January 24th, 2014
To rule or not to rule
Most teachers at some point have felt that second language learning is an upward battle. It’s hard because it’s not natural. Why should our brains be interested in learning something that we already know? Why go to the bother of learning something complicated (second language) that we already can do without thinking (first language)? Searching for ways to get students to respond, we think about rewards and punishments. We set down the rules.
It makes sense because language itself is rule driven. Without rules, we could not acquire a language. Without a system of mutually agreed meaning and sounds, we would not have a language. Chomsky taught us that our brains are programmed to recognize meaningful patterns and understand it as grammar. By virtue of our neurology, we have the innate ability to collect and sort so that the particulates of a language fall into grooves in the way acid etches a motherboard. Anything else will be washed away, unrecognized as language.
Our brains sort the social grammars that we operate under as well. Without effort, we “know” what is appropriate to say in what situation and in what company. We are all very multilingual and can code switch our social languages depending on if we’re asking for a raise or reprimanding a subordinate. Again, we can communicate our most nuanced messages because we know the rules. Of course, everyone has the free will to run a red, but that’s only possible because of the stoplight.
Since rules so effectively help humans to be competent in speaking and socializing, it’s a fair reaction for teachers to set down rules for classroom behavior. Certainly, it’s easier to teach if students are standing or sitting or wearing the same clothes. We’re trying to deliver information uniformly to a large population, so doesn’t it help if that population is as uniform as possible? Probably not when it comes to language learning. The universal grammar that Chomsky is talking about is not about policing proper language, it’s about how the brain works.
If the brain selects what it thinks is useful, is it useful for teachers to pre-select what we think the brain wants? Are we that confident? If a whale eats mostly plankton, are we going to feed it with microscopic spoons or just let the whale swim? When food is pre-chewed and pre-digested before serving it on the plate, it’s unrecognizable and unpalatable.
Teaching personal pronouns with charts is an example of pre-digested grammar. It’s tasteless and leaves little to love even if it is essential for speaking correctly. Is that why most students fail the fill-in-the-pronoun test? In contrast, I’ve seen how eight year-olds never make the mistake of, “I love you. You love I” when learned through actions. After one correction, they hear the mistake and think it’s hilarious, as if they have mysteriously understood the relationships of giver and receiver, lover and loved. When something sounds right in opposition to something that sounds funny, we’ve deepened our Chomsky brain grooves, even as a second language.
For teachers, teaching a second language is still a challenge though we shouldn’t call it a futile battle. It’s only futile when we enforce rules for the sake of enforcing rules. If some day we are clever enough, we can figure out how the brain can do most of the work for us.
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