Month: March 2015

How Badly Did I Fail Teaching Languages? (1)

I have been reflecting on my teaching and I thought I would share my many screw-ups, and offer some better alternatives (which might be useful for teachers who use textbook programs and are getting frustrated).  So here we go– today’s question–

Q: How– and how badly– did I screw up teaching languages?

A: Pretty badly– and here is how 

 1. I used grammar worksheets and explicit grammar practice to “teach grammar.” The programs I used– first ¡Díme! and then Juntos— had a lot of these.  Fill in the blanks with the correct verbform, pronoun, or word, etc. The research about this is clear: a grammar item is acquired when the learner has heard loads of comprehensible input containing the item/rule in question, AND when their brain is “ready” to pick it up.   If a learner hasn’t acquired it, they aren’t ready for it.  If they have, there’s little point in practicing. Truscott writes that “no meaningful support has been provided for the […] position that grammar should be taught” (and practiced) and VanPatten says that “tenses are not acquired as “units” and the brain doesn’t store grammar as a textbook-stated rule.”

“Conscious awareness” of grammar rules (as Krashen points out) only helps us if ALL of the following conditions are met:

1.  we know the rule

2. we know how to apply the rule

3.  we have time to consciously reflect on and apply the rule

So, if students have worksheets or whatever where they are “practising the passé composé” or whatever, they’ll do well.  They’ll beaver away, slowly, filling in the blanks.  Of course, in real life, they won’t have time to go “hmm, is that a DR AND MRS VANDERTRAMP verb?  Oh, it is, so, let’s see, how do we conjugate that?” Or, as Yogi Berra said, “you can’t think and hit at the same time.” Worksheets cannot help those who havn’t acquired a grammar rule; they are unnecessary for those who have. And they’re boring.

Doing it betterI would have kids read a ton of stuff which has the grammar item, etc, they are learning.  If I had worksheets, a better way to use them would be to give the kids the worksheets with the blanks filled in and have them translate:  this is quality (if boring) input.

 

2.  I used to do projects in the target language.   One typical one:  the ____ report.  Research ___, write up what you learned about ____ on a poster and add some pictures and lines connecting different elements.  Oh, and do it in Spanish.  Then read it aloud to the class.  Variations: use the Interwebz and add things that talk, move, have colours, etc.  The only problems were…

  • the kids had to look up a ton of vocab (read: Google translate)
  • almost none of this vocab got repeated for the rest of the year (read: little acquisition)
  • most of the writing had to be “edited” (read: totally re-written) by me before the final product was assembled.
  • most of the audience focused on pictures and missed most of the target language during the presentation because the presenters are the only ones who know the vocab, and the audience wanted to understand, and pictures were easier to understand.
  • if done in poster form, nobody except me, the teacher, ever read the Spanish, and a week after it was done, not even the kids who wrote the poster typically what it meant because all they did was copy it down
  • most of the Spanish on these was low-frequency vocab.  How often is somebody going to need to say “principal exports of ___ are petroleum and fried dog” or “The Cathedral of was built in ____”?

Now, kids did pick up a bit of vocab– and culture knowledge– but at the cost of good input.

Doing it better: I now do culture, etc, projects in English.  I can  get higher-order thinking, more learning-via-sharing, and less energy wasted on poor target language use.  Plus, the kids can easily understand each others’ work.

 

3.  I “used games” to “make grammar and learning fun.  From class soccer leagues to Hangman to cross-4, games got the kids focused and they found them fun.  Too bad, however, that

  • most of their output was flawed and/or English, and that therefore
  • they got little accurate input, and
  • the language they were exposed to was fragmented (ie generally not sentences which were part of bigger meaningful “whole” passages or conversations
  • they got low-frequency vocab.  E.g. the class soccer/hockey/baseball game.  Lots of fun, shouting, etc…but words like “scores” and “goal” and “foul” are not much-used.

 

4.  I didn’t know what I was doing with assessment.

a) I screwed up listening assessment.  In every languages program I have ever seen, the listening test at the end of each unit has something like, it  plays a native speaker saying something, or a conversation.  Then, there are multiple-guess questions  Why was this a problem for my kids?

