In America there is an overwhelming consensus about the proper way to teach foreign languages: You employ native speakers who use the target language as much as possible-sometimes all the time in French classes-and on the first day you begin with greeting rituals: “Guten Tag”; “bon jour,” and so forth.
Useful conclusions follow, however, when we apply the features of all natural languages to the examination of such teaching techniques. Since all natural languages combine sounds to create meaning in arbitrary ways, so in the same way the use of native speakers to speak the target language as much as possible is also arbitrary. LIke speech acts themselves, this is a socially constructed practice. Although language teachers usually aren’t aware of it, what they are doing in effect is applying the philosophy of Scottish philosopher John Locke.
In his “Some Thoughts Concerning Education,” published in 1693, Locke describes the mind as an “empty cabinet.” He also used the phrase “tabula rasa,” or “blank slate” to describe the mind of students. He looked around the classroom and saw the slates on which students wrote at the time and decided that those slates corresponded to the mind itself.
The time has to acknowledge that as a theory of mind and cognition Locke’s ideas are utter nonsense. In the aftermath of Jean Piaget’s work on cognitive development and Noam Chomsky’s work on transformational grammar-to take only the most obvious examples-no thoughtful person can take seriously Locke’s concept of the mind as a blank slate, deriving as it does from his extremely native empiricism.
Unfortunately, most pedagogical practices in the foreign language classroom today still derive in one way or another from Locke’s ideas. The ineffectiveness of these practices is abundantly demonstrated by the declining enrollments in foreign language courses. Consider, for example, the widely held belief that it’s good to put native speakers in introductory language classes, and encourage them to use the target language from the first day. This belief is predicated on the unconscious and unexamined assumption that the students’ minds are blank slates, and that the more sentences in German that they hear, the more they will learn.
The concept of the students’ minds as blank slates also ignores what they bring to the class room. And what they bring to the classroom is unprecedented. Today’s undergraduates have grown up with computers and cell phones and cable TV. They find texting and sending tweets as natural as breathing. They cannot imagine their lives without communicating in this way. And what does the media-saturated world in which they live have to do with the prevailing practices in language teaching? Everything.
When language teachers attempt to write greeting rituals like “Guten Tag” onto what they believe to be the blank slates of the students’ minds, the effect is mostly bewilderment and alienation. Students who are accustomed to multiple modes of language use every day of their lives outside the German classroom suddenly find themselves cut off from their own language, and ultimately cut off from their own identities. It’s no wonder that they find studying foreign languages so distasteful. Even when they do well in language classes, they forget what they’ve learned as soon as they complete their last exam-and often take pride in that fact.
One solution to this problem is to apply what is called in educational theory constructionism, as espoused by Seymour Papert, who in turn relied on the work of Piaget. Papert believes that learning occurs as a reconstruction of meaning, rather than as a transmission of knowledge. However, it requires no knowledge of educational theory, and certainly no extensive reading in the massive literature on that subject, to understand the radical implications of constructionism for foreign language teaching.
If the mind of the student is not only not a blank slate, but an active, complex cognitive structure created by past experiences that include years of experience with communications media, then it follows as the night the day that effective foreign language pedagogy will take advantage of this cognitive structure.They will recognize it for the invaluable resource that it is.
When German teachers in effect say to their students: “Here is German-Learn it!” they are presenting the language as a citadel to be taken by the brute force of memorization. A pedagogical technique that produces more confidence, and therefore more learning, creates gateways into the citadel. Teachers who create such gateways invite students to come in, walk around, and learn to feel at home.
To state the obvious, German is a foreign language, and teachers can help students feel more confident by reducing its foreignness as much as possible. Since positive first impressions often have a lasting effect, the first day of elementary German has exceptional importance.
The first day begins with the teachers, of course. All things being equal, and assuming linguistic competence, when teachers who speak English with an American accent and who have American body language walk into the classroom, they cause students to heave a sigh of relief. Such teachers can create a comfort zone for the students that facilitates learning because students think, “This person is like me! This is someone I can relate to!”
Teachers can help their students to relax–something they rarely do in foreign language classes– by telling them as a first exercise they are to get out, not their textbooks, but their cell phones. If they wish, they can change the settings from English to German. Yes, of course, the vocabulary will be new to them, but they will have the icons to guide them, and in any case most students use their cell phones so frequently that they know which icons do what anyhow. The point is that from the very beginning of the course, effective teachers find ways to help students integrate German into their everyday lives.
