Wednesday, September 17, 2008


I've now taught two English lessons. Both of the lessons have proven to be de facto exercises in vocabulary, though in each case I had plans for a more well-rounded class in which vocabulary would be thoroughly integrated into the other aspects of the lesson.

The involuntary focus on vocabulary seems to have happened not because my students' skills fall significantly short of the tasks I set them, but rather because I've chosen to deal with unfamiliar vocabulary through a modified form of the Total Physical Response system, and this approach has been so time-consuming that it threatens to swamp everything else on the agenda.

According to the method I have (for the moment) adopted, I write the vocabulary on the whiteboard along with its Chinese translation, then call on the students individually for one of three possible "responses:" a short English explanation of the vocabulary word, a picture illustrating the word, or a charade demonstrating the meaning of the word.

Thus, for a pronounciation drill focusing on the sounds "l," "r," short "i," long "i" and long "e" I created the following sentences:

Lizards really like to lie in the sun. Leapfrogs really like to sit on lily pads.

I was pretty sure (and I turned out to be right) that my students would not know the words, "lizard," "leapfrog" or "lily pad" so I put them up on the whiteboard before class:

lizard 蜥蜴

leapfrog 青蛙

lily pad 荷叶

asked the students for their responses, and the rest, as Genghis Khan might have noted on turning to survey his ravaged wake, is history.

Well, no, it wasn't that bad. By the end of the lesson the classroom floor was carpeted with (providentially green-covered) spelling workbooks -- lily pads, obviously -- and the spillage from the odd pencil jar overturned in a festival of hopping, but that was not really the problem. The problem was that that the fairy tales gloss over the true mechanism of metamorphosis -- embarrassed, probably, knowing that after all it isn't really as simple as a kiss between true hearts -- and once you have transformed your students into frogs it is very difficult to turn them back into children who sit at their desks and do the next exercise in their workbooks.

It makes a person think. At least, it made me think, something along the lines of, "Were the old-school table-chanters onto something?"

The primary purpose (I submit -- I'm not an expert in language pedagogy but I think this is pretty elementary) of TPR and similar approaches is to short-circuit the internal translation process that generally attends the early and middle stages of foreign language acquisition, so that the students develop a mental context for encoding and storing the meaning of the words they learn that is entirely independent of their native language. This seems to be so widely regarded as a desirable end in itself that I hesitate to question it, but, on the other hand, I am not sure it really is quite all it's cracked up to be either.

I reckon to speak on this question with the authority consequent to a peculiar range of experience (though with no other basis): when I have studied foreign languages, I have always been taught through conventional methods, but from the very beginning of each course of study have automatically skipped the internal translation process, apparently being naturally geared to learn language without it. This has sometimes earned me a reputation amongst teachers and classmates as a formidable linguist, but, as is so often the case with reputations, the reality has been another thing entirely.

I have found that two main problems arise from skipping the internal translation process. The first is that language learned in this fashion seems particularly vulnerable to the removal of the environment that gave rise to its aquisition. One only has to think of the way children forget their cradle tongues on entering a school in which another language is spoken to see the truth of this.

The second problem is that certain words do not lend themselves to the non-verbal storage matrix, making it harder to learn them in the first place, and easier to forget them once they are no longer in constant use. For me, this was particularly noticeable in the case of what I used to think of as the "little words" in Latin: iam, enim, mox and so on. I wouldn't quite say that I had trouble learning these words, or that I forgot them readily, but I certainly was conscious of an uneasiness in their presence; they were not my friends.

Of course, another reason for using TPR or similar methods is that this form of study may be more palatable to some students. When I was in high school a classmate once told me about her Russian instructor's classroom antics: apparently he would caper about the room, snatching all kinds of props from desks and tables, hardly ever going near the blackboard. I can still see my classmate's face as she told me about his pretending to burn his hand on a desk, then dashing a cup of white confetti over a student, so as to illustrate the words for "hot" and "cold." I think it was the surprise of the gentle flutter of confetti, when the students expected iced water, that impressed me most. It is one of my sharpest memories from that time -- and, strictly speaking, I wasn't even there.

But, of course, if such methods are more palatable to some students (and perhaps more interesting for some teachers), they may also simply get in the way. They may be a distraction or a waste of time even when the don't actually fail to provide adequate storage tags for the new information. Earlier today I noticed a debate on a discussion forum for Latin teachers regarding drilling methods for verb conjugation and noun declension. One contributor offered a series of songs (first declension endings sung to the tune of "Joy to the World" and that sort of thing), while another came down strongly in favor of a no-frills approach. I expect the debate will continue for quite some time, as it has become embedded in the larger, hotter issue of grammar- versus immersion-based teaching, with at least one advocate for immersion pointing out the importance of actually being able to use Latin, rather than merely to translate it, and implying that grammar-based teaching fails to achieve this end.

I don't quite know where I stand on any of these questions. Certainly I remember being irritated enough when, during my first year in grad school, a Japanese instructor insisted that singing verb synopses to the tune of "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" would help us remember the critical endings. But then I was particularly irritable in those days, and after all musical mnemonics are as old as Homer, and older.

And, since I'm writing a dissertation on (among other things) the conjunction of orality and literacy in the transmission of performance, I can't help being reminded of the related idea that, since music itself may serve as a mnemonic carrier for orally transmitted performance text, it is reasonable to begin with the premise that the musical and textual aspects of song transmission are interdependent. This offers a striking analogy to the idea that oral transmission is characterized by the inseparability of the performance from the transmission, compared with the relative independence of written transmission from the performance that it transcribes.

In a suggestive case study concerning two performers of the Higo Biwa ballad tradition (“Relations between Music and Text in Higo Biwa: The Nagashi Pattern as a Text-Music System,” Asian Music 26.1: 153-154), Hugh de Ferranti argues that a performer’s initial acquisition of a piece incorporating both text and music from a written source seems to enable the recollection of the textual element of the piece as a separate entity from the musical element; but where the piece is initially acquired by means of oral transmission alone, the recollection of the text appears to be much more dependent upon the recollection of its accompanying music. In other words, even in its final stage (i.e., retrieval from memory), the oral transmission of the piece requires a certain degree of “performance” in order to take place at all.

Well, anyway, I haven't yet started my young pupils on Latin (I expect we'll get going with that sometime in the middle of October), but I welcome the prospect of a little rote chanting. In spite of the alternative methods discussed on the Latin teachers' alias, a reiterated singsong seems indispensible to me. It seems an essential part of Latin itself, because it links us not merely to the Romans (who fade, mirage-like, at our approach -- their cradle language will never be our own) but to the generations of Latinists before us, to Shakespeare's unwilling schoolboy with his "shining morning face" and to everyone else who has chanted and pattered, all participants of one sort or another in the ceaseless struggle for indelible memory.

That sort of chanting is poetry, as much as the verse of Horace or Vergil is poetry. Certainly as much of life, one way or another, is "caught in its meshes." Or at least it seems so to me. And no wonder. If one of the clearest memories I have of my years at Andover is based on a language lesson I never took, I remember even more sharply hearing Derek Walcott give a reading in the Underwood room:

The bronze dusk of imperial palms . . .
I taught Love's basic Latin
Amo, amas, amat.

It was a chill autumn evening early in my first year. Listening to that warm Caribbean voice in the lamplit room, I thought to myself, "This is going to be good."


Nelson said...

caitlin..william and wanda are so lucky to have such a thoughtful methodology was non-existent! haha..i've also seen that you're beginning to unlock their "true" selves...they are a joy though. please give them my best and my love!

Anonymous said...

tres interessant, merci