Monday, January 28, 2013

Grammar Rant

I'm sure anyone who is working as a lectora/auxiliar of conversation in any classroom round the world will tell you that it's an awkward position to be in. Do I have authority? Autonomy? What is my role in the classroom? Am I to be told what to do each day? Am I to work as if there were no other teacher in the room? Do I read presented texts as if I were an MP3 on a language CD? Do I grade exams?

Can I call myself a teacher?

I think everyone would answer these questions differently, as they depend on work ethic, one's coworkers, and the surrounding institution, amongst other things. For me, it depends on the class. In one class, I feel like a robot. A monkey could do my job. The teacher points to me, and I speak. I'm treated as if I have no prior knowledge of anything whatsoever, except perhaps English pronunciation (which is then even called into question due to my being americana). I've been lectured extensively on mind numbingly basic concepts (e.g. manufactured vs. raw goods) by a teacher who can barely pronounce any hard syllables without covering me, or nearby students, with spittle. Don't blame me if I make funny faces at him while his back is turned.

About how professional my "bad class" makes me feel

Luckily, that far from represents my overall experience. The rest of my classes are a dream, and I feel free to enter into the conversation of a bilingual class freely and with authority. In my English classes (not so much in PE or music), I'm even charged to plan lessons and activities. Awesome!

If you've been reading since last year in Brazil, you'll know that I value creativity in teaching. This year in Spain is my first year working in a system that values completion rather than comprehension. The teachers complain to me that parents want their students to "finish the book" as a way to justify their money spent.

Well, what if the book sucks? What does completing written exercises all day really accomplish, besides total boredom of all parties involved? So, whenever given half an opportunity to chip in, I try to find games, role-plays, dialogues, and other creative activities that give the students a chance to talk and think for once in their short lives. I, "the teacher," gladly shut up and let them take over.

Normally this works wonders. With young students though, especially my 12 year olds, they revert to Lord of the Flies type civility in seconds without the imposing structure of bookwork. With them, I have to be pretty stern. Yes, I'm learning how to discipline. God save us.

But in the midst of the repetition and mundane bookwork that make up my day job, I found this inspiring passage in an unsuspecting Cambridge University Press book titled Grammar Games:

"Meeting and interiorising the grammar of a foreign language is not simply an intelligent, cognitive act. It is a highly affective one too. Little work seems to have been done by psychologists or linguists on learner feelings towards specific ligaments of the target grammar and the change in these feelings as the learner moves from one level of language command to the next... I have found it helps to make students more conscious of what is going on inside them if you ask them to introspect from time to time during a course as to which structures they like in the target language and which they dislike, and why."  

Wait, introspection? Are we still talking about grammar? Never in my long road to Spanish fluency and my general linguistic career (can we even call it that?) have I ever been asked, "Lauren, how do you feel?" The author, Mario Rinvolucri, goes on to give pages of examples students gave him when asked what is structurally "nice" about English and what is, as he puts it, "UGH!" Here's an "UGH" example:

"A native speaker of Italian learning English at a post-beginner level strongly objected to the construction: 
How old are you?
He found it particularly ridiculous that English speakers even say this to a very young baby."

HA! So, we all know that language doesn't really make sense. If anything, secondary language learners are more aware of the inconsistencies and utter nonsense of a language than its native speakers. Shouldn't we acknowledge their perspective? It's insightful, funny, and mutually useful. I, the native speaker, become more aware of what the hell I'm saying in English, and I also learn another speaker's perspective and consequently a bit of their linguistic background.

Also, as Mario points out, you can track these feelings and opinions over time. As I've been writing this, I've been trying to think of examples of Spanish phrases that don't make sense to me or don't "feel right" to me as an English speaker, and I can barely think of any! I have a really high level of Spanish, so speaking it is more natural for me. If I were to ask myself this same question, maybe, 5 years ago, I'm sure I'd have pages and pages of complaints!

One example, just because I've never liked genderized nouns. Why is a table feminine? Why is the floor masculine? Who cares? What does that even mean? Why anthropomorphize everything? The only examples that ever made sense to me were that "el problema" (the problem) is masculine and that "la soluciĆ³n" (the solution) is feminine. HA! With that, I leave you. ;)


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