On that crucial first day, German teachers can also provide the urls for German music stations, and encourage students to listen to them online. Stations that play Beethoven and Wagner will have little appeal to students, and German teachers who have enough professionalism to want to teach effectively, will spend no time bemoaning this state of affairs. Such teachers readily understand that today’s students don’t enroll in German classes in order to learn about German high culture. Rather, they will provide to students the urls for stations that play German rock and roll. A lively station like Antenne Bayern, whose website has lots of graphics and videos, would do nicely.
Students who access Antenne Bayern 5-10 minutes every day will gradually strengthen their connection with German. Even if they can’t understand the lyrics, they can enjoy the music, watch the videos and in general explore German popular culture. They will come to realize that German is part of the world that they live in, and this realization will greatly aid them in learning the language.
When the students have settled into their comfort zone, teachers can at last speak some German. So the question arises, as to what vocabulary to use. The traditional answer, whose implications have remained unexamined for so long, is to introduce greeting rituals: “Guten Tag!” “Wie geht’s Ihnen?” And so forth. The use of greeting rituals on the first day assumes that teachers are preparing students to hold conversations right away. It is more useful to assume that the purpose of the first class is to give students the confidence that they will need to learn greeting rituals–and much else–later.
For the first use of German on the first day what is needed is something that will promote good feeling and the relaxation that amusement provides while the students begin their learning experience. Thus, teachers can say, “Here’s an important German phrase, and I wonder if you can guess what it means: ‘Ein Glas Bier.'” When the chuckles die down, the point can be made that “Glas” and “Bier” are not the only German words that students can immediately recognize. Teachers can ask, “What do you think that these German words mean: Mutter, Vater, Bruder, Schwester, and Haus?”
It is of course obvious that there are many German words that students will not recognize and will have trouble pronouncing. The time to introduce such words will come later. The purpose of this exercise on the first day is to give the students a chance to experience the immediate reward that there are at least some German words that they can readily understand.
After the first day it will be time for students to learn more complicated vocabulary and more complicated constructions. Teachers will of course rely on the textbook for them, but a few suggestions may be offered here to show how constructionist techniques can be applied even while using standard textbooks.
German teachers who keep in mind that they are not transmitting knowledge-certainly not knowledge about high culture–but rather engaging in interaction with their students, understand that their students have an ongoing experience of the contrast between German and their native language, which is usually English.
And, as Hamlet put it, there’s the rub. Most college freshmen today cannot explain the difference in English between transitive and intransitive verbs, and cannot confidently distinguish between adjectives and adverbs. In their ordinary speech acts they do not need to have such a conscious understanding because English is an uninflected language with very few markers for parts of speech. Expecting such students to understand without specific preparation the concepts of noun gender and adjective endings in German is like expecting chemistry students to analyze molecules without an understanding of the table of elements.
During the first week of class if it is therefore helpful to define the parts of speech in English and make sure that the students can identify them. If they can’t identify them in English, they certainly can’t identify them in German, and will have unnecessary difficulty later with the case system.
Among the Indo-European languages, English has an exceptionally difficult verb system. So teachers can impress upon the students that the German verb system, despite the syntactical order that it imposes on sentences, is actually much simpler than that of English. Like the other Continental languages, it has the elegant simplicity of the unitary verb in the present tense. Students will also appreciate knowing that German also has only one form in the future tense, as opposed to the morass of English future tense forms such as “I will/I’ll/I’m going to/I’m gonna.”
One final example must suffice here to show the advantages of presenting German, not in isolation, but in terms of the students’ ongoing perception of the contrast between German and English. Students often have difficulty with separable verbs such as “ausgehen,” for example. This difficulty will be considerably reduced by comparing the present tense form “Ich gehe aus” to its English analogue “I go out.” The verb “I go out,” like “I go in” and “I go up,” is a phrasal verb, which is another key term that students don’t usually know.
In English, a phrasal verb consists of a verb and a particle, and there are hundreds of them. By no means are all of them verbs of motion. Thus, the verb “to clean” has phrasal forms such as “to clean up,” and “to clean off” and “to clean out.” Emphasizing the analogies between separable verbs in German and phrasal verbs in English will give the students a clearer understanding of verb usage in both languages.
In short, the understanding that German teachers aren’t transmitting knowledge, but rather engaging in a complex cognitive transaction with students has exciting potential to transform foreign language pedagogy. It has numerous implications for each stage of introductory German. If nothing else, this brief essay may inspire German teachers to develop their own pedagogical strategies for elementary German.