From a Colleague

I was discussing with my coordinator (at the university) my ideas that using tprs could help us with our lower level retention issues, particularly with minority students.  She always wants to “see the research” on things, wants data, wants statistics.  Wants to know if there has been any long-term research done showing whether tprs students retain their language abilities.
Which has made me think, is there any research out there supporting long-term language ability retention for our “conventional” grammar-based methodologies?  (Or even, analyzing what percentage of typical first year students show any short-term language ability gains?)  It seems strange to me that I don’t hear anyone at the university asking these questions about the methodology we are now using.  If we actually analyzed what our own students (don’t) learn to do, we’d have no justification for what we do in our classrooms every day.
The coordinator is warming up to the idea of tprs, has agreed to let me do this in my three sections of fourth-semester Spanish for the spring.  But when I confronted her with the overwhelming difficulty of practically having to learn linguistics and language theory in order to learn any Spanish in a basic university class, plus the vocab bombardment, in response to my “don’t you think there has to be a better way?” she seemed almost programmed to spout back that of course there must be a better way, but it would never work for us with our limited contact hours, therefore the grammar methodology is better.
Of course, all of this is made even more interesting and ironic by the fact that I’ve probably been teaching Spanish since before she went to kindergarten.  I might possibly have previously thought what it hasn’t even yet occurred to her to think, and I might have learned something watching twenty years’ worth of 18-22-year-olds NOT become fluent in Spanish, despite my unrivaled ability to clarify the mysteries of what stem-changing verbs do in their deepest, darkest conjugational moments.
So do either of you have any documentation you would recommend for me to share with her, or should I just teach my ass off next semester and invite her to visit a lot and watch my students grow?
On the encouraging side, one of my fifth graders brought her mom’s Mexican coworker to tears with her beautifully pronounced, comprehendingly sung rendition of “Noche de paz” last night.  And my own fourth grade daughter, as she helped me sort 75 ten-page (yes, TEN page) comprehensive Spanish 101 finals, kept asking, “Mom, how old are these people? Why did they all do so badly on this test? I think I can even understand most of this test, Mom, and I’m only nine years old!”
(I think I’m going to analyze those final exam grades by race and see if any interesting statistics pop up for my comprehensive-grammar-vocab-exam-loving coordinator …)
I don’t want to give the wrong impression about our coordinator.  She *does* want to see our students learn Spanish.  She has an incredible amount of energy, she’s extremely thorough, she does her job well, she gets to know her students and tries to draw them in, and she’s obviously open to new ideas.  She did research into TPRS on her own in preparation for meeting with me to discuss my spring classes, she asks good and logical questions, and she wants to visit my classes often to learn what is different about this approach, and see how well it works for my students.
The issue here is that she “grew up”, in a university sense, under the big-money-textbook-driven reign of the “communicative” approach.  These horrendously expensive textbook systems, particularly those by the biggest-name professor in the communicative university Spanish textbook biz, force (bad) output while force-feeding hundreds of (mostly unnecessary and promptly forgotten) vocabulary words per chapter.  That method just doesn’t work for the vast majority of our students, and those that come from backgrounds where they were not at all well-prepared linguistically or grammatically, essentially have to learn two languages to pass the class — the language of linguistics, followed by Spanish grammar.  They’re scared, they’re discouraged, it’s too hard, they can’t remember all those words and all those rules, and we’ve given them no contextualized, input-driven reason to care whether they remember them or not.  And that’s just 101 … they still have to get through three more semesters of this, trying to master verb tense after verb tense when most of them still can’t even carry on the most basic of conversations, and they’re scared to even try.  (And by the way, we’re losing a noticeable number of these students to the more exotic languages at our university, where there is no King Textbook, the professors use lots of input in class, play music, watch videos and read authentic texts online, cook, laugh … have fun!!)
Bryce has a document he’s put together called “The Basics of TPRS.”  When I read it last night, it was like a light dawned.  He helped me finally truly understand the problem here — WE, the language teachers, are the weird ones.  WE are the ones who are different/strange/unusual — because we like this stuff.  We get it, it comes easy to us, finding the patterns in grammar thrills us, we actually like making adjective endings match the nouns and conjugating verbs in every tense known to man.  We’re like 8 year old boys with new legos, fascinated with the process of putting things together.  OTHER PEOPLE AREN’T THIS WAY.  Most of our students ARE NOT this way.  Trying to force them to learn this stuff “the hard way” like we did just won’t work.  That grammar-based system worked for us because we actually liked the process; the grammar itself was our “compelling input” because something inside our twisted 😉 minds thrilled to the puzzle of it all.
So.  When I look at our coordinator and hear what she says, deep down inside, I grow weary, because I’ve said all these things and thought all these things before.  In 20+ years of university Spanish classes, I’ve thought it all and tried it all.  And none of it worked.  To be perfectly honest, in all those years, I can think of maybe two kids who really, truly “got it” because of their experiences in my classroom.  I now understand that THEY WERE WEIRD ONES LIKE ME.  The others all just temporarily played with verb conjugations and jumped through the right hoops to pass the class — or didn’t, and left to try Thai or dare to enter a math classroom and switch to a B.S.  And then, last summer, when I sat for hours on that uncomfortable hotel meeting room chair and actually found myself acquiring and understanding (the Blaine Ray version of 😉 German after only a couple of short lessons … I finally, truly, GOT IT.  And now, at 45, I’m re-learning how to do this language-teacher thing the right way.

