What are your high school language students complaining about today?

One of my friends is a high school language teacher, and I used to ask her, “So, what are your students complaining about today?” That was back when her school used the traditional “First we learn the personal pronouns, then we learn the present tense of regular verbs, then we learn nouns in nominative case…” grammar-based language acquisition system. That system works reasonably well for me (although I prefer to learn the major points all at once rather than in pieces), but it requires an appreciation for rules (and their exceptions) that most high school language students don’t really have.

That’s why I like to ask her what her students are complaining about. One day it’ll be “Why do I have to learn noun genders?”, another day, it’ll be “Why do we have to change the form of the verb depending on who the subject is?”, and another day it’ll be “Why are there two different past tenses?” These students usually fail to realize that their own native language suffers from the same (if not more) “Why?” questions. Why does English have both a simple present tense and a present tense with progressive aspect? (And why are there so many exceptions? For example, why can’t you say “He is owing me five dollars”?)

Anyway, one day, when I asked her, “What are your students complaining about today?” I was expecting another point of grammar. What I wasn’t expecting was, “They want to know why they need to learn synonyms.”

I guess they figured that once they learned the word big, there would be no need to know words like large, huge, grand, massive, or vast.

I no longer ask this question, because my friend now teaches based on the principle of comprehensible input, wherein students are exposed to the language by means more closely mimicking the natural way language is acquired: employing stories and conversations, and using contextual or visual cues to infer the meanings of unknown words and tenses instead of learning them from a vocabulary list and a rule sheet. And it’s working fantastically. Now I don’t have to ask her about how the students are doing: She happily volunteers it! A few years ago, she was excited about students in their sixth week of class reading a story that would have stymied second-year students under the old system. Another story that stands out for me was students who knew where to put accent marks in relatively unfamiliar words even though they were never formally taught the rules on accent marks; they just used their gut feeling.

Most recently, it was “I formally introduced the past tense and asked one student to give me a sentence in the past tense. He said that when he was younger, he once took his dad’s car for a joy ride. Well, that quickly led to a game of one-upsmanship with students fighting to tell their own stories of juvenile delinquency. And they all used the past tense.” Sure, they didn’t get the irregular verbs quite right, but hey, they didn’t get the irregular verbs right when they were learning English for the first time, either.

Happy birthday, Rebecca!

Comments (29)
  1. Someone You Know says:

    I very much wish that my high school had used this method your friend is now using. I think I’d be so much better at French than I am.

    Some of the language teachers at my school tried to do things like this sometimes, but they usually ran up against the wall of government curriculum requirements that demand a unit of a certain length on a certain topic (e.g., how and when to use the subjunctive mood) during a certain semester.

  2. George Jansen says:

    I wonder whether a lot of what the schools do isn’t a holdover from the days when Latin was the standard language taught. It has a generally regular and elaborate grammar, and was seldom used as a language of conversation. (Yes, yes, Montaigne, etc.) The whole imus/isti/erunt thing can be satisfying to a mind that works that way, and punishment to one that doesn’t.

    May I take it that your friend teaches Spanish? It seems to me that one would need a good ear to know what accent to use where in French.

  3. Neil says:

    I can’t believe that other languages make do with only the one present tense. At least when most foreign tour guides don’t seem know the difference that makes me feel better about not learning their language!

    Oh, and I think you can’t say "he is owing me" because "owes" already means "is indebted to", and "owing" itself roughly means "due".

  4. Stephen Jones says:

    No Neil, the question is when you use the present continuous and when the present simple. He gets up at six versys He’s getting up at six.

  5. Nathan_works says:

    Interesting.. Though I haven’t had a foreign language lesson in over 18 years, I can still conjugate most verbs and read the language (with maybe the vocabulary of a 4 yr old, that’s what fell apart).. And I learned the old fashioned way.. By 3rd year, I could coherently "think" (internal monologue) in the language.

    Wonder what I missed out on, or if this is one of the wishy-washy everyone learns differently and in their own unique special snowflake way, but this is the hip new method (hopefully not because of politically connected folks, a’la phonics and NCLB)

  6. Technage says:

    I have heard of classes like this for adults where you start in a group and continue as long as there are students and it is basically just getting exposed once or twice a week.  This is sparking my interest in looking one of these up again.

  7. Jim says:

    Those the questions we would ask when we learned it, cause the English was not a native language for us. It is intesting to notice that in Chinese, the idea of grammar is non-existence. Once I had a Polish friend to tell me her secret of learning of a language. Her way is to study the verb, once you are familar with rules for verbs you pretty much know the language. But when I told her that in Chinese the verb does not mean anything or even exist as she imagined. She was really confused!

    I know someone would argue there is a Chinese grammar book on the bookshelf. But thoss books are tailored made from the western style grammar book. They are supposed to frame the language in an odd way.

