30 October 2011

Why it would behoove you to pay attention in foreign language class

Very often, before I even attempt to explain a particularly nasty concept involving verb tense to someone, I ask whether they’ve covered the tense in question during Spanish/French/Latin class. And almost inevitably, the response I get is something along the lines of, “Well, it sounds kind of familiar… I think we might have covered it, but I wasn’t really paying attention.”

People, I have some news for you: I’m sorry to say it, but most American high schools — even supposedly very good ones — do not teach grammar in English class. At all. Sure, they might cover how to use a comma or, if they’re really ambitious, the difference between a compound and a complex sentence, but I have yet to meet anyone who did a thorough review of verb tenses or got drilled on the difference between direct and indirect object pronouns. When I ask my new students how much grammar they’ve had and get the predictably embarrassed response of, “None, my school doesn’t really teach grammar,” I have to reassure them that they’re in exactly the same situation as almost everyone else. The ones who *have* done grammar in school are the anomalies (although they don’t necessarily understand the grammar they have done very well).

So that said, there is exactly one place that you’re likely to acquire some actual grammatical knowledge, knowledge that — surprise, surprise — might actually come in handy on the SAT. And that place is foreign language class.

Now granted taking Chinese probably isn’t going to help you all that much. But if you take French or Spanish, there’s a huge amount of cross-over; many common grammatical concepts in those languages carry over pretty directly into English, and many common vocabulary words are similar to some of the more esoteric vocabulary words you’re likely find on the SAT. If you’re lucky enough to be in a class sufficiently advanced to cover concepts such as the past perfect and the subjunctive, it would strongly behoove you to pay very close attention because those are two of the concepts that regularly give people the most trouble on the Writing section. Even if you’re not in an advanced class, you can still learn an awful lot about past participles and direct and indirect objects. Thrilling? If you’re like most people, probably not. But highly useful when it comes to understanding the basics of how English is put together.

People are frequently surprised to learn that my degree is French rather than English, but I learned pretty much all of the grammar I know through foreign languages. I only translated that understanding back to English, so to speak, much later. As a result, when a student has a reasonably strong basis in the grammar of a foreign language, I find myself offering to teach certain thorny concepts through that language. More than once, I’ve found myself using French to teach English to a native English speaker! Bizarrely enough, it’s actually easier that way. (As a side note, majoring in French also taught me infinitely more about teaching Critical Reading than majoring in English would have, but that’s another story.)

I do recognize that learning a foreign language comes more naturally to some people than to others, and I’m not saying you have to become an all-out aficionado. But at the very least, try not to completely tune out the next time your French/Spanish/Italian/Latin, etc. teacher starts rattling on about the past conditional or object pronouns. You might end up being surprised at how much sense the Writing section makes later.

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