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7 thoughts on “From a Colleague”

  1. A few years ago, my French numbers were low. My principal strongly suggested that I go to the local CC and “get some Spanish under my belt”. My dept chair seconded that emotion thinking that I could march through the textbook keeping one step ahead of the kids. I got a 96 in Span 101 because I am one of “them”. I wound up trying to help those in the class who were totally lost. I remember next to nothing from that experience. The Spanish that I have picked up has come from hanging out at TPRS Workshops. It’s encouraging to read a post that so clearly lays out the frustrations of teaching at the university level. The sobering part is that this is where we send our kids who, unable to spout the linguistic lingo, risk frustration and failure. Sad.

  2. I teach Mandarin Chinese at a high school and this is my 3rd year teaching this course as an elective course. Many of my students have learned or are learning other language(s) at the same time. Last winter, surprisingly, I found TPRS method and has been using it since. I see big differences with my students as far as how much they could understand me whenever I ask a question even if we are just asking personal questions and it is not story related. However, one of the students in Level II class came to me today and complained that he has not learned much since September. In the mean time, I was able to converse with him in Mandarin Chinese even if this is only his second year. He complained that I did no spend much time on drilling the grammar with the worksheet. Of course, I explained the benefits of TPRS method and pointed out how much he is able to understand me and how much he can talk. I am still very new at this method and I wonder if I have done something wrong and if I should spend more time on doing the grammar worksheets.
    Everyone keeps telling me that Mandarin Chinese is very difficult to learn with the four tones but I have a question which is if the Chinese children ever practiced four tones with their parents right after they were able to walk. Personally, I did not know about the four tones until I started elementary school and I am a native speaker who can speak the language fluently. I also speak Mandarin Chinese at home with my two daughters and they speak Mandarin Chinese sometimes to me (depends on their mood). I have never practiced the four tones with them which proves the effectiveness of TPRS methodology. But sometimes you have the doubt in yourself that if you are doing the right thing with your students when one complained to you that he has not learned much and prefers to learn the language with a set topic(such as weather, professionals, clothing)
    Did I not spend enough time doing the grammar and should I spend more time on grammar? I am a novice and I hope I can get some advice from you. Thank you.

  3. Hi Tracy, so glad to see you here (since I don’t see you quite enough at school!!). Yes, everybody, Tracy and I are the two TPRS pioneers at our school. I think what you reported above can be seen as a major breakthrough, the kid was learning to converse without even realizing it. Major kudos to you!!!

  4. Wow, Tracy, great job. No, you have not done too little with grammar worksheets. The student who complained is proof of that. Your teaching and his acquisition are so effortless that he fails to understand the beauty of it. He has been trained by the educational system that learning is “work”, and he doesn’t understand just how much his brain is processing unconsciously.
    BTW, one of the best compliments I ever got from a student was, “You know, it seems like we aren’t learning anything each day in class, but when someone asks me a question and I can answer it in German, I realize that I have learned a lot.”

  5. It wasn’t the student, but the parent behind the question. It’s kind of like the patient telling the doctor how to treat, what to prescribe. If you believe that this is the way to best do your job, then why listen to someone who doesn’t know anything and has no experience about how we learn languages? Verb conjugation is similar to the idea that the world is flat. It isn’t.

  6. Tracy how fantastic that kid felt comfortable enough with you to come up and actually talk with you in the lanugage about his frustration. I wonder if he would do that with another teacher? It says you built rapport with him. And that you could converse in Chinese intelligently about his problem. Well, that says a lot to me about compelling comprehensible input. How would he be able to tell you he had a problem with grammer if he could only talk about the weather?
    We always feel the tug of the student or parent who complains –the squeaky wheel gets oiled. But, I bet there are dozens of students sitting in many of those other language classes wondering why they can’t just have a plain old conversation.

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