Published in Journal of Hispanic Philology, 11 (1986), 1-3.

The Editor's Column:

Speaking a Language

by Daniel Eisenberg


     Experts in school reform have many inexpensive ways in which elementary and high school teaching could be improved quickly. Among them: "if foreign-language teachers are available, some schools might take half of each day for the better part of a month and concentrate on teaching students to speak that language, without paying attention at that point to grammar" (New York Times, Sept. 1, 1987, p. 16). I assume that "speaking" is meant to include understanding responses to what is spoken.
     This is a harmless suggestion, surely, and perhaps might do some good. Some students will learn something in their half a day for the better part of a month, and a smaller proportion will be exposed to reading and writing the language at a later point in their studies. But just having tried to advise undergraduates who, you know, just wanted to hablar a little español, you know, without grammar, the statement hit a nerve.
     The suggestion is commendable, to begin with the bright side, in the devotion it reveals to foreign language study as intrinsically good, a mitzvah, whose importance is so widely acknowledged that it does not need to be argued. It has become what politicians call a "motherhood" issue: an issue with no opponents. Issues with no opponents, of course, are very weak.
     One wonders where the hypothetical language teachers are going to come from, in sufficient quantity to teach a whole student body at one time. Are there schools, or cooperative arrangements between schools, to provide such a quantity of teachers for a short period? And what are the teachers of other subjects to do during the language instruction? Do they have the time off? But then I'm not an expert on how schools today are run.
     What concerns me more directly is that grammar is perceived by the public as complicated and boring. Conversing has become an autonomous skill, which one can learn independently of grammar. Children do learn to speak a language (though not to read or write it correctly) without grammar. This is a full-time process, however, much of it with a personal teacher, spread over many years, and brain changes cause children's natural language-acquiring skills to shrink by the time of adolescence. Grammar, which has logic and beauty, is efficient. It requires great investments of time and energy to teach more than memorized set phrases without it.
     Another instance of partial knowledge contained in this remark is the concept that a language is learned better if taught intensively and all at once, rather than spread out over years in school. Intensive instruction does produce better learning, although the benefit is reported from total immersion, 12 to 15 hours a day, seven days a week, not half of a school day (3 hours a day, five days a week). Instruction by immersion, though, is usually prompted by an immediate need to use a language, and it is typically followed by a period in the target country, which serves to stabilize what has been learned. Teaching full-time students intensively for one month is of less value when it means, as it probably would, that for the remainder of the school year they would have no exposure to the language at all. One reason for the low-intensity teaching of language that is the rule in schools (one class period per day, or less) is that it draws the experience out. Otherwise one would want to emphasize foreign language instruction with high school seniors, which perhaps is not a bad idea.
     Finally, and most serious, there is the thought that teachers should emphasize speaking, even that speaking is all one needs to teach. What this implies is that a foreign language is a sort of practical skill, a type of verbal self-defense, and one can "get by" without grammar. One can get by only if one's goals are making retail purchases or ordering a meal; selling requires far more linguistic skill than buying. It is not true even in speaking to those whose native language was orally acquired and who have never received instruction in it: to converse with such persons requires a high competency. With those educated in their native language, of course outside the United States, one can get by with weaker skills.
     The preference for instruction in speaking reveals an acceptance of illiteracy in foreign languages. There is nothing in a foreign language, save perhaps scientific articles, that one might want to read. Yet reading is even more important to learning about foreign cultures than it is for foreigners learning about our culture, about which they are inundated in songs, television, and movies. Giving preference to speaking over grammar in foreign language instruction is actually a means to keep foreign cultures and ideas at a safe distance.