September 07, 2009

Teach a man to Fish

As I noted a while back, the motto of my old Japanese professor, Watabe Sensei, when he was consulting for the (sadly defunct) TESOL software company I used to work at was: "Examples, examples, examples!" Unfortunately, our Japanese clients always insisted on: "Grammar, grammar, grammar!" And the customer is always right, even when they're wrong.

Especially when they're footing the bill.

Stanley Fish comes to similar conclusions about English composition. If teaching grammar means memorizing rules and making students afraid of breaking them, then "teaching grammar out of context" is indeed ineffective. What does work, though, is drilling students in "the forms that enable meaning; and these are not inert taxonomic forms, but forms of thought."

Teach a practical form or structure--a usage--and then drill with examples of that usage. To paraphrase Royal Skousen, "The usage is the description." That's what makes the Eijirou database so useful: it's nothing but examples.

Of course, at times a good definition or a simple grammatical analysis will suffice. But when it comes to real-world applications, examples of the form in action are far more useful than textbook explanations. I like Khatzumoto's comparison of language learning to the martial arts and the practicing of kata, or "choreographed patterns of movements."

In music, it's called "learning the scales."

I think this is what Fish means when he says that "content just sprawls around; forms constrain and shape it." It is important that language students understand there is more to language than solipsistic discussions about language. But it's more irresponsible to rhapsodize about content without emphasizing the hard work of learning through practice, and lots of it.

As Victor Brunell nicely sums up the fruits of Khatzumoto's approach (he uses Mnemosyne, I use Anki):

My grammar acquisition proved to be quite rapid. It’s so strange: your mind simply begins to adapt itself to a certain way of thinking after seeing grammar repeatedly used in context, regardless of whether or not you have a concrete explanation in your primary language.

I can second this observation. Even though it's more a metaphor than a "thing," and although it ages in dog years and grows creaky and arthritic by the time you're twenty, Chomsky's fabled language acquisition device is still chugging away.

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# posted by Blogger Kate Woodbury
9/09/2009 9:10 AM   
I can corroborate the importance of learning a grammar rule and then applying it over and over and over. I worked as a secretary/office person for 10 years. I relied on my innate English skills (what I'd learned through trial and error and custom). However, once I started teaching grammar, I had to teach rules and *show* how they work. I am a WAY better proofreader now, just because I'm so hyper aware of what the sentence is trying to do at a grammatical level.
# posted by Blogger Eugene
9/09/2009 11:57 AM   
My most useful education as a writer came from working in the BYU Reading/Writing Center. Being able to write and being able to teach writing are two separate skill sets, the same way the best coaches are not necessarily the best players. That's why universities should distinguish between research tenure tracks and teaching tenure tracks, and why having grad students teach GE classes should produce a better quality of professor.