Grammar Shaming

I was talking to a colleague from university (a brilliant postdoc in literature) about a student of mine who did not know—or did not recognize among a few examples—what an article, such as the or a, was: “Oh, I have never heard of prepositions or verbs or those other things you mentioned, but I think I know this one, the article: It is like when you hear the news… No, sorry, read, like… in a paper.” My colleague was speechless, and we both agreed it was actually basic primary school knowledge, so I ended up asking myself “How are people like that even supposed to learn a language?”, and “How could I possibly teach them a language?”. Plus, my colleague and I both hate replying with “It is like when…”: If I ask you “What is a noun?”, the only possible correct answer is bound to contain the structure “It is a noun” (not “It is like when …” or anything of the sort). I remembered, as well, the question asked by one of my professors when I told him that I taught German classes and many students would not know what cases were. “How can you teach German to someone who ignores the concept of case?”. To us, “the linguists”, these are “primary school basics”. During our little complaining session, another colleague, though, who was sitting next to us, quickly turned around and said “Come on, stop the grammar shaming, it is not nice, and not everyone is supposed to know what an article is—I wouldn’t know either if I wasn’t a literature student.” How right she was. I felt very bad and ashamed of myself; I thought about it all night and the day after… I found out that grammar shaming actually exists as a form of shaming—and it was exactly what I was doing. Me, the teacher who teaches “people who ignore what cases are” and is actually happy and proud to take A1 courses because she finds teaching the basics much more interesting…

Well, I am just a human being, I guess, and as such I am more judgmental than I would like to admit—even if I try not to be. Anyway, this episode was a good reminder that I should not take anything for granted when I walk into a classroom, and that there is no shame in not knowing things. I remember too well how I felt when my boyfriend looked at me as if I was an alien, laughed at me, and said, sarcastically: “Ehm, what? You don’t know how to solve this?! You must be kidding… I mean, seriously… This is basic general knowledge!!!.” Well no, it was not. Not to me, since it was programming (and I had been programming for 2 weeks back then), and I had a master’s degree in Ancient Greek, thank you very much. Such discussions would take place and still take place quite often, come to think of it. My natural reaction would be to study and learn, and study and learn, and study and learn, in order not to feel that mix of shame and guilt and insecurity…

But then again, we are only humans and thus cannot be experts in every field of what is “learnable”. Of course, there are people who learn better “by heart” or only through examples and react allergically to any general grammar notion. Nevertheless, it can be a good thing to spend a little time and energy and try to learn at least some of the basics. Why? Because it saves time and frustration, both for students and teachers. First of all, if we all “speak the same language”, further explanations will become easier. If your teacher says “Careful, we are talking about the past, but you are using the verb in the present tense”, but you don’t have any idea what verb, tense, present, or past mean, this remark won’t help you at all, and you wouldn’t even understand what your mistake was. Most importantly, though, is that the language, any language, is a system that has more or fewer rules. Like in a game, say, chess (this is not a random example, and if you are interested in it, google “De Saussure language chess”): If you don’t have any clue of the rules, you cannot play, you will just be moving pieces desperately instead, or… not making any moves at all; nothing would make sense to you—or to the other player, regardless of whether they know how to play or not.

Another advantage of knowing the basics of grammar is that they are transversally present in many languages: They are mostly categories, principles. While you might not be able to see them sometimes, that doesn’t mean they’re not present (e.g. the popular “Leave me alone with that accusative; in English we don’t have direct objects!”). Knowing what things are or might be is relaxing and helps you understand the new rules or the new system more quickly. Imagine you are in front of a new board game you don’t know, but you recognize it has dice: You will probably start with that—and it would feel nice, as in: “Okay, I don’t know what it means in this game, but I will probably have to roll the dice at some point and find a correspondent question, player, number of steps to go…”. I must say, many school systems fail to provide their students with the “primary school basics” of grammar. After I explained the concept of articles to my student, she asked me with a very upset expression: “Why, oh why did no one teach me this before?!”. Another reason why you should never feel ashamed and I should never grammar shame anyone… Not knowing is never a fault, especially when no one has ever told you! Learning (and teaching) a foreign language can be a very good opportunity to fill the gaps. There is no shame in learning the basics of grammar, and that could be the key, the real skeleton key (or passkey) to any language as well as a happy, more relaxed, and more conscious learning experience.

They say the more languages you speak, the more you will learn, and think about vocabulary in particular. However, the underlying structures, the rules, having a clue of how things usually work, or what they are called, are an even greater help. Find the rules, break the system—the code, to use a term from the linguistics—; break it once, and it will be easier the next time. It is impossible to learn everything by heart, but learn the rules and how they work (if not why), and you will save a lot of energy and spare yourself a lot of frustration. Learn once that German can combine words in order to make new ones, and that in the process the “most important part” (semantically and grammatically) is the last one, and you will increase your vocabulary by 300%. Very few words will sound weird, and you will never think again that German has very long, incomprehensible words: Just break them down into pieces that you know. Maybe you won’t recognize all of the pieces, but what you already know will usually be enough (and if not, you will at least know which “part” you still need to learn or look up in a dictionary). Find out what Lego pieces you have in the language and how they can or cannot be combined. Once you’re done, you will just need to try and become good at guessing what you do not know yet… and you already are, we all are, because—here comes the good news—languages are not just any systems, but they are “human” systems, i.e. they were created by humans who followed a logic, a human logic, so any human would be able to learn any language. A specific language is just the product of an innate, inherited ability which is shared by every human being: the ability to speak and talk. Now, which language you end up learning or speaking is just a matter of geography. So, no more excuses like “I was not born to learn German, Russian, Italian etc.”, and no more grammar shaming.

