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A couple of days ago, one of my classmates referred to me as a “paradigmist”, a word he made up for someone who believes in the value of grammar paradigms.  If you’ve studied languages before you might also recognize these as “conjugation charts” or “noun declensions,” something like that.  John and I have always gotten along pretty well, so I’m going to assume he didn’t mean it as an insult ;)  But still I would like to clarify myself, if you’ll oblige me.

First I must confess that I do love grammar charts.  I like being able to see the big picture, to have everything organized in neat and precise ways.  “Inductive” grammar of the kind that just throws you into it makes me panicky; it makes me feel like I’m lost in some dark woods with no map and no compass.  Plus as you might have guessed I’m quite a geek for language, so I like having all of that information right in front of me; I savor it, actually.

Having said that, and before you all start throwing things at me, I would like to say that even I have my limits.  I discovered this when I first encountered the Language Textbook from Hell.

(side note- I’m not going to identify precisely what book I’m talking about, because almost every Sanskrit teacher I’ve heard of swears by this book, and I really have the utmost respect for Sanskritists, so I’m going to try not to incriminate myself)

Here is an actual lesson:

Lesson 7
Full paradigm of feminine nouns ending in -i
38 bullet points about grammar (not exaggerating)
Translate this paragraph into English
Translate these 10 sentences into Sanskrit
Memorize the paradigm at the beginning of this lesson

There is a byword among current Second Language Acquisition folks, and it is this: “Grammar-Translation Method.”  This is the “method”, such as it is, that SLA researchers and language teachers have been trying to undo for the past 70 years or so.  Never has there been a more clear and perfect example, literally and maddeningly, than the method used by this textbook.  The only way my classmates and I were able to console ourselves was by gathering a few minutes before class and planning the big bonfire we were going to burn this textbook in at the end of the semester.

Part of the problem is that there was zero practice in any of the grammar.  The only practice given was “memorize this.”  Which is insane.  Consider this: Sanskrit has 3 different numbers (singular, dual, and plural) and 8 different noun cases.  Each lesson therefore opens with one, sometimes two, charts of 24 inflections that you’re just supposed to…what?  Scan with your eyeballs and instantly know by heart?  I became so desperate for some practice, some exercises, some way of getting it into my brain other than this bizarre open-brain-insert-chart non-method, that I actually started writing up my own worksheets and distributing them to my classmates on the sly.

I started to think to myself, “there has to be a better way to do this.”  I started to read a bit about how people actually learn languages.  I started to think that maybe I could do it, I could help people, or at least myself, actually acquire some Sanskrit or Russian or whatever.  When I looked at the sad, desperate faces of my poor classmates, all of whom were undergraduates who had never taken a language class before in their lives, I wanted to tell them, “Don’t give up!  It doesn’t have to be like this!  Learning a language really isn’t this hellish, usually!”

And so one year after that nightmare semester, I enrolled in a Master’s program in Applied Linguistics.  So that I could figure out a better way.

That is my long story to say that maybe I am a paradigmist, but I’m not crazy.