But They Can’t Conjugate Verbs!

Image result for angry spanish teacher

(I looked for an image for upset Spanish teacher and this was all I got)

Here is a comment from the SPANISH TEACHERS IN THE US page on Facebook. Here, Dan brings up a classic argument between a more traditional language teacher and a C.I. practitioner

Here is a response to a discussion about whether or not C.I. delivers better results than does the textbook:

My first question to Dan’s interlocutor– the teacher who has inherited some C.I.-taught kids who can’t conjugate saber— is, what do you mean by “conjugate?”

If we mean, can we tell the kid “conjugate the verb saber in the present indicative yo a.k.a. first person form” and can they do it?, the answer might well be no. This is because consciously knowing

  1. what an infinitive is
  2. what conjugating is
  3. what first person is
  4. the rule

is what we would call conscious knowledge– Bill VanPatten calls it “explicit knowledge” and Krashen “Monitor awareness.” Neither of these have anything to do with the subconscious linguistic system where language is acquired, processed and stored. We can successfully use a variety of grammar “rules”– such as saying “I am” instead of “I are,“, or “I enjoy running” instead of “I enjoy to run“– without knowing (or even having been taught the rule).

As Bob Patrick says, conjugate the verb to run in the pluperfect passive third person progressive. Can you do this? Really?  You mean you can’t say the race had been being run on demand?

Knowing the “rules,” and how and when and where to apply them, does not guarantee successful production of language.

As Jason Rothman (2008) write, “Variation in language use is simply a fact of all output, native and non-native. As a result, any given linguistic performance does not always accurately represent underlying competence.”

My second question to Dan’s interlocutor is, can textbook-taught kids produce this– or any other verbform– on demand better than C.I. taught kids? Maybe. It’s possible that Johnny’s Spanish teacher has hammered away at verb tables bla bla bla and Johnny, that eager beaver, has spent countless hours studying, and can now say “right, —er verb, first person, irregular, lemme see, uh, sé.”

The real question, however, is do they do it without being asked to do it, ie in real-time, unrehearsed communication? If my experience of 12 years with the text is a guide, no, absolutely not, and the same goes true for writing. Kids taught with textbooks and a focus on grammar rules memorise dialogues, and they do not produce very much (nevermind very much good) written language spontaneously.  Here is an example of just how grammatically accurate kids taught with C.I. can be.

My third question to Dan’s interlocutor is, what cost does an obsession with perfect grammatical output carry? If Johnny’s Spanish teacher gets the kids to obsess over verb tables, that means they won’t be either “practising” other grammar, or– worse– getting input. There will also be a cost to students’ enjoyment of Spanish: reading/watching good stories is way more fun than doing tedious grammar stuff, correcting one’s writing, etc.  And this means that students who end up in grammar and textbook programs drop out more, as Grant Boulanger has thoroughly documented. It also means that, in the long run, students will not do as well in a textbook/grammar program as they will in a C.I. program (see Part Two of Boulanger’s work here).

My fourth question to Dan’s interlocutor is, if you put a C.I.-taught kid on the spot and get them to meaningfully communicate, can they do it well? My answer: generally– if the task is developmentally appropriate— yes, they can. We have to be realistic about what we can get done in a language class.  Babies get 4,000-5,000 hours of input before they start saying single words; at age 6 (after ~14,000 hrs of input), kids are still making errors with irregular past-tense verbs in English. They are, however, communicating just fine.

My fifth question to Dan’s interlocutor: when C.I.-taught kids use sabo instead of sé, how much of a problem is that? My answer: a Mexican or a Spaniard who hears a kid say “yo no sabo donde está el baño” is going to know exactly what the kid is trying to say. This is like a Chinese kid asking you “where bathroom?” Mandarin doesn’t have “to be” the way English does, and the Chinese kid obviously hasn’t “studied hard enough,” as a grammarian would say, but we get that the Chinese kid means “where is the bathroom?” When a Mexican asks, “did he went to the bathroom?,” we understand just fine and we don’t freak out that, OMG, he didn’t learn the rule for bla bla bla past tense.

