13 April 2010

A case for avoiding "pet" grammar

My baby's been occupying a whole lot of my time lately, draining the life from my blogging and twittering, but in the grand scheme of priorities, she's above my blog, sorry. ;-)  But now that potty training is going more smoothly I'll make a concerted effort to get back into things.

Way too long ago I saw a few tweets from some Twitter friends, also Spanish teachers, retweeting and agreeing with this post about how students in U.S. Spanish classes should learn the vosotros.  It caused a twinge of guilt in me, I'll admit, because I don't teach the vosotros.  We call it "that y'all -ais isteis ending they use in Spain" every once in a while when it comes up in conversation, but I don't explicitly teach it, not even in AP Spanish. Why? Because I like to think I'm on a mission to get my students communicative in the comparatively tiny amount of time I have, and vosotros isn't part of it.  But what if they're right? What if I'm cheating them out of something, just because never in my Spanish-speaking 20 years have I ever used or needed the vosotros form?  So, I thought, I'll ask.  I do have one student in my six years of teaching who did study abroad in Spain. Also, my colleague who teaches lower-level Spanish with me studied abroad in Spain.  I'll ask them.  My colleague told me that she thought it's a good idea to introduce it so they can recognize it when they see it, but other than that it's more or less a waste of time.  As for my former student, here's what she told me via facebook message:
"Having spent time in Spain I think I would still agree with you that spending a lot of time teaching vosotros isn't really needed. I think as long as you told your students what it is and maybe went over some of the verbs like ir, comer, and hablar to give them an idea of how it works. I think the best explanation of it is to tell them it is the form the Spaniards use for y'all."

Whew, mental forehead wipe.  So the two people I know who might have told me I'd been cheating my students reassured me that as long as they know what it is, it's not a big deal if they can't really use it.

What makes me think this even more is the Latin American use of vos.  I had friends in Texas who regularly used the preterite conjugation of vosotros with me as a conjugation of vos, which isn't taught in any textbook.  What about that?

This got me thinking more about pet grammar and about my own shortcomings.  How much time do we as teachers spend teaching stuff that's just uncommunicative junk that doesn't matter?  Take me, for instance.  Would you believe that at the beginning of this year I actually spend a few days and a good part of a test teaching and evaluating the presence or absence of the definite article before a qualified or unqualified profession word? I mean, come on! (If you're as lost as you should be, what I mean is, 'él es abogado' vs. 'él es un buen abogado'.)  Where in the grand scheme of communicative language teaching did I need to waste time on that?

Another example: I distinctly remember having to memorize in college a list of the country words in Spanish and which ones typically did or did not take the definite article.  I remember memorizing that you have to use la Argentina instead of just Argentina.  Fast forward to now when I regularly read news articles in Spanish on website and see en Argentina, de Argentina, desde Argentina. Wait, where, what? Why did I memorize that again?

Let me hit a little closer to home--verb conjugations.  Oh how we love to drill them, practice them, mark them wrong, am I right?  A few weeks ago Laura Pausini put on her twitter feed @officialpausini that she wanted people to donate to Haiti or Chile earthquake relief, can't remember which, and "yo también lo hizo." ¿Hizo? Sure, you say, but Laura is actually Italian.  But she speaks Spanish quite fluently and makes more money singing in Spanish than in Italian.

But let's talk native Spanish speakers.  My students and I were doing some class activities regarding the wave of violence in Ciudad Juárez and watched some videos, including one showing a protest sign that read "Señor Presidente, hasta que encuentremos el culpable..." What a minor detail, that stem change that shouldn't be there in an -ar subjunctive, but I remember how much we studied those little details.

Pet grammar.  If it's your goal, fine, but I'd argue that's when you're really cheating your students--cheating them of the opportunity to be communicative.  Grammatical accuracy comes with a whole lot of time and comprehensible input, and in the meantime, why not just have fun with communication?  My most communicative students are the ones whose verb accuracy is all over the place, but their affective filters are low and they're willing to experiment and have fun and just lay it out there and try it and negotiate meaning.  One of them just won first place in level 4 oral proficiency at the district language festival and I can assure you my college Spanish professor would be appalled at her verb accuracy.  But when she goes to a restaurant and tries her best to chat about whatever she can think of, I can assure you the people there couldn't care less.


Pilar Munday said...

I couldn't agree more. And I'm a Spaniard teaching in the US. I have a student in college who was drilled every verb tense in high school. The result? He does know his verbs all right, but he is incapable of putting a whole sentence together that makes any sense. What does it matter that he knows the imperfect subjunctive endings if he cannot communicate?
As for VOSOTROS, I don't teach it either. I tell my students that I, as a Spaniard, may say it in class occasionally (although I do try to use ustedes with them) but I know that 90% of my students will never really have a use for it, so I don't want to waste our precious time.
Thanks for another great post!

Senora said...

YOU are BRILLIANT. I say this because I have recently come to a similar realization, and people who think like me, well, they have to be brilliant, verdad que si?

Thank you for putting this into words AND exposing me to whole new authentic sources possibilities (Laura Pausini's twitter--who'd've thought?)

PS Can you tell I've mostly been isolated in departments of 1 or 2 through most of my Spanish teaching career?

Patrick said...

I've posted your blog entry to my blog. If that's not OK, let me know. I did not credit you only because I am never sure people want to be associated with me. I would be more than happy to credit you and put in a link to your blog........ or, delete the quote from your blog if you prefer.

Patrick said...

I've posted your blog entry to my blog. If that's not OK, let me know. I did not credit you only because I am never sure people want to be associated with me. I would be more than happy to credit you and put in a link to your blog........ or, delete the quote from your blog if you prefer.

Sarita said...

Patrick, could you let me know where your blog is?

Fred said...

I agree too--my opinion is that if you have a strong base in the language, you can easily pick-up on the regional variations. I remember my first trip to Buenos Aires, it only took me a day or two to pick-up the Voseo and add it to my bag of linguistic tricks.

There was an error in this gadget
There was an error in this gadget