  8. c++ guy says:

    Anonymous Coward,

    If you want to learn Japanese, stay away from all materials that use english letters to spell out Japanese words.  The first 2 weeks will be easier, but after that it’s actually way more difficult than learning the native writing system.  Kana has a very small phonetic set, and is quite compact, so memorizing a word in kana requires a much lesser cognitive load than memorizing it in romaji.

    I have never spoken to anyone in Japanese who had successfully learned to speak via spell-in-english-letters.

  9. Anonymous Coward says:

    C++ Guy,

    I second that notion but for a slightly different reason…

    In principle there shouldn’t be a big difference between learning strings from a set of 50 symbols or from learning longer strings from a set of 30 symbols if they always occur together in ceratin pairs, the brain is quite good at that.

    But because you aren’t reading Japanese the way it would appears naturally (kanji & kana) you effectively don’t train your reading skills and that’s disastrous. For the same reason you learn to read Greek in the Greek alphabet and not romanised. And because you can’t read, you don’t read the simple Japanese texts you otherwise could read, missing that training as well.

  10. Nawak says:

    Intuitively I would have said "He owes me…" but I had no idea you couldn’t say "He is owing me five dollars"…

    On the other hand, I rarely lend money :)

  11. Ian Marteens says:

    <i>large, huge, grand, massive, or vast</i>… and don’t forget <i>humongous</i>.

  12. Sven says:

    The fact that some languages don’t have a present continuous leads to some marvellously convoluted constructions to localize text such as “Installing” in software. :)

    In Dutch (which doesn’t have a present continuous), it was standard to use “Bezig met installeren” which, while definitely the closests you can get, is rather long so has a tendency to lead to text-clipping issues, a problem still plaguing many applications even today. Take Company X‘s driver installer for instance, which suffers from that problem (and some of the text in the *Dutch* installer is actually in *German*, how’s that for quality control?)

    I think MS software nowadays mostly just uses the infinitive, e.g. “installeren”, depending on context to clarify the meaning. I’m not completely sure of that though since I usually use English software (usually the only Dutch applications I see are those that (wrongly) assume that because my regional settings are set to Dutch I must also want Dutch UI, despite the fact that my OS’s UI language is actually English).

  13. Anonymous Coward says:

    From the different way languages were taught, and the way I picked some with ease while others simply didn’t stick, I take it these are the most important parts of teaching a language (in no particular order):

    *Vocabulary. This is where German failed… you can say, oh if you don’t know a word just circumlocute, but it just doesn’t work that way. The only reason circumlocution works in your native language is because you do know almost all other words you’re likely to need.

    *Grammar. This is where French failed… There is simply no point to learning hundreds of words every week if every sentence you read is just a downpour of unrelated words and every sentence you try to write comes out wrong. The only language I ever dropped.

    *Reading and especially listening. The latter part was where Latin went wrong. Listening to a language works so much better, because that’s how the human brain is evolved to acquire languages best. In fact, I’m now listening to a podcast with Latin vocabulary, grammar and sentences, and I must say that Latin is fun again.

    *Writing and speaking. There is no substitute for active use. When I was in school active study was very important, but today some kids get taught languages only passively and when they’re in a foreign country they just blubber and whimper. Yes, writing English essays was dull, but it is necessary. Yes, those little conversations feel fake, but you need to train.

    On that note, I’m thinking of picking up Japanese, but the textbook I have now sucks. Any suggestions? Something online perhaps? A podcast like the Latin one would be most welcome.

    P.S. "Bezig met X" doesn’t strike me as particularly convoluted. In Dutch often the simple present is used ("Ik loop door de stad." – I’m walking through the city.) or "aan het" ("Ik ben eten aan het maken." – I’m preparing dinner.).

  14. Remember Me says:

    For example, why can’t you say "He is

    owing me five dollars"?

    People who speak Hindu speak like this.

  15. Jonathan says:

    An actor could say "I am being sad" (I’ll be done once the director says "cut").

  16. Robert S. Morris says:

    @Neil: No, the reason is that verbs of the form -ing in English (like "I am running") are in what is called the progessive aspect. (It is worth noting that this is the progressive *aspect*, not a tense like some traditional grammars insist; tense in the linguistic sense refers to time, and the the progressive is independent of that.)

    Anyway, the progressive aspect describes an event that is in the process of unfolding (contrasted with the "pefective" aspect verbs that denote an action viewed as an entity: I spoke, etc., which could, of course, also be used in the progressive aspect depending on the situation). This means that is must have duration and be in the process of (or at least be *capable* of) unfolding. Owing does not meet these crieteria, as an event of "owing" cannot unfold; either you owe or you don’t, but you’re never in the "process" of "owing."

    For similar reasons, you can’t say "I am being said" (but can say "I am sad") or "I am knowing" (but can say "I know"). It’s all because of what the perfective aspect means and whether an action is capable of occurring in such a manner.

