Monday, April 14, 2014

Follow Your Findings

Language teachers as well as independent learners often believe that, when it comes to grammar, there is such a thing as a plan. Start with simple rules like X and Y, and then move forward to more complicated stuff like Z. This logic lies behind the order of chapters in most grammar books. In theory, it looks like an optimum approach that helps a learner not to get overwhelmed and frustrated. In reality, it doesn't work even with the language of formal logic, not to mention about the messy, fuzzy, illogic human languages.

As a teenager, I started translating my favorite rock songs from English into Russian. I discovered lots of words, forms of words, phrases and syntax constructions that looked weird to me. I'd never learned those things in a class room. It was my 'Welcome to the real world, Neo' lesson. I asked my teacher to explain my findings to me again and again, and quite often she started with “Well, I haven't taught you that yet, because this is... hmm...” and then the excuses followed: too complicated, too colloquial, too conversational … Too real, in other words.

Now, when I'm on the other side and teach Russian to my students, I've become more sympathetic to my teacher. Simple and complicated things co-exist inseparably in the language fabric. When you deal with a real language, you have to embrace all the grammar topics at once. When you try to focus on one specific topic, you have to create artificial examples and ridiculous texts. Otherwise, you'd touch much more than one topic, and your lesson would become disorganized.

With all due respect to teaching methods and learning techniques, I learned English only because I switched from textbooks to the texts created by native speakers, for native speakers, with no educational purpose in mind. I strongly believe that this is the only way to learn a second language. When I teach, I let my students to dive into real texts. And this is when the most interesting thing begins: questions.

When dealing with real texts, my students discover grammar patterns on their own. They notice some regularities and ask me for explanations. This way they memorize those patterns faster and easier than when I first give them a rule and then try to repeat it until it gets into the knee-jerk level (classic approach to teaching languages). This same reverse learning works fine when it comes to vocabulary and word usage. It is amazing how attentive people can be to the semantic and stylistic nuances. After applying 'reverse engineering' to a text, people normally memorize words better and for longer time, than by simply repeating a list of words.

When it is the right time to deal with the real language? My answer is – from the very beginning. A few days ago, I had a session with a student who had just learned the Russian alphabet. I gave him a few short funny poems for kids to read in Russian. Frankly, I just wanted him to get more comfortable with the Russian letters. He worked on the poems for a week and came to me with questions that were way beyond the beginner level. During the session, I answered his questions, and, it turned out, I explained to him the basics of the Russian grammar in one hour. “Okay, I said after taking a long deep breath, this is how it works in Russian”, and we dived into the text. Hadn't he dealt with the poems before the session, he wouldn't have understood what I was talking about. I wouldn't have started talking about many of the topics we touched during the session. Of course, we'll get back to all those rules and patterns later. Of course, knowing about a pattern or a rule doesn't mean being able to use it, so it'll take hours and hours of speaking practice. Yet, that experience helped my student comprehend the Russian grammar, because it is so much easier to understand the details when one has the picture of the whole in mind.

Questions are precious. When you learn a new language, never let a plan guide you. Follow your own findings and do not hesitate to articulate everything that looks weird or ridiculous to you.

Photo by S.O.F.T