  • the kids had to “hold” quite a lot of vocab in their heads while listening to (say) 60 seconds of language.  This is very hard to do.
  • The pattern was clear:  if the speaker(s) said it, the kids picked that as the answer.  If the statement was more complex– eg John was not tired– and the question was How did John feel? a) tired b) awake c) energetic, the kids would pick a, because thinking about “not” and the meaning of the word tired is cognitive overload for a lot of them.

Doing it better:  Give them WAY more time, restrict vocab to only what they know, and provide aural input much more slowly.  I would also now suggest using aural input as listen, copy and translate.

b) I screwed up writing assessment.  Yes, I had a marking rubric (thanks, Julia Macrae), which worked fine for paragraphs.  However, what do you do with single-sentence questions?  For example, a question would be ¿Te gustan los perros? (Do you like dogs?).  If a kid wrote me gusta los perros, or yo gusto las gatos (both of which demonstrate understanding of meaning, but which have basic grammar errors), how do you mark it?  Half a mark off for the mistake?  1/4?  How do you do holistic assessment for a sentence?  Impossible.

Doing it better: Now, I make them write only paragraphs and stories and assess holistically.  I check for understanding when I am asking stories, or while we are reading.

 

5.  I used to expect oral output from Day 1.  I used to do a lot of “communicative pair” or “information gap” activities.  The problems here were many:

  • the kids would always make output mistakes– e.g. they would have a list of things or activities, and they would have to ask their partner about them.  So, dogs.  A kid would say  ¿Te gusta el perros?  and get the answer No yo gusto perros— which was meaningful, but very low-quality input for their partners.  If this is where their language modeling came from, I realised eventually that there would be huge problems.  They would not acquire articles, verb endings etc properly.
  • I felt like a cop, cruising around the class to ensure Spanish compliance.  As one person I talked to said, “speaking ____ with other people who are also learning it feels fake.”  Kids simply felt funny using the language.
  • the logical thing to do is to get the info as easily and quickly as possible, i.e. L1, whose use was a constant problem.
  • the activities in books were dull:  ask your partner if s/he a) went to the beach b) played soccer, c) had a BBQ last summer.  I dunno about you but I and the kids don’t find that compelling.

Doing it better:   I don’t do any forced oral activities and end-of-course assessment with beginners.  I do one totally random three-minute oral interview with 2nd and up level kids at the end of level 2.  The kids do have to chorally answer story questions, and I will ask superstars personalised questions in the PQA (personalised questions and answers) process (basically, asking the superstars the questions I ask the actors).  This has allowed me to deliver much more– and better– input, partly because I am not spending 6-8 blocks/year assessing output, and because the output they do– acting in stories, and superstar PQA– is super high quality (and so is good input) for other learners.

Now, when I have kids who are reluctant to talk, I ask them yes/no or one-word PQA questions.  If we are doing a story and I say a la chica, le gustaban los gatos, I’ll first circle that, and then I’ll ask the actress ¿te gustan los gatos?  and a few other questions involving gustan and los gatos, los perros, los dinosaurios, etc.  Then, I ask my superstar or a native speaker ¿te gustan los gatos?  and they can answer with a complete sentence.  Then, I go to the slower processors (or shyer kids) and ask the same question.  They can say sí/no and that’s fine, or they can say a complete sentence.  The point now is to deliver input, not to force output, and to use output to signal understanding.

I also no longer do communicative pair activities.  Kids now pick up Q&A (first and second person) forms (and everything else) through PQA and stories.