(Non) Native Speaker Teachers

I saw a commercial bragging that “by *** we will only have native speaker teachers”. In my teaching career, many schools have turned down my application with a simple: “We don’t hire non-native speakers”.

Now, I must say my relation to my mother tongue is different than the one that I have with my “learned languages”. I can give my students insider tips, tell jokes and teach idiomatic expressions on another level. I probably have a better “feeling” for the language itself and can try to offer a taste of it to my class. I can talk about my learning process as a child or my experience with other students… But I will never be aware of the struggles and problems adults might be facing when learning that language, cultural gaps etc. because I have honestly never been there.

Furthermore, I will never have the analytical thinking tools which I have when it comes to teaching foreign languages. I have been forced to have it in order to acquire them. I was in the exact same position as my students are now. I am much more… reliable and relatable. I know where problems could occur, hidden traps, I feel their frustration, I know what is important to get completely right and what you really need to avoid in terms of grammar, semantics or behaviour and which rules and words you do not need and can skip (maybe just for now).

I have a deeper “conscious knowledge”, which is easier to teach than simply “a feeling”. The feeling is there, of course. In the meanwhile, it has become a well “developed” one. But it is still something I have learned and am constantly learning. Thinking of my experience, I feel blessed. As a former Latin and Ancient Greek as well as a linguistics student, I had the luck to be forced to sweat and learn about my mother tongue, too. Nevertheless, I can always rely on the phrase ”It just sounds better/right”. Actually, can I? To be honest, I think it is a VERY dangerous and false sense of security when you want to be a scientist, a proper linguist.… and that is why I rather teach foreign languages (and better) than my own. I would rather question (and allow to be questioned) my German, French, English, Spanish, Ancient Greek, Latin knowledge than my beloved-hated-mother tongue Italian.

So, no matter who you see in front of you, be assured that this person, despite of their mother tongue, can indeed be a good teacher and can have something valuable to add to your language (and life – but this post focuses on language knowledge) experience, something from which during your very own learning process. 

Please, (Feel Free To) Be Quiet – Part 2

Wrong, this is not the end. I mean, we will eventually need to speak in order to… speak a (foreign) language: should I really point out the obvious (obvious-but-not-that-easy)? Yes, we will need to make aneffort. But. It doesn’t need to be NOW, in front of all these people you don’t actually know. It doesn’t need to be at the very moment your brain just stops doing its job because of the external circumstances, when breathing seems a hard enough task, and you feel like you haven’t had any experience in your life, any ideas, anything relevant (or even dumb) to share – plus you seem to have completely forgotten how to articulate sounds.

The point is: you will need to overcome your fears, the “language-student’s-block”, but if you don’t feel like it quite yet or here and now, feel free not to. Please feel free to be quiet. Your time will come and there is no need to try behaving in a way which doesn’t suit you or helps your learning process in class or in general.

Don’t misbehave or prevent the teacher or the others to go their way, don’t evangelize as a professor of mine put it, but don’t feel forced to follow blindly. Talk to the teacher, write a message, give a private feedback. Everyone has the right to be guided and considered in the learning process. Be patient, it IS hard work for the teacher and for you.

Meanwhile… try and be your own teacher. Pick a shop or flight assistant whose face you like. Whom you feel comfortable to approach and talk to. Rehearse your question. Write it down. Go over and over the scene, consider all the “what ifs”, all the possible answers, scenarios… Then, jump. You will need to jump, but there is no shame in jumping safe. When you feel comfortable, level up – at your pace. Since you will probably feel like you failed, just don’t let that feeling stop you from trying again. Reconsider, overthink, re-rehearse. Try again. Don’t be afraid of opening your mouth with big motivation and deep focus, and… switching to English (or any other language you already mastered); or just… turn around and leave. The other person won’t think about you a second longer, so no worries. Nobody really cares. There is no shame in giving it a try within a “comfort spot” (and maybe fail). There is no shame in not wanting to speak for a long, looong time in the hope to “limit the damage”. Of course, be aware: it probably won’t be perfect anyways, your long-prepared question, speech or answer. But I think that, at that point, having done your best, you will be fine with your mistakes, right? Especially, if someone is there to help you to not make them again. And we are 😉

Oh, about that, teachers, please: we are not all over-excited about or feel entitled to speak up, speak our mind, share stories, group work, leave our comfort zone and put ourselves out there. Try to keep that in mind and adjust… It will be just fine.

