Micromanaging the Class (part 2): Am I Getting in the Way of Student Communication?

Language textbooks catch a lot of flak, sometimes for good reason. One of those reasons is the fact that they don’t capture the full richness and complexity of language. Words for the same things vary widely and who’s to say which is the correct word? Is it auto? carro? coche? Is one of these words more correct than another?

It is precisely this richness, the complexity and variety, that makes language class so different from the students’ other classes. In the olden days (way back before the Crust of the Earth had fully hardened, otherwise known as when I was in school learning Spanish), the trend was to teach language like those other classes:

  1. There were formulas, just like math and science! (ir + a + infinitive = future action!)
  2. There were vocab and spelling tests, just like English!
  3. There were lengthy lectures in which we listened and took notes, just like history!

In other words, the act of teaching language was treated like the act of teaching any other subject, which we know is great for teaching the formulas and drilling the grammar and spelling and for taking notes, but not so great for actual language acquisition and the development of proficiency in the language.

Maybe the teachers (and the language teaching profession as a whole) were trying to legitimize what we do by making it more easily assessed, more easily quantified and codified and graded. “The kids do the things we want them to do and do them the way we want them to do it AND they can do it without any help, so they get an A.”

Spanish is not Math (or History, or Science, or English, or anything else)

But as we have progressed, as we live through the explosion of proficiency-based methods and techniques, as we grow and shift our focus from grammar instruction to more and more comprehensible input, as we understand more about acquisition and shift to methods that foster it over learning, we are coming to understand that language can’t be taught like that.

Language doesn’t fit into a neat little box. There is no “Wrong” like there is in other classes. 1+1=2 and there is no other interpretation of that. But language isn’t so cut and dried. There are multiple paths to get to the same location. The point of our classes is to teach students how to communicate. If a student makes a few grammatical errors but is still comprehensible, are they wrong? Is it wrong if a student uses different words that convey the same meaning?

Who am I to get in the way of a student’s communication?

The way I like to explain this to my students is to tell them that there are as many correct ways to say something as there are people to say it. I might communicate a message in one way, with one certain set of words in English or in Spanish and someone else can say the exact same thing with completely different words but he meaning can be exactly the same.

But where math and science and grammar have a correct answer to every question (most of the time), language has infinite correct answers. There is no one way to say anything. There is no “wrong” if I can understand the message that the other person is trying to communicate.

Because of all this, I can allow my students the freedom to use the TL they have in their heads to write or speak and edit themselves. I don’t have to have the kids say something in exactly the same way that I say it for it to be valid.

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