 

6.  I used to do kid-created target-language movie projects.   Typically, I said “make a short film of ___,” ___ being either some thematic vocab (e.g. the food or shopping unit) or this plus some specific grammar requirements (e.g. use the imparfait).  Now, these are fun.  My daughters also did them, and when they did, I’ve never at my house seen five teenagers spend so much intense time rehearsing, giggling, planning, etc.  However…

  • the target language output was bad.  They’re learners.
  • most of the time spent making a film was in English.
  • most of the energy, mental and otherwise, spent in making the film was fixed on visuals, acting, bloopers, editing, etc
  • when they watched each others’ films in class, mostly they could not hear or understand the Spanish…because most of the Spanish had been special-occasion looked-up just for the film, and because the sound was bad
  • because the kids KNEW that the story must be primarily visually told, and they would film/edit for visual comprehension, viewers didn’t really need to pay attention to target language.
  • even the understood good target language was often not repeated much throughout the year (low frequency).

In retrospect, movie projects did get the kids talking, and they were fun.  But they didn’t deliver the sine qua non of good languages teaching: delivering compelling comprehensible input.

Doing it better:  Thanks to Adriana Ramírez, I now do this.  Provide the kids a script of 100% comprehensible vocab– including dialogue, with errors edited out– and have them film it.  They will have a blast filming (picking costumes, editing, hanging out with their buddies, adding music etc).  When you show it in class, they will be intrigued to see their friends acting, and they will not even notice that they are hearing and understanding the target language.

7. I used to give grammar tests.  Read the sentence and fill in the blanks with the right ____.  Conjugate the verb.  Show me where the pronoun goes. The research is clear:  grammar instruction works wonders if you want your students to become manipulators of grammar.  However, the part of the brain that stores “metalinguistic awareness” stuff like grammar rules is at best tangentially connected to the subconscious part that actually processes language.  The researchers all say the same thing: the brain does not acquire grammar by practicing grammar, and what we teachers call “grammar rules” is not how the brain “does” grammar.  So, making kids study for tests that ask them to consciously manipulate words and apply grammar rules took away from real, deep processing that happens when they hear or read stories or other meaningful language.

 

Doing it better: assess whole-language use (read, listening to and writing real meaningful stuff) and just, well, don’t give grammar tests.  If you really want to ensure that the kids learn to conjugate, use pronouns, etc, make them do a lot of reading.

8. I used to do the portfolio.  Kids take evidence of what they do– writing, reports, videos or oral presentations, tests and quizzzes, etc, and stick them in a folder called a “portfolio.”  Modern versions include online collections (e.g. you video your restaurant unit dialogue and put it on Youtube).  The rationale for portfolios is a) kids can “reflect on their learning, document  areas of growth and areas that need work” or some such edubabble, and b) kids can go and revise stuff and c) they can see what they did and learn from their mistakes.

First, (b) I agree with– you learned more, go fix it, good.  But, second, we run into a problem with A and C, because, basically, most adolescents simply cannot reflect on something as (1) complex and (2) innate as grammar etc.  Most of them can’t do it in English with essays/paragraphs etc, so how can we expect them to do it in a second language?  As an English teacher who teaches lit and composition to English speakers in English, I know that kids cannot meaningfully self-edit.  They also mostly cannot peer edit.  Yes, you can give them checklists…and they will look for– and sometimes even find– things on the checklists…and miss everything else.  And this is in English, their first language.  I used to provide Spanish grammatical feedback, the kids would dutifully re-copy their paragraphs and “improve them” and then they would make exactly the same mistakes on tests.

You can talk about ____ till you are blue in the face, but most kids just can’t do it.  They also don’t care– I mean, what student in their right mind would care how many of the 19 irregular passé composé verbs they don’t know or whatever?  That’s boring.  Also, I would give kids their writing back, correct the hell out of it, and they would look for how much red ink was on it, and what Number they got on it.  This is because they quite correctly understood that Numberz are what Matterz to Teacherz and Parentz.

Portfolios however look cool– especially if the student is a girl; girls in my experience are more into neatness and colouring and nice pictures than boys– and Thingz That Look Cool (extra Pointz if its online!  E-learningz!  Cross-platform sharingz!) get attention, Adminz and Headz love them, etc etc.  The only problem is, they don’t provide the acquisitional effects we expect.  The only thing a portfolio can do is show growth.  Kids will have 4-sentence paragraphs at start and 20 at end of a class.  Great, a teacher’s markbook should reflect that, throw the quiz in the kid’s binder, why waste time on packages and prettiness and empty self-analyses?

