An interesting emailed question from Karen, who writes:
You’ve continually advised to read for the general gist, not word for word. I totally agree with this and have always done so. I read every EasyItalianNews email and without really trying, I believe my vocabulary has increased considerably.However in every Italian class I’ve been in – be it Stateside or abroad – when the instructor has us read a passage aloud in class, s/he has without fail had us thereafter immediately translate the text aloud, word for word.I’ve never been a big fan of this method; and it seems to runs counter to exactly what you suggest – just get the general idea.Is this read aloud/translate aloud method the way Italians think we non-native speakers learn language best? Or is there merit for precisely translating every single word?I’d appreciate your thoughts.
No merit at all, if this is the usual approach (there might be occasions when it is appropriate, but not as a general rule.) Your instructors are using a methodology that was already outdated in the 1920s. Since then, language teaching has been through several revolutions.EVEN teachers in Italy know better than to use this ‘grammar-translation approach’…. It was used for several hundred years to teach dead languages such as Latin and Ancient Greek, back in the days before public education, when the only books available were IN Latin and Ancient Greek, so reading and translating was basically all there was.But as soon as there was a need to teach people to speak and understand modern languages (think the two world wars, for example, the need to train troops as language experts, the need for people to monitor radio transmissions in Russian during the cold war, etc.) it was obvious that ‘grammar-translation’ wasn’t going to pass muster.The old way of teaching foreign languages was definitively knocked off its perch by ‘behaviourist’ theories (listen and repeat, endlessly…) back in the period between the two world wars, which in turn was turfed into the trashcan of history by more communicative and student-centered approaches from the ‘sixties onwards.A glance at any modern language course book, from a reputable publisher, will give you a good idea of just how much translating things is no longer considered an acceptable methodology.
- Of course, if the purpose of the course is to teach you grammar only, or to teach you to translate, then the ‘grammar-translation’ approach might be perfectly apt
- And universities and the like may well prioritise that sort of thing, on the basis that they’re teaching classes numbering in their hundreds, so anything ‘communicative’ might be impractical. British universities offer speaking practice with native speaker ‘tutors’ in addition to what might be a rather old-fashioned, grammar-centric approach in the lecture halls. And there’s the requirement that students spend time abroad to brush up on their skills, so therefore nothing inherently wrong with having a good basis in the grammar first, even though it’s probably not much fun…
- And EVEN I use forms of ‘contrastive analysis’ with classes at times, for example with Italian adults learning English – I might require them to work out, for example, how they talk about ‘future time’ in Italian (a harder question than you would imagine) before figuring out how what English speakers do is different and/or similar. That approach would NOT be appropriate with children, though, nor with classes of adults from different countries (so having different mother tongues)
In short, a teacher should be aware of WHY their students are learning and WHAT they need/want to learn, which in many cases (I am assuming most club members) is to be able to ‘communicate’. The methodology selected should reflect that, where possible.
For example, if you took a class at a language school in Italy, such as ours, you could reasonably expect some grammar content (it’s difficult to say much at all in Italian without conjugating a range of the most common verbs), along with a focus on speaking practice and communicative skills. And assuming you were in a group class with others, perhaps students from Europe or Asia who might not know English as well as you do, then it would be normal that the class was taught ‘in italiano’ – so providing the listening/speaking practice, even if at a cost of making the grammar harder to understand – rather than ‘in inglese’.
As far as I am aware, there’s no one, ‘right’ way to teach a language. But there are plenty of ‘wrong’ ways, and those are going to be ‘wrong’, not because of their deviance from the prevailing orthdoxy, but because they’re not a good fit for the learners.
Educational practice not being a good fit for the people being educated is something we’re probably all familiar with. State organisations, such as schools and universities, can get away with that, the students’ role being to do what they’re told. But private language schools and courses tend not to last very long unless they embrace more student-centered approaches – we need the positive word-of-mouth that comes from satisfied customers!
And for the self-taught student? Someone perhaps like you, who’s hoping to learn a foreign language, with online resources, without necessarily visiting or living in the country?
Someone like me, too, as I’m learning Spanish, French, Turkish and Swedish.
THAT’S why I always bang on about maximising the time devoted to reading and listening, rather than suggesting you/I try to grasp the whole grammar of the language, and memorise masses of words we might never use, before venturing into communicative activities like speaking and listening.
Reading and listening practice is free, or cheap. There’s lots of it available, once you build even a minimum level of confidence. And you can do it from your own home.
Add some regular conversation practice, and a quick skim of the basics of the grammar, if you really insist, and you should be well on your way to basic communicative competence. No course or teacher required, unless for your own reasons you choose to avail yourself of them.
In which case, let the buyer beware!