Avtor: JOSH ROCCHIO
One of the things I always stress in everything I do, teach, or learn is obsessive pattern-building and manic invention of mnemonic devices. What on earth does that mean, you ask? We’ll get there.
To start let’s say that I have what one might consider a somewhat unique and maybe even borderline strange perspective on languages, and on Language in general. I’d like to make clear at the beginning that there is a big difference between those things - languages and Language, that is - just as there is a difference between instruments and Music. We’ll get there, too.
Which “version” of English is right?
Years ago, when I was a finishing high school and entering college, I was a proud grammarian. A well-read child, which probably says too much about my social skills, I placed an inordinate amount of importance and respect on the written word. Growing up south of the Mason-Dixon line, though (for Europeans this is the line separating the “North” and “South”, so to speak, in America), I spoke an accent or dialect that was markedly different from the standard found in printed books. But wait, weren’t Mark Twain’s books printed, too? (again, for people who might not know, Mark Twain famously wrote dialogues in his books in the vernacular of the books’ characters, which were largely from the American South) Plus I had started taking Spanish in high school, and something about the differences between Mexican Spanish (primarily taught in US schools) and Castilian Spanish also didn’t sit well with me.
Fast-forward a little bit to the end of college, finishing up my degree in Latin and Ancient Greek… The former spans a period of almost 2 thousand years, and the Latin used by the playwrights of ancient Rome is almost unrecognizable next to Cicero’s Latin, which itself is a completely different beast from the Latin of the middle ages or the Renaissance. Let’s not even mention Ancient Greek, whose literary tradition demanded using the Attic dialect in oratory, Aeolic in lyric poetry, Ionic in history, and Doric for choral poetry.
How can all these different varieties exist, and which dialect should we focus on, when, and why? It was a question I toyed with when teaching Latin in America and then even more so when I moved to Slovenia, a country famous for having between 50 and 60 dialects in 7-9 dialect groups, depending on whom you ask. If each of the students in any one of my classes spoke a different dialect, how to tell them which “version” of English is right?
After all, my native dialect itself differed in a lot of respects from standard English; for instance we allow double negatives (“we didn’t see nobody” instead of “we didn’t see anybody”), we use the word “ain’t”, we have some interesting verb forms like “he be running”, and we pluralize some words that are non-count in standard English like “deers” or “fishes”.
I teach what people say, and not what they should say
I decided to adopt a teaching and linguistic philosophy based on descriptivism, whose main object is to teach what people say, and not necessarily what they should say. Of course I teach people what’s right and wrong, but not based on what any textbooks say. A good example of that comes from a dilemma I had when teaching high school students in Slovenia… the textbook Headway assures students that you’re supposed to sign letters with “Yours faithfully” if you do not know the recipient and “Yours sincerely” if you do. In my professional career I have noticed that the trend lately has, instead, overwhelmingly leaned towards some form of “Very/Best/Regards”. Should I confirm the textbook or share experience about real-world usage? As a teacher I’ll always choose the latter.
Music and Language
Let’s talk about music now. Music is a complex science and art, and learning about how notes and melodies and harmonies and rhythms all interact is a skill that is, in a lot of ways, separate from playing an instrument per se. This means that there are universals: notes are in harmony or dissonance the same whether they are played on a piano or on a sitar and once you’ve learned Music (with a capital M, meaning the universal concepts of Music), you’ll understand it on any instrument.
Similarly, the finger movements required to play a piano are similar to the movements for a keyboard or harpsichord, the movements of a guitar or bass similar to a cello and a viola, and the movement of a saxophone player similar to those of a clarinetist. What’s important is that each experience and each interaction with one instrument both teaches you something about Music itself, and the finger movements you master will inform your experience on a similar instrument.
These families of instruments are similar to languages, as the “tongue movements” required for Spanish and Italian are similar in many aspects to French and Portuguese, because - like the cello and the violin - they are in the same “language family”. This is one of the reasons I always encourage people to take a look at another language in the same family as the primary one they are studying; this comparative look helps you make educated guesses, establish patterns, and ultimately enrich your understanding of new and innovative constructions in your primary foreign language. Once you’ve mastered one or two languages in a couple of families, you will be amazed at how easy it is to add the 4th and 5th and 6th, because you will have learned so much about Language, just like playing multiple instruments teaches you about music.
It is this application and reapplication of well-formed neural structures and mastered structures and constructs that makes a good learner; everything you do and learn should inform everything else you try to do and learn. And when a structure isn’t well-formed yet, invent a good trick for making it stick in your brain. These tricks are the mnemonic devices I mentioned at the beginning, and they are crucial to the learning process.
6 instruments and 8 languages
Myself I’ve applied these thoughts to 6 instruments (viola, guitar, bass, marimba, vibraphone, drumset) and 8 languages (Latin, Italian, Spanish, French, Ancient Greek, Russian, Slovene, and Croatian). I started learning foreign languages at home, where a lot of Italian expressions were a daily part of our household communication. Later I studied Spanish in high school with a fantastic teacher, who really encouraged me to do my best. I later used this Spanish on construction sites and in kitchens, as well as to communicate to parents when I taught Latin and Math at a middle/highschool in Washington DC, which is the closest city to my hometown.
In college I pursued further study of Italian to upgrade my limited knowledge from home. Along the way I also fell in love with Latin, and added Russian and Ancient Greek for fun. All three prepared me well for what was waiting for me when I met a girl from Ljubljana who was working at the Slovene Embassy in DC. My first 3 words were “pacek”, “strgana” (a reflection of my t-shirts after years of going to college), and “lačen”. ;)
After a year and a half together in America we moved to Ljubljana. Our original plan was to stay for one year and go back, but, as Jeff Goldblum would say, “life finds a way”, and almost 8 years later we’re still here, raising a beautiful family and looking towards the future.
Textbooks aren't for me, and never will be.
Over the years in Slovenia I’ve worked as a teacher, a translator, an editor, and an actor/voiceover actor, and even as a paddle boarder. When I saw that LanguageSitter® was looking for teachers, I checked out their teaching philosophy, and saw it completely matches mine: freedom to focus on the topic most interesting at the moment, flexibility to explore cool topics and take advantage of situational opportunities, and to really center lessons on exactly what the student needs to get better. Like I said, textbooks aren’t for me, and never will be. Teaching needs to be relaxed, engaging, interesting, and most of all fun! We can only achieve this by looking each other in the eye and forming a partnership based on mutual understanding and mutual desire for improvement.
When I’m not thinking about languages or teaching, I like nothing more than playing with my kids and dog, playing music, going outside up mountains and down rivers, and toying with mathy games and problems like chess.
If what you read interested you, I’d love to talk more. ;)
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