 

So…how has eliminating the screw-ups helped my kids?

My epiphany came thanks to Michelle Metcalfe’s demo workshop, and my results now blow the old results out of the water.  I have abandoned grammar practice and testing, communicative gap activities, oral output and most oral assessment, games, movie and culture projects in Spanish, and portfolios.

My Level 1 kids now write 600-1,00 word stories, in good Spanish, in multiple verb tenses, in an hour at the end of the course.  They understand everything they hear.  They feel great when they head somewhere Spanish-speaking.  I have no management issues. I have every kid who attends and pays attention passing.

Your mileage, as they say, may vary.  Mainly I am happy that I can experience more success with second languages and I hope I can inspire others to get there also (though not necessarily by doing what I do).  And I mean honestly people, I am neither smart nor talented so if I can do OK with T.P.R.S., anyone can do well.

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Blaine Ray, Carol Gaab and Bill VanPatten respond to criticism of and questions about T.P.R.S.

We T.P.R.S. teachers often get slammed by the misinformed.  T.P.R.S.– and comprehensible input generally– often looks so weird to a traditional teacher that mental fuses blow and an irresistible urge to break out the grammar worksheets and communicative pair tasks takes over.  They aren’t talking?  They don’t practise grammar?  You don’t have a communicative objective?  Quel horreur!

So, today’s question:  how do Blaine Ray, Carol Gaab and Bill VanPatten respond to questions about and criticisms of T.P.R.S.?

First, blogger Sara Cottrell writes about what she doesn’t like about T.P.R.S. here, to which Carol Gaab responds here, and neatly dispenses with most of Cottrell’s criticism.

Next, we have Blaine Ray– the nicest guy in the world and the man who invented T.P.R.S.– who is at age 65 or so still teaching a class weekly (and refining his methods– Clarq and Whaley’s embedded readings, and his own teacher-as-parallel character are two newer fave tweaks), training teachers through his excellent N.T.P.R.S. convention and workshops, and often posts in Yahoo’s MORETPRS listserv.  I just found one such post on my hard drive.   Here is Blaine answering some questions about T.P.R.S. (edits for clarity)

Q:  Does TPRS reach all types of learners in the classroom, in particular special education students?

A:  Everyone can learn a language who has learned his/her first language. So in a sense TPRS might work with all learners. It does not work with unmotivated learners. We aren’t there to save everyone.

Q:  Does TPRS really engage all students in the class?

A:  Do grammar lessons engage all students? That really isn’t the right question. Does TPRS engage students better than other types of language teaching?  I would say yes. There is something about live theater that is very engaging. I have seen students that seem to be disengaged tell me what is going on in the story over and over. It is been my experience that virtually all students follow the story line.

Q:  Can´t weaker students just copy what other students say when answering questions?

A: At the end of a story we have students rewrite the story. I don’t observe copying. It is the writing of the story that tells me whether students have been engaged or not. I walk around the class and pick up all of their writings. There is definitely a difference between top and bottom students. I had one of the “self proclaimed” weakest students be the horse in my story this week. She had a much better ability to answer my questions than students I have seen in classes that have had no TPRS experience.

Timed writings show what weaker students can do. The difference is that when I have had students from grammar classes write a timed writing they can’t produce very much. What they do produce are memorized sentences. There is very little difference between the top and the bottom because they are all bad (meaning they can produce very little.) TPRS students can generally write well over 70 words on a topic in 5 minutes in my experience.

CommentStudents don´t really get any practice on their own in communicating with the language.

Response: You must understand the input hypothesis to understand TPRS. Students get constant practice in the only way possible to learn a language and that is through listening.

Comment: It is so teacher centered, where the teacher is talking most of the time, so students are learning so much less of the language.

Response: I believe the best thing a department can do to show who is learning the language and who is not is to share timed writings. If departments required teachers to bring all timed writings from their classes, then it would show who is teaching well and who is not. Teachers wouldn’t be able to pronounce that their students are learning. They would show what their students have learned by bringing in writing samples of all of their students.

