Linguistics Fun and Teaching

I have been using some of my free time lately to go back over the capstone paper that I wrote for my undergraduate degree at Brigham Young University.  My degree is in German Linguistics, and the paper was titled, Using Explicit Linguistic Instruction to Improve the Teaching of German as a Foreign Language, sounds fun, no?  As I have been rewriting this paper, trying to get it into a better position to be used as my writing sample for applying to grad schools this fall, and possibly for submitting to a couple different German Linguistic journals, I have been thinking a lot about the similarities between English and German.

That is really why I started this paper in the first place.  I started at BYU as a German Teaching major, my plan was to eventually teach high school German, and possibly English or Drama as well.  I may still teach high school someday, I am applying for an Ohio State teaching license, which would definitely help my chances of finding a job where I can use my language skills daily, but as I took a required course in the History of the the German Language I found just how much the history of a language can help in the understanding of that language.  Coming as I did from a pedagogic background, I began applying the historical linguistic principles I was learning to the teaching of German as a foreign language, specifically using the relationship between English and German to find and make connections that would help students learn the language.

It’s funny, really, that students seem to love complaining that a foreign language is so hard to learn because it is so different, or has so many rules, or even more exceptions to the rules, yet when we take a look at their native English we find a language that is such a conglomerate hodge-podge of words and grammar principles from different languages that it’s a surprise anyone can learn it at all.  Students don’t blink twice at the irregular verbs in English that they use everyday, but they can’t seem to grasp the concept when applied to German.  For example, in German, the word for drink is trinken, the simple past is trank and the past participle is getrunken.  Those are usually the three forms of the verb that teachers have students memorize.  And the fact that the vowel changes in the stem in each form sometimes seems to confuse students.  But let’s consider the English word for a minute: drink. What’s the past tense of drink? Drank.  And what is the participle? Drunk.  Well, that looks familiar, doesn’t it.  trinken, trank, getrunken;  drink, drank, drunk.

I think that we can help students overcome their fear or anxiety about learning a foreign language by helping them realize that it really isn’t all that foreign at all.  And at the same time, as we explain these similarities between the foreign language and the native language, we should be helping students understand their native language better.  For example, one of those rules we all remember being taught in elementary school was that you never say “Joe and me” it should always be “Joe and I”.  Well, sorry to burst your bubble, but that is just wrong.  Sometimes the one way is correct and sometimes the other is correct, and if English speakers had a better understanding of grammatical cases they would be able to know the difference and when to use each one.  Students often complain that it is so hard to learn all of the different cases in a language like German, and it does take some getting used to, but the notion is not entirely foreign.  It just takes an understanding that different parts of the sentence perform different functions.  We are familiar with subject and object when talking about sentences, why is it such a stretch to learn about Nominative and Accusative cases?  That’s really all linguists mean when they talk about cases.  Nominative case is used for the subject of the sentence, the doer of the action.  Accusative case is used for the object of the sentence, the receiver of the action.  German also has a Dative case used for the indirect object, or the part of the sentence that receives the direct object.  So, in the sentence Bill threw the ball to Dave.  Bill is Nominative, or the subject, since he is the one doing the throwing; the ball is Accusative, or the direct object, since it is what is being thrown; and Dave is Dative, or the indirect object, since he is receiving the direct object, or the ball.

When we realize that the difference between I and me is that I is nominative and me is accusative, then we can begin placing them correctly in sentences.  Joe and I are going to the store is correct because Joe and I is functioning as the subject of the sentence: Nominative.  He gave the money to Joe and me is correct because Joe and me is functioning as the indirect object (the receiver of the direct object, money).  Where German makes the distinction between direct object (Accusative) and indirect object (Dative), English does not.  English has lost these extra cases and now seems to only have a sense of Nominative and not-Nominative, though to be fair, we do have vestiges of the Genitive case lying around in our possessive s at the end of words  Teaching about cases in this way not only helps the student understand the purpose and role they play in the foreign language, it helps students understand and speak their native language better.

This type of specific linguistic instruction may not be the best idea in a very beginning foreign language class, but I strongly believe that the teacher should at least have this knowledge and then be aware of the opportunities to utilize this linguistic knowledge in the classroom, when it is appropriate.  Not every student will immediately get or want this type of instruction, but there are definitely some students, like me, who would appreciate this extra explanation as to why the language functions in the way it does.  I believe teachers should have more tools available to them and then be able to choose which ones work best to teach the students that they have.  And there’s so much more that a study of linguistics can do for the foreign language classroom.  A study of historical phonology, or the ways in which the sounds of a language have changed over time, can help with vocabulary learning and recognizing cognate words between English and German, since both have derived from a common source.  There have been certain sound changes that English has undergone and certain sound changes that German has undergone, and when one understands these changes one can backtrack them and find common words between the languages.  A teacher could also have a discussion on morphology, or the ways in which words change to reflect different meanings, like verbs that change form to match the subject. (“I am”, but “you are”, for example.  Both are forms of the verb “to be”, but they change depending on the subject.)  This discussion could include things like prefixes and suffixes and how they affect the meaning of words.  German is a very precise language and utilizes prefixes and suffixes to make words that have exact meanings.  Armed with a knowledge of what different prefixes and suffixes mean, students can then recognize new words and even make their own in the same way that Germans do, by adding the appropriate prefix or suffix.

There is so much that linguistics knowledge can do for a foreign language classroom, I just hope that I can help teachers realize this and give them a few extra tips and tricks that they can use to give to their students to help them learn the language better.  That’s the bottom line.  I’m not saying one method of teaching is better than another, but merely that all methods should be tried to give students as much advantage as possible in helping them learn the language.  Students are all different and learn in different ways, what may be extremely useful for one may be extremely confusing for another.  Which is why we should have various different ways of presenting material so that all students can succeed.

What do you think, what methods have you seen in your foreign language experience?  What has or hasn’t worked for you?

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