it's all in the family
There’s a joke that might be heard around the language classroom.
This joke, presumably not written by a native English speaker, elicits a certain kind of laughter. This isn’t really a joke about language but about Americans and their relationship to language. In a complicated irony, our nation of immigrants is not exactly friendly to languages other than English. How that happened is an interesting story, but one for another occasion.
We want to keep the focus on how English the school subject might benefit from a willingness to embrace other languages in the English classroom.
Spanish, now spoken by almost a third of American students, is routinely banned entirely from English class, verdad? English teachers seem to fear that any speech or writing in one language will come at the expense of the other. On the face of it, the Spanish language might seem to have no place in an English language classroom. English is English, after all, and Spanish is not. But many of those same teachers who forbid the use of other languages in their English classrooms also believe that one of the best ways to learn English grammar is to study the grammar of another language.
Down the hall, in ESOL classes, allowing students to write early drafts of papers in their native language, before reworking the final draft into English, is a widespread practice. In this way, students are not limited to grinding out a paper, sentence by sentence, using only structures they have learned in English. Instead, they can organize and structure a paper without worrying about do-support and mysterious articles. For the final version, of course, the students must then rework their efforts into English, during which process, opportunities to teach English grammar will come up naturally. Students are far more likely to be invested in revision in their own writing than guessing what’s wrong with a sentence in a workbook drill.
What would happen if this same thoughtful practice migrated into English classes? For one thing, the same opportunities to teach English grammar in a meaningful context would present themselves. For another, most school systems require students to study a modern language. English teachers could begin to repay a long-standing debt to the French and Spanish teachers, who have been using English grammar terms and concepts for years to teach French and Spanish grammar in their own classes. Students might see that studying a language in one class is related to studying language in another.
And then there’s vocabulary building. No one would argue that developing a larger vocabulary is the job of English classes. In an interesting irony, however, the method of choice in vocabulary development is to look to other languages, namely Latin and Greek. Or, at least, pieces of Latin and Greek, in the form of prefixes, suffixes and roots. Click in the box to the right for some examples.
Students are given lists of the more productive roots to study, usually organized alphabetically. The idea is that if a student sees an unfamiliar word in a test question, (prescriptivist, for example) she will be able to recognize at least part of it and thus be able to make a guess as to its meaning. This strategy is widely recognized as effective in preparing students for standardized tests.
If it works, we should use it, nicht wahr?