental for the baby to acquire his or her native language.

    Learning “to talk” is a slow process that comprises of listening to adults around us. The adults surrounding the baby use “verbs” without explicitly explaining the grammatical rule behind it. Nonetheless, babies receive continuous repetition of certain words until they are able to use them within the appropriate context. The tangible outcome proves to be successful when the babies are officially communicating in their first language.

     What occurs after the initial two years of language development? Honestly, not much. We simply continue the language acquisition progress until we perfect oral communication and are ready to enroll in the academic life. It is not until we are about six or seven years old that we discover the purpose of grammar within our language. The process of acquiring language is as long as running a marathon.

    If the first language is predicated by pure experience, without opening a book or studying the grammar, why do we insist on reversing the process to acquire a new language? In my opinion, the standard should be as follows: “In my Spanish foreign language class, I will not teach my students about the Spanish language and its grammar. I will teach my students to speak in Spanish so that they are able to communicate with others.”

    Laura "La Maestra" Zuchovicki

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