  17. Jac says:

    I’m assuming that she teaches them grammar as well – no bunch of kids is going to figure out the structure of past tense in a foreign language by immersion, unless it’s full immersion at about three years old for a few years. In which case, it sounds like common sense – was she ONLY teaching grammar before, and not doing the ‘comprehensible input’ stuff? That would be equally ridiculous as leaving grammar out entirely.

  18. Rebecca says:

    Hi Raymond,

     What a neat surprise to see the post on my birthday! I always enjoy discussing language acquisition with you, and I’m so excited to see Krashen’s Comprehensible Input referenced in your post. His "Theory of Second Language Acqusition" is brilliant.

     It’s been illuminating reading your readers’ posts.

     To "Someone You Know" —  there are definitely still imposed curriuculum requirements dictating most of our classrooms…hence why I have to waste some time on low-frequency vocabulary (three-quarter length coat, checkered, merry-go-round…to name a few), or fairly obselete vocabulary, like tape player. I would love to see curriculum designed around Davies’ Frequency Dictionary of Spanish, including non-sheltered grammar from level one. There is an unfortunate paradigm in most curriculums that a student needs to first be explained grammar before they can understand the meaning of a new message. In my own classroom, I do not shelter my level 1’s from grammar, and they have no problem making sense of erroneously labeled "advanced" grammar. My level 1’s easily accept that "es," "sea," "está" and "esté" all can mean "is" in Spanish, without batting an eye. With repeated input, their brains begin to notice the patterns of when they’re used. It takes FAR longer for it to start coming out correctly in production, which is where most classrooms to quickly try to force accuracy, in my humble opinion.  

     To "Jac" — I’d suggest you reconsider your assumptions. I use sheltered-language immersion in my classroom. I shelter the breadth of vocabulary, not grammar. I would actually argue that kids absolutely can learn the past tense by immersion. That’s how you did! That’s how all kids do–by context. Additionally, it always saddens me when the rumor that only kids can learn languages is perpetuated. Age is not the issue. The issues are: 1–comfort with ambiguity…younger kids are OK with not understanding the entirety of a message, 2–motivation…young kids are programmed by survival needs to make sense of the language being directed at them, 3–analysis…adults tend to consciously analyze language, when in fact consciously learning and applying rules is NOT natural language acquisition, and 4–pride…adults often have a difficult time accepting that their language expression will be at a lower level than their first language abilities.

     I could talk too much at length about this topic, but I need to go set up for a birthday party. Thanks for making room for the discussion.


  19. fschwiet says:

     Which publishers/lesson series are recommended if I want to use the contextual approach to learn a foreign language on my own?

  20. jcs says:

    fschwiet: I hear good things about the "Pimsleur" language course CDs, and they seem to use the approach you’re interested in.

  21. DK says:

    There are really no good reason for having past, present and future tenses in a language. For example if a language that don’t have that, you can still get the same meaning by adding the time frame to the sentence.

    For example using English in the wrong way(not using any of those rules):

    I ride bicycle now.

    I ride bicycle yesterday.

    I ride bicycle tomorrow.

    You can still understand if the action is in the present, past, or future.

  22. Anonymous Coward says:

    And in our New Platform you don’t need execution environments! But be careful to pass the proper activation context to the functions you call, otherwise you’ll end up frobbing the wrong sprocket.

  23. Medinoc says:

    I don’t need to use large, huge, grand, massive, or vast.

    Big, plusbig and doubleplusbig are enough.

  24. 640k says:

    I would prefere enormous, gigantic or humongous.

  25. DWalker59 says:

    @George Jansen: "erunt"?  That’s the old "Emergency Recovery Utility NT", which backed up your registry and other files.  I tried backing up an NT 4.0 registry to a floppy disk once, but it didn’t fit.  :-)

  26. Abhishek says:


    > People who speak Hindu speak like this.

    @Remember Me: Watched one too many re-runs of ‘Mind Your Language’ recently, have we? ;-)

    Seriously though, learn to at least differentiate between a ‘Hindu’ person (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hindu) and the language ‘Hindi’ (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hindi), otherwise you sound like an ignoramus.

  27. Cheong says:

    Once upon a time, when my primary school English teacher taught all the language elements covered in the syllabus, she held a competition for us to "build the longest sentence possible" by adding one language element at a time.

    Starting with simple "S+V" structure, we use "v" symbol to keep insert words in the sentence. When there’s too much "v" so we can hardly insert words, we wipe it from the blackboard and rewrite it flattened. We kept doing it so at the end it reached 3 lines long when the bell rang.

    The remains to be one of my funniest lessons in my life.

  28. JD says:

    @Abhishek: come on, how many countries are there? Cut people a little slack, otherwise you sound like a pompous ass. ;)

  29. Abhishek says:

    @JD: Well, I for one tend to be more than a little circumspect when making off the cuff remarks about other countries and their people (esp. given the global environment of distrust right now). Y’all might look at doing the same, eh? Cheers…

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