Monday, February 14, 2011

The Case for "Traditional" Foreign Language Instruction

I have some long-awaited good news to start off with this week: my dissertation proposal finally passed the last stage of review about a month ago. Turns out, the anonymous external reviewer who was holding up the process is a member of the faculty of the School of Canon Law, and when he (?) saw that my project would involve comparing attitudes toward ecclesiastical authority in the Irish and Roman churches, he (?) took more interest in it--and made more comments--than external reviewers usually do. As my director pointed out, however, the School of Canon Law is easily the most conservative school at CUA, and if anyone was going to have a problem with a project that investigates divergence of "tradition" in the medieval Church, it would be someone in Canon Law. So the fact that the proposal has been endorsed--with helpful comments--by such a reviewer is a really, really good sign.

What on earth does this have to do foreign language instruction? Well, since the proposal has been approved, the only thing--other than teaching--standing in the way of a marathon months-long writing session is a 25-page article on one of my primary sources written by the only scholar in North America who is working in this field. And it's written in German.

Of all the languages that I have had to learn, German is my second-worst. There are two reasons for this. The first is simply that I have had less instructional time for German than I have for my better languages--5 years of French, 3 years of Greek, and 2 years of Latin vs. 2 quarters (= less than one full year) of "German for Reading Knowledge." One of my Latin teachers once said that you need to work with a language for about 10 years before you become truly proficient, and his words have certainly held true in my own experience.

The second reason my German is so bad is because my German teachers espoused a different philosophy of language instruction than the others did. My French, Latin and Greek instructors all took a "traditional" approach that involved a balance between the systematic treatment of grammatical principles and reading practice, along with an emphasis on memorizing vocabulary. For example, in order to pass the second half of Medieval Latin, we each had to get a 90% or higher on a 1000-word vocabulary test and a 90% or higher on the department's (deservedly) dreaded morphology exam. The exams weren't easy--we all had to take the morphology exam multiple times before reaching the 90% mark--but I have retained much of the information I memorized in the process, and as a result, my reading speed in Latin is pretty respectable. In contrast, my German instructors took a more "progressive" approach that retained the grammar instruction but placed a greater emphasis on reading from day one and dispensed with the vocabulary memorization. They insisted that the better way to learn vocabulary was to read as much as possible and look up unknown words as necessary. Read in context, they said, the meanings of the words would "stick" in the memory more effectively.

The progressive approach clearly hasn't worked for me. Even after a fair amount of reading practice, I still have to look up every third or fourth word in a German text. Worse, I frequently find myself looking up the same word more than once per page. Here's a
picture of the worst page I've encountered in this article so far. You can see that the actual text only occupies about half the page (the other half is the footnotes), and I've marked a whopping 73 words for definition in the margins. Additionally, looking up words is only half of the problem. Because German is an inflected language (i.e., a language that conveys meaning through grammatical forms rather than through word order, as English does), it's easy to lose track of the meaning of a sentence when you have to stop and look up as many words as I do. Consequently, my reading speed in German is abysmal. I'm doing well to get one page done per hour (for comparison, I can read about 8 pages of French in the same hour).

My sense is that the "progressive" philosophy of language instruction probably works well in early childhood or elementary school foreign language classes, in which the focus is on getting the child to speak the new language quickly without worrying overmuch about grammatical accuracy. And, since young children are still learning the rules of their native tongue, it makes sense to try a more "organic" approach to a second language at that age. However, older students and those who need to read and/or write the new language really are better served by the traditional approach with its emphasis on memorizing forms and vocabulary. Spending 20-30 minutes per day making and reviewing flashcards can seem like a waste of time, but the long-term payoff--faster reading speed and better comprehension--makes the investment worthwhile.

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