4.0495 Language Learning (4/213)

Elaine Brennan & Allen Renear (EDITORS@BROWNVM.BITNET)
Mon, 17 Sep 90 21:50:24 EDT

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 4, No. 0495. Monday, 17 Sep 1990.

(1) Date: 14 Sep 90 18:02:24 EST (43 lines)
Subject: 4.0487 Languages and Learning

(2) Date: Fri 14 Sep 90 21:11:36-PDT (31 lines)
From: Roland Hutchinson <R.RDH@Macbeth.Stanford.EDU>
Subject: The education profession and the rest of us

(3) Date: Sun, 16 Sep 90 17:39 CDT (79 lines)
Subject: Language learning & requirements

(4) Date: Mon, 17 Sep 90 12:47:20 EDT (60 lines)
From: Sarah L. Higley <slhi@uhura.cc.rochester.edu>
Subject: On Grammar and Delicate Spoofs

(1) --------------------------------------------------------------------
Date: 14 Sep 90 18:02:24 EST
Subject: 4.0487 Languages and Learning (4/163)

Two anecdotes come to mind from Elias Canetti's marvelous memoir of his
childhood, *Die Gerettete Zunge* (Englished as `The Tongue Set Free').
First, of his grandfather, a Sephardic Jew of the old school born around
1850. He knew seventeen languages: that is to say, he could go into the
places where those languages were spoken and make himself understood and
understand enough to do what he wanted to do there, as an old-fashioned
trader. But he could read only one language, Ladino, in which he read
newspapers. Has anyone thought whether learning to read and write is
the thing that hinders us from learning additional languages? The
grandfather had clearly gone on picking up languages osmotically long
after the `critical age'. And is there any good work on multilingual
skills in contexts where linguistic frontiers are many and fluid? In a
mostly non-literate society, dialectal variation from one village to
another is fairly pronounced and the traveler quickly finds himself
astray in a Babel-like world; and yet (this is *very* interesting)
ancient and medieval works very rarely speak of people requiring
translators: they made do somehow. I suspect partly by accepting a less
precise level of competence than we, under the influence of written
texts and grammar-book-wielding teachers, will tolerate. Think how
bashful we are of expressing ourselves in another language until we have
vocabulary, syntax, and grammar correct: banish those very literate
anxieties, and the task ought to be much easier -- more like the way it
appears to small children.

The second anecdote is harder to credit but perfectly lovely. As a boy
in Ruse on the Danube, Canetti spoke Ladino to his family and Bulgarian
to the non-Jewish servants. He left Ruse at age 5 for England, then at
about age 12 came back to Austria, where he finally learned German (his
parents had known German all along, but used it as a private language
between themselves, unknown to others in the large and intrusive family
around them). At any rate, it was some years later when Canetti
realized that all his memories of the first five years in Bulgaria, when
he had known only Ladino and Bulgarian and not a word of German, had
somehow or other translated themselves in his memory into German when he
wasn't looking. (The story of how he learned German is itself worth
reading: he *had* to learn German, and so his mother taught him, in a
Swiss boarding-house, in about six weeks of utterly totalitarian
teaching. And he learned it well enough to do well at school from the
(2) --------------------------------------------------------------44----
Date: Fri 14 Sep 90 21:11:36-PDT
From: Roland Hutchinson <R.RDH@Macbeth.Stanford.EDU>
Subject: The education profession and the rest of us. ( Re: 4.0469 Learning

Robert Hollander writes: "The recent burgeoning of Latin in some
inner-city schools might be a clue to people in charge of curricula..."

One part of the problem--and I am not at all sure that it is a small
part--is that the people in charge of curricula seem to be of the
unanimous opinion that they are in charge not of _curricula_, but of

My landlady, who holds a Ed.D., and I, who will (deo volente) hold a
Ph.D. Real Soon Now, are engaged in a running battle over the plural
of ``curriculum.'' Apparently, it is uniformly ``curriculums''
throughout what is known in the ed. biz as ``the professional

Are there any Educators among our readers who would care to defend the
usages of their profession?

Does anyone share my feeling that this seemingly small point of prose
style is tellingly emblematic of the tragic lack of common ground
between the education community and the rest of us.

Roland Hutchinson Visiting Specialist/Early Music
Internet: rhutchin@pilot.njin.net Department of Music
Bitnet: rhutchin@NJIN Montclair State College
Upper Montclair, NJ 07043
(3) --------------------------------------------------------------88----
Date: Sun, 16 Sep 90 17:39 CDT
Subject: Language learning & requirements

As a language teacher, I can't resist the temptation to add a few
remarks to the ongoing discussion of language learning and language

First of all, let me say that I agree with a lot of what has
already been passed through the list on the subject, especially
with Skip Knox's comments on literature teachers' not being
interested in teaching grammar.

I see one of the biggest problems with foreign-language teaching in
American colleges and universities as a by-product of the fact that our
so-called "foreign-language" departments are actually litera- ture
departments, filled with people who view teaching the (ugh!) language as
a necessary evil. I myself am a product of that mind- frame (having
written a doctoral dissertation on Albert Camus's attempts to create
modern tragedy), but I have spent the major part of my academic efforts
trying to do a good job as a language teacher and the last several years
working on computerized materials to enhance the language-learning
process. (Maybe that's why, after 25 years in the profession, I'm still
not a full professor.)