Q:  Can you do TPRS one day a week and still see the benefits?

A:  Compared to what? I actually teach a class once a week and they don’t do TPRS the rest of the time. (I volunteer to teach the class.) I can see tremendous benefits in what I am doing. I talked to a girl yesterday about her Spanish and she told me how confident she was in her speaking. Students can’t fake speaking. They either know it or they don’t. I certainly think they would do better with more input though.

Q:  How do you keep up the energy and enthusiasm for all of your classes everyday?

A:  A better question would be “How do you keep up the energy and enthusiasm teaching out of a text book?”  I taught exclusively out of a text for 5 years. I went home most nights looking in the newspaper for another job. Teaching with stories is energizing. I don’t see teachers using TPRS complain about maintaining enthusiasm.

Q:  When you´ve got a classroom full of students that have a hard time staying in their seats, how do you reach them and manage the classroom so that they are not bored?

 A:  I can’t see any way of teaching that would work with students who won’t stay in their seats. In fact, TPRS does not work if a teacher allows social talking. Classroom management is easy. Most of my classes were over 40 and some were over 48. Boredom was not a problem. Students did not get tired of playing the TPRS game even after years.

Q:  Are you giving students a toolkit of methods and grammatical structures to use?

A:  Students are not aware of the structures. They are focused on the story.  The teacher needs to be aware of the structures. But more importantly the teacher needs to see where the students break down in their speech and practice where the students need it most.

(Note: the idea of T.P.R.S. is to make language acquisition a byproduct of listening to (and reading) the target language.  We don’t teach French, or Chinese– we teach stories but we teach them in French or in Chinese.)

Comment:  The stories are monotonous and all have a specific makeup.

Response:  This is probably a statement by a teacher who doesn’t understand TPRS. TPRS is all about surprises. Yesterday my story had a horse who was going to celebrate his 10th birthday at Chuck E Cheese. He was a good horse who goes to school and studies Math, Spanish and Horse. He got an A in Math, A minus in Spanish and a B plus in Horse. I had a girl who played the horse. Katie (the owner) had to go to the restaurant to arrange the party, went to someone to get the money and then got the money.

This was all dramatized. All along the way I kept asking the girl what she was doing. These details came from the students. Every story is a new adventure. If they are monotonous, it just means you haven’t taught your students how to play the game.

Comment:  The stories all involve animals in some way, or getting an animal.

Response: That is not necessary. A story can be about anything.

 

Finally, a few choice quotes from linguist Bill VanPatten, given at the IFLT 2017 conference. Thanks to Michelle Kindt and Karen Rowan for putting these online.

On how languages should be taught: “Language is too abstract to teach explicitly. Stop treating language teaching like other subject matter.”

Comment: T.P.R.S. is passive– the teacher does everything.

BVP: “Nothing could be more active in a classroom than co-constructing stories with your students.”

Comment: “TPRS is too teacher-centered.”

BVP: ” The TPRS classroom is NOT teacher-centered. It is teacher-led.”

Comment: “TPRS is too much about fun, and not enough about real communication.”

BVP: “Entertainment is a valid form of communication.”

Comment: “TPRS is too much about stories and characters, and not enough about exchanging information.”

BVP: “TPRS is communicative, since it has an expression, interpretation, and negotiation of meaning.”

Comment: “Teachers who use TPRS [and other comprehensible input strategies] do not teach enough explicit grammar.”

BVP: “What’s on page 32 in the textbook will not be the language that winds up in a student’s head.”

Comment: in a C.I. class, there is very little interaction with input, because students are listening to stories and questions, not engaging in conversations. 

BVP: “Interaction with input simply means indicating comprehension. Students can do this in many ways.” 

 

 

The Power of Reading

On my way back from El Salvador, I ran into a Vancouver couple and we got to talking about language acquisition.  Jackie is a grade 3 & 4 split French Immersion teacher, and her husband Jaques (originally from Quebec) is a paramedic.  Here is what they had to say about the sheer power of what Stephen Krashen calls “free voluntary reading” (FVR).