My sixth question is this: on what State or ACTFL standard does “can conjugate isolated verb forms in _____ case” appear? Being able to do this in and of itself is not a communicative objective.

Finally, I’d point one thing out to Dan’s interlocutor: When Johnny gets to Spain or Bolivia, he is going to hear more– and better– Spanish in 6 days than he will in class in one year.  Input will ramp up so much that Johnny’s errors will inevitably get corrected by the epic amounts of Spanish he is hearing.





  1. My department and I are constantly making an effort to weed out as much explicit grammar as possible, for the reasons listed above. However, I don’t think that explicit grammar teaching is a you-do-it-or-you-don’t type thing, but rather, what things can be understood best with the aid of explicit teaching, and what things are best to be picked up by repeated exposure?

    I also think that Mandarin and Romance languages are different. There are certain uses of subjunctive in Spanish that are just pointless to teach explicitly (but others that are worth teaching explicitly). In Mandarin, teaching all the uses of “le” would be insane, but it seems like explicit instruction on “yiqian” and “yihou” coming after a phrase instead of before could be something helpful.

    Constantly seeking the best!

  2. I am a theoretical linguist from Northern Italy, not a language teacher, so I feel as unqualified to discuss this topic as a physician discussing the design of a combustion engine, which requires an engineer. However, I am also a lifelong learner of several languages, both for pleasure and because my studies and my research have required me to live for all my adult life in several European countries (Ireland, Sweden, Denmark, Germany). Moreover, I am very fond of the French language and enjoy visiting the francophone European countries. So, I have accumulated a considerable body of experience from the other side of the teacher-learner dynamic. Last March, I moved to the US, and these debates sound very strange to me. “Traditional” American textbooks and methods are, indeed, rather antiquated (something Europe abandoned in the late 90s/early 00s). They are admittedly better than my father’s schoolbooks from the 50s and 60s, but antiquated nonetheless. Nowadays, by contrast, European teachers and students have much better L2 textbooks at their disposal, with a balance of explicit grammar in small digestible pills, backed by all kinds of engaging communicative tasks, reading materials, writing and conversation prompts… Also the learning progression is very different: more spiral-like than linear. That said, hardly anyone in Europe would dream of eliminating the explicit-grammar teaching moment, which (much to my joy and delight), has recently been augmented with the explicit phonetics-awareness teaching moment. Why do Americans, a generally pragmatic and eclectic nation, have to become so dogmatic and extremist, so all-or-nothing (dichotomic) and method-obsessed, when it comes to teaching? In the meantime, American students are not learning much, language-wise, at least by European standards. A lack of prioritization of language teaching by the authorities is probably to blame, but these extremist positions in the debate are probably not very helpful, either. N.B.: By “European,” I mean Western European. In fact, I have absolutely no idea how things are done in Central and Eastern Europe, let alone in other regions and continents not mentioned in my comment.

  3. Here is a possible explanation: Many Americans are very competitive and team-based. Being an independent politically, spiritually or pedagogically is an uncomfortable place. We are defending our own positions and attacking others. Personally, I am eclectic. I love CI, but like memorization, also, in certain situations. For example; if i want to learn family vocabulary, it is going to take a lot of circumlocution to come up with the more remote family members. It is easier just to memorize them. I could give many examples, but that is it in a nutshell. That is why we still recite numbers in my class, and later play oral math games to use them out of order.

    1. The prob with eg “reciting numbers” (IME) is that you can do it without knowing what you are saying. You can perform the task w/o processing the input. VanPatten calls this “language-like behaviour.”

      Regarding “we have to memorise family member names,” OK fair…but this is very low-freq vocab and you can get along without most of it. But if your school requires you to teach it then that’s what you do.

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