While I deplore the linguistic parochialism of the average American and
acknowledge that "language learning is broadening" and even have
personal experience of how studying another language gives one a greater
appreciation of ones own language, I refuse to be upset over Lehigh's
dropping its language requirement. Quick, before I'm shouted down by an
angry chorus of colleagues who are perhaps fearful for their jobs (as
has happened to me in the friendly confines of my own university), let
me state my reasons for this stance.

On the one hand, there is an overwhelming body of research to
indicate that language learning, for whatever purpose, is best
accomplished during childhood. What post-secondary teachers should
be doing, rather than trying to conscript unwilling students into
their courses, is fostering the development of teachers and
administrators who will create truly effective language programs in
the elementary schools.

Even if we have to deal with the unfortunate ones who didn't learn
another language as children, the current requirements don't make
much sense. The normal requirement of two years, even in the most
enlightened programs that combine modern proficiency methods with
old-fashioned insistence on correctness, does not represent a
useful level of language learning if the use is discontinued at
that point. I'm sure I'm not the only one who is tired of meeting
alumni at cocktail parties and hearing them say, "Oh, so you teach
French [substitute other language to fit the case]. I took two
years of French [substitute as above] n years ago, and I can't
speak/read a word of it now."

I am constantly reminded of the time when, following national
trends, Vanderbilt "almost" dropped its language requirement. (It
adopted a system, obviously inspired by Byzantine academic politics
rather than any educational philosophy, wherein students had to
choose between further work in language or mathematics.) I really
enjoyed at that time teaching elementary French classes filled with
students who actually wanted to learn French (or, at least, who
disliked French less than they disliked math). Nowadays, since we
are more enlightened and have reinstated the requirement, I face a
multitude of students who are taking French only because they have
to do so and greet me with a defiant air ("Just try to teach me
French ... just try!"). And I spend a good deal of time trying to
teach them a first, very important lesson ... that there is a
direct correlation between getting a good grade in the course and
learning French.

The students who are taking the language only because it is
required aren't going to become accomplished users of the language
anyway; why make life miserable for both students and instructors
by requiring that they take the course?

Assoc. Prof. of French
Director, Language Laboratory
Vanderbilt University
(4) --------------------------------------------------------------71----
Date: Mon, 17 Sep 90 12:47:20 EDT
From: Sarah L. Higley <slhi@uhura.cc.rochester.edu>
Subject: On Grammar and Delicate Spoofs

In response to Dr. Ellis Skip Knox's "Pillars of the Educated" and
Professor Clarence Brown's "Delicate Spoof": I agree with Dr. Knox that
teachers are not teaching teachers to teach children grammar but have
taken him to task for his "mayhap they were pass some knowledge of
grammar"; yes, it was a typo but an infelicitous one. We teachers are
blamed for everything, darn it all!!! And I enjoyed Prof. Brown's
newest delicate spoof, although I never saw it in that light before. In
fact, I thought his suggestion was one of the sanest I'd read. I have
long thought that students can learn better through analyzing
"difference" than "sameness"; that "you must stand outside English and
look back on it." I know that a huge breakthrough for me in
understanding and appreciating the quirks of the English language was
when I first took Spanish. After French, German, Old English, Latin,
Old Norse, Old Irish and Middle Welsh, English began to look pretty
strange-- like all other languages. Sitting there and parcing English
sentences has its merits, but one really begins to understand the
construction of the present perfect by seeing how the Germans came up
with an ingeniously simple alternative to the Roman method of tacking on
those ornery endings. The point is to give students a point of
reference for the English language which, by itself, is often a piece of
invisible machinery for them. As I'm a language teacher, and worse-- a
teacher of dead languages and therefore marginalized and misrepresented
in this postmodern era of academe, I can agree with Knox that PART of the
fault lies in a shift of focus away from "boring" philology and "exciting"
analysis of literature. But taking the old hackneyed line that our
educational system is at fault is not offering any new solutions. What
is considered "exciting" goes in trends. Until we can convince the
powers that run secondary educational institutions that linguistics is
exciting and relevant and that some of our greatest thinkers and writers
were caught up with the "strangeness" of language it does no good to
inveigh, mayhap, against the professors who exercise really very little
power in the early foundations of education.

For instance: as a professor of Anglo-Saxon I'm often faced with
students who have a kind of grammar "blindness," similar to a block
against math or a deficiency in analytical reasoning, which makes them
incapable of understanding how to put the concept and the practical
application together. They can fit the labels to the words but they
can't put these combinations into coherent sentences. It's a problem
I encounter depressingly often at the GRADUATE level. Here are graduate
students in the English Department who have never been asked to grapple
with the logical structures of their own language let alone a foreign or
archaic one.

It's not just a matter of teaching students English grammar. You have
to make them SEE the English language as it relates to other languages.
The earlier the better.

Keep spoofing...

Sarah L. Higley slhi@uhura.cc.rochester.edu
Department of English
The University of Rochester
Rochester, New York 14627

"Grammarians of no character lecture on that of Homer." Heraclitus