Jackie said:  Reading is as important as anything else she can do as a teacher.  She has sets of readers in French.  There are 15 “levels” (1 easiest, 15 hardest) and there are about 10 books/level.  The kids pick their book, and every day they get 30 min to read.  Initially, the kids have trouble picking appropriate books, but Jackie asks them questions about what they are reading.  If a kid can’t explain what they are reading (i.e. the basics of plot and characters), she gets them to pick books from a level down.  Once the kids generally know their reading level, they can pick books that work for them.  Typically, they read most of the books from a level before they move on to the next level.  Do they like FVR?  Hell yeah!  Jackie reports that the kids want to read, do read, and report liking reading.

Jackie interviews two kids/day about their reading.  She asks them questions in French, and they can answers in as much French or English as they want (nice– no pressure to use the language).  There are no marks assigned to FVR.  There is no “accountability piece” or other edubabble/admin babble.  The only things she expects are that the kids read, and understand.

Jackie also notes tremendous improvement in both writing and speaking French– generally within two months of the school year starting– as a result of the FVR program.  I asked her how she knew the improved fluency, greater vocab, etc, came from reading, and she said “the kids are using words I havn’t taught them and they are using them appropriately.”

Jackie also commented that comic books– e.g. Garfield translated into French– were probably the best reading tools.  Comics, in Jackie’s opinion, do not— as Ujiie and Krashen have shown— replace other reading.  (In my view, comics are the future of second-language reading.  With visual support for text, story format, Q&A in present tense and narration in past, how could comics not work?)

I looked at Krashen’s summary of FVR benefits, issues, questions & research, etc, and I concluded that, in terms of FVR,  Jackie is doing everything right.

The bottom line?  Give kids lots of choice surrounding, and time to engage in, interesting free voluntary reading, and everyone will benefit.  We should also note that the benefits of reading work in both first and second languages.

Now, Jackie’s husband, Jaques, also had a bunch of interesting things to say about learning English:

— He got English for an hour a day from grade 1 to grade 10 in Quebec, but still couldn’t speak or write it.  There was generally very heavy emphasis on grammar and writing, which he found both boring and useless.

— His favorite English teacher used music cloze exercises (listen to a song, read along, and fill in the occasional blank with what you hear), which Jaques liked.

— When he moved to B.C. at age 17, he had little $$ and spoke basically no English.  So he taught himself by getting kids’ books from the Salvation Army (at first).  Twenty-five cents got you a pile of books.  As he got better at English, he read young adult/youth fiction, and eventually graduated to stuff like “Game of Thrones.”  He was able to do his paramedic training in English with no problems.  He also very much liked comics and read as many as he could. He said that comics were easy to understand (because of the visuals), and a great way to learn slang.

— He does easy crosswords but says that the cultural in-jokes of English make any harder puzzles (e.g. Globe and Mail) impossible.

— He said “When you read a new word in a book, you don’t get it, but if you know the words around it, you can guess what it means.  And if you read it a hundred more times, you get a better idea about it.  Then the next day you hear it on the street, and you get it, and then you have it in your head.”

In other news, we have a short blog summary of veteran and master T.P.R.S. teacher Joe Neilson being observed. This guy has been using T.P.R.S. thirty years and was the guy who pioneered fully unsheltered grammar from Day 1.  Joe is probably the greatest living TPRS practitioner, and certainly among the very best languages teachers in the world.  Anyway, of note here is what Joe does with novels: with very advanced (i.e. 4th and 5th year) students, he is doing “basic” novels like Pobre Ana— to provide a super-easy “input base”– but throwing in very high-level discussion.  Read it here.

My own recent experience with reading:  when I went to El Salvador, it quickly became obvious that I was rusty, very rusty, with Spanish.  As my Mexican friend Mauricio put it in one of our trash-talking text convos, hablas como un pinche gringo maleducado.  So I put myself to work:  I read as much as I could of the newspaper every day (especially comics– I love comics), and I spent a LOT of time in markets, chatting in Spanish.  My brain strained, and new words–guínda, guanaco, púchica– came online.

On my second-last day in the country, I ran into Lucio “Chiyo” Vásquez, 43, a guy who  at age 9 (yes, you read that correctly) joined the F.M.L.N. guerrillas in the fight against an American-backed right-wing asshole government which used voter suppression, poverty, death-squads, media manupulation, military aid, etc, and the usual bag of tricks to maintain a landed aristocracy in wealth and the other 95% of people in horrible poverty.  Chiyo joined the guerrillas after American-trained death squads raped and killed his mother and sister, and tortured and killed three of his brothers and literally hundreds of his neighbours.  As his Dad– still alive today at age 90– put it, “they killed those women like dogs.  But they aren’t going to kill us like dogs.  They’re going to kill us fighting.”

Chiyo became a soldier, then a radio operator for the F.M.L.N.  Anyway, Chiyo had a guitar– a magnificent miked Fender classical given him by a German friend– and no case. My heart went out to that guitar, so I gave him $30 to buy a case, and he gave me a copy of his riveting autobiography, Siete Gorriones, which I started reading on the plane home.  There’s an interview with him about the book here

You could not make up the stuff in that book.  From the insane battle scenes (a guerrilla loses both legs to machinegun fire, begs to be killed, but none of his compas can do it), to the horrifying details (e.g. women giving birth during the middle of mortar attacks), to the heartbreak (losing friends, or having to kill all of the dogs because they could not be trusted to be quiet when the guerrillas were evading military patrols) to the surrealism (Chiyo has always been fascinated with music, and had always wanted to play harmonica, and was delighted when a harmonica player joined his guerrilla brigade…but unfortunately, this guy played harmonica with his nose and so Chiyo understandably never got to try the guy’s harp…), this book is amazing.

So I’m 100 pages into the first book I have ever read in Spanish and it’s been an interesting experience.  This is what I note:

— it works (i.e. is interesting) because it is story-driven.  There is a protagonist, there are clear problems, and there is very little “literary trickery” like interior monologues, multiple points of view, etc etc.  I want to know what happens next and that’s what he shows me.  It’s good writing– Hemingwayesque in its simplicity but not merely lists of facts and events.

I know the context  so I can follow along (background knowledge activated).  A book like this would be impossible for someone who did not know the social and political context of the Salvadorean wars of liberation.

I am not getting all the vocab but I can still follow the story.  When he discusses plants, birds and animals (very important to farmers and guerrillas), I am often a bit lost.  However, the stuff comes back often enough that I am starting to pick it up. E.g.  zopilotes I think must mean “vultures.”  I am also picking up other vocab steadily.  Ponerle la queja de ____ a ____ means “to complain about ___ to ____.”  If I am wrong, big deal…with enough reading most of this sorts itself out.

grammar acquisition is scaffolding off of what I know.  For example, I know that tomate and maíz mean “tomato” and corn.”  My guess: the -al ending in Spanish I think means “a place of,” so a tomatal is a tomato plantation, and a maícetal is a cornfield.  How did I learn this?  Simple– and it illustrates the power that comprehensible input has to “teach” us grammar:

a) he writes fuimos al tomatal.  “we went to tomato-something

b) he writes ibamos al maícetal y regresábamos con elotes: “we would go to corn-something and come back with cobs of corn”

c) -al gets used when the narrator goes somewhere, and where he goes seems to have edible/useful stuff growing there, so– enter hypothesis– -al means “place of growing ____.”

Also I am slowly picking up the Salvadorean vos which has a few weird tweaks– you say vos hablás and vos tenés where others would say tú hablas  and tú tienes (I think– it’s acquisitional early days and I could be wrong, but, again, whatever, I’ll pick it up eventually).  What’s interesting is that this is easy.

there is grammar which I have had explained to me which I still cannot use, or explain, but which I understand.  I don’t get why they say things like se me salió la babita cuando había comida (“I drooled/my mouth watered when there was food”).  I get that salirse means “to come out of” but why do you need the se?  Why can’t you just say  me salió la babita?  Whatever– I will eventually pick it up.

Ok people, there you go, the power of reading.