Thursday, September 22, 2005

First Language vs. Target Language

In class today, we had two micro-teaching sessions. One was an introductory lesson in Japanese, the other in German. Both assumed that it was the very first day of class, and that the students had no prior knowledge of the language.

The Japanese instructor conducted the session entirely in Japanese. Not only did he refrain from using English, he behaved as though he didn't even understand the English language. Everything was directed in and through the target language.

At times this was frustrating-- it takes some time to understand what he's saying, and we also don't have a crystal clear understanding of the meaning of his words. For example, if he'd written "Good morning" on the board and then said "Good morning" in Japanese, it would have been clearer and less frustrating.

It wouldn't have been better, though. The frustration is really what helps you learn the language. Once I've been struggling with the sounds, observing the teacher's cues, trying various strategies to come up with a meaning for the word-- then, when it finally dawns on me "oh, he's telling me what his name is!", it sticks. Understanding of the word originated with me.

There's also a cultural advantage to not using the students' native language. It forces them to re-align their way of thinking. If the students think their instructor can't understand their native language, they have to negotiate methods of communicating with the teacher, and will be eager to pick up those words and phrases that aid in communication. My students in Korea were highly motivated to learn how to ask to be excused to go to the bathroom.

I've heard of students being upset when an instructor uses their native language-- they feel patronized. This makes sense, and there were parts of the German lecture where I was a little annoyed with the instructor. Often, when she resorted to English, the information either could have been successfully communicated in German, or else it wasn't essential. If she said it in German and many students missed out on large chunks of it, that wouldn't really have mattered. It was interesting but peripheral.

My high-school French classes (1st and 2nd year) were taught in English. I didn't learn much French, although I got good grades. But that was high school. The point was to get good grades in your language class, not to learn the language. My undergraduate Russian classes were likewise taught in English. For the first and second year, this was fine with me-- it meant I didn't have to work as hard, which was great. But after I'd spent seven months in Moscow, when my (native Russian) teacher in America continued to teach in English, I began to feel insulted and patronized. The other students-- those who hadn't had full-immersion experiences-- kept defaulting back to English, and so the instructor did too.

Teaching a second language in the students' first language permits the students to think of the target language as a code, a mental exercise, or a set of equivalencies. My Korean students had been trained in such a way that, when an English word was written on the board, they would shout out its Korean "equivalent" in unison. It's a horribly misleading idea, to think that every word or piece of grammar in the target language has an equivalent in one's native tongue. And while translation is an interesting exercise with many uses, it's peripheral to the main goal of language study. The goal of language study is to communicate effectively in the target language. Once this is achieved, then good translation becomes feasible.

Teaching in the students' first language keeps the students firmly within the worldview of their native language. If their language has a very different grammar from the target language, it becomes very difficult to teach such important details of the target language. For example, Korean marks verbs neither for subject agreement nor for tense. To explain, in Korean, the concept of tense or of subject-verb agreement is no easy task. But if the students are torn out of their Korean worldview and placed firmly within an anglophone paradigm, they begin to feel the implications of "he walks," "I walk," "he walked," and so forth. It teaches them to understand, rather than to explain, the concept. And once they understand it well, once it's firmly inscribed in their minds, eventually they'll figure out ways of explaining in Korean what exactly is going on.

In more advanced stages of language study, it may be more useful to allow the native language to be used. Once students are learning things like scientific vocabulary, it makes sense to let them look the word up in the dictionary-- every language that has universities probably has a word that means "quadratic equation" in the exact same way that English does. And once a student is adept at communicating in the target language, negotiating the meaning of a vocabulary word isn't such an important part of language development. It's also at this higher level that students may be engaged and interested in bridging between their native tongue and the target language-- translation, for example.

However, as long as the native language can be used as a crutch, it will hinder apprehension of the target language, and make understanding and use of the target language less authentic.


Blogger Daniel Holth said...

Fascinating. Your remarks remind me of my own study of Spanish which was indeed taught in English in high school. But the teacher had also developed (in Hypercard) custom computer based Spanish teaching curricula, lots of fill in the blank excercises.

I very much would try to mentally connect new Spanish words with their meaning rather than having to go through the English word to reach the meaning and I think this was helpful. On the other hand, I feel like I talk the same way in Spanish, using similar constructs and expressions with Spanish words. Who knows. Haven't been immersed in Spanish all that much.

Since I did try to connect new vocabulary with its meaning rather than its translation, I was tickled to read Walker Percy's essays on semiotics. He talks about triadic interactions -- a speaker uses a signifier (usually a word) to signify what's called a significant (the meaning of the word). Now, mysteriously, when I speak the signifier the significant appears in the listener's consciousness.

9:01 AM  

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