I continuously encounter students that understand Spanish grammar better than I do. Keep in mind that I am a native Spanish speaker. They can tell me why Estar is used instead of Ser and can conjugate verbs in many tenses, but to my surprise, many of them are barley able to produce meaningful language or understand basic structures that would have allowed us to engage in a simple conversation. A language is a means of communication, not a set of rules or a list of vocabulary. This is why I am opposed to an only grammar-based instruction for older students. I also believe that younger kids shouldn’t focus on memorizing colorful vocabulary like the fruits and vegetables either. There are plenty of excellent Spanish teachers out there, yet students rarely reach their goal in Spanish class: true mastery of the language. So why not use a different approach to language learning? How about if we analyze how we learn our first language in the first place? We don´t learn to speak with grammar lessons or vocabulary lists. We learn language through our senses and comprehensible input.
Language is thrown at us by “chunks”. Acquiring by absorbing frequently used structures of language is a natural way for humans to learn. Teaching meaningful structures of language, or short sentences instead of conjugation tables and vocabulary lists promotes fluency; students get excited about Spanish and they start producing and learning language on their own. Isolating words makes it nearly impossible for a student to comprehend things like intent, tone or even the overall meaning of a text or conversation. We rarely communicate with isolated words, and we rarely think about grammar in our everyday conversations, yet students’ foreign language notebooks are filled with long lists of words and grammar formulas.
Now think about this: By the age of four, most children are already fluent in their native language. These kids can speak fluently without knowing what a verb or an adjective is. Of course, most four year olds have had more hours of exposure to their native language than most foreign language students will ever have to their target language. Nonetheless, this proves that although studying Spanish grammar is important, it is not needed to acquire the language.
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This post was written by Craig Klein