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Automatic English For The People

Monday, May 22, 2006

Illusory Comfort

by AJ

As I slowly progress with Spanish, Im beginning to understand the appeal of grammar-translation for so many students. In a nutshell, grammar study is comforting. It gives one the illusion of understanding and mastery.

When I first studied Spanish.. way back in High School.. I did "very well". In other words, I got straight A's. I got A's on all the tests. Everything was very clear: Know the grammar "rules", memorize the chapter's vocab, cram for the test. No ambiguity. After a year of this, I had virtually no understanding of spoken Spanish, nor could I speak it or write it. But hey, I had good scores on the tests.

My current approach to Spanish is much messier. There is a lot of ambiguity. As I listen to "Las Puertas Retorcidas" there are many words/phrases I dont understand. Even when I review these phrases, I often have trouble "hearing" and understanding them.. even after many repeated listenings of the same chapter. If you gave me a test now, I might not do very well.

And yet, I feel Im making more real progress. Each week, my understanding does improve a bit. Old chapters now seem pretty easy. I "hear" more words and phrases... and I understand more of the overall meaning. Ive gained more of a feel for different verb tenses, reflexive verbs, prepositions, and direct/indirect pronouns. I cant really explain that improvement in terms of grammatical rules. Im not yet ready to put that greater "feeling" to use in speech or writing. But I notice it when I read and listen. I "get it" a little more.

In a much more general sense, Ive also noticed that Spanish is sounding a little less alien to me. It still seems like it will never seem "natural",... but it seems far less different and "other" than it used to.

These are promising and encouraging developments.

But they are vague and ambiguous. They lack the neat simplicity of mastering a single grammar rule on a standardized test. Grammar-translation may be piss-poor as a learning approach,... but it does provide students with a comforting illusion of logic and neat, linear progress. That, I imagine, is its primary appeal.



San Francisco, CA

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