Language Learning

I had written most of a post on language teaching and learning with all sorts of picky details, such as language essays are likely to have, but when I left it for a few minutes and came back to it, I realized that you may not be interested in those picky details — which is exactly my main difficulty with language teaching and learning. The human mind — at least my mind — seems to be at its best when it’s finding patterns and meaning amongst the details, and goes after those patterns like a hound after a rabbit. As adults, the higher level the pattern, the happier I tend to be. It’s not enough to see the plot of a story, unless, perhaps, it’s a Faulkner story; we have to know the themes, meaning, purpose, and eternal human questions addressed by the story. It’s not very interesting to be able to solve a math problem correctly until one has some sense of what the problem means, and is about. Until the problem communicates something about reality, about rationality, about some interesting relationship, for instance, with a strange and compelling necessity.

Perhaps I never learned to care much for language learning for the same reason I never came to care much for algebra — we learn algebra at a stage of development when we’re already trying to figure out the meanings of things, and yet no satisfying meaning is given — or is, perhaps, comprehensible — until one has worked more or less mechanically at memorizing a bunch of rules and practicing a lot of manipulations of numbers following those rules that don’t seem to mean anything particularly interesting in themselves. It’s not obvious what one is trying to accomplish other than to “solve the puzzle,” and I don’t care for puzzles for their own sake, unless they have some more important meaning.

A hook is needed, and for some of us (introverts?) being able to chat with foreigners is not a very compelling hook. People who prefer not to make small talk in their native language will not find the ability to make small talk in another language very compelling. And for English speakers especially, the reason needs to be compelling, because it’s unlikely that most of us will ever be much more than mildly inconvenienced by failing to know a language other than English. But even for people who really must learn English, fiddling with finicky little quirks is really a very dreary practice, like teaching a programming language by asking beginners to constantly edit for bugs they aren’t yet able to spot.

And there are hooks, even if many of us don’t yet know what they are, especially in our own language. A hook for a high school or college student might tend to be the sort of things that even native speakers have trouble with — or those few instances when a usually insignificant distinction yields a radical difference in meaning — and to really examine and consider what happened there. For instance, Georgian doesn’t have any genders, including gendered pronouns (ees means “he, she, or it”), and they tend to confuse he and she a lot. I don’t know if it would actually improve accuracy, but it would probably be rather more interesting for them to consider a little carefully how this can become a point of contention among English speakers ourselves, when an unnamed subject is a person without a gender (like God), or of an unknown gender (like any random person in a given class), and how traditionalists assert that he will do very well, thank you very much, but now we have become sensitive about that — and it could be a bit of an interesting discussion; what does it mean to have to always specify the gender of a person, and how might that be either helpful or cumbersome? There’s a similar tradeoff to be had by requiring all regular singular nouns have a determiner (usually articles the or a), which English does and Georgian does not do. How might that give a speaker more helpful information? What about it makes it difficult for non-native speakers (and it is, because it moves around a lot, but native speakers always notice when it’s absent); what are some interesting article peculiarities? When does it come up as a difficulty even for native speakers (this isn’t coming to mind as quickly as he and she, and would be a question for the teacher to think about, rather than the students, who wouldn’t have a broad enough experience to judge)? If it were taken seriously, and not just as an error, what would this mistake you just made mean grammatically? What would it mean to use an article with a proper name and call someone The Georgi or an Ana), or to say that I have Notebook, or that this is Apple (and why did I capitalize them)?

A difficulty that I have as a teacher is that, while I really do think that this line of thought is a lot more interesting than the exercises from the book, and would enjoy teaching a lot more if we were spending some time on this stuff, that doesn’t necessarily mean I’m going to actually teach it in a classroom, or even that I want to teach it in a classroom, and certainly not in a language classroom, because if it’s not obvious that these are at least a little interesting, then they’re not something that I can beat into the ground — and I’ve learned that teachers can’t seriously assign anything that they aren’t willing to grind relentlessly into a fine academic dust. I think that those questions would make a very interesting topic, but a wretched exam, and I would not be willing to insist on them very strongly. And a school teacher must be willing to insist.

I suppose that any of those grammar points I tire of so easily would be interesting considered in itself, as a point of procedure, style, or meaning. But most of them cannot be insisted on, because most of them do, in fact, admit exceptions — and those exceptions can’t always be insisted on, because the exceptions may also admit of exceptions. And the whole thing would be so very, very much more interesting if we could transition from language books to actual books, or at least to quotations from actual books, at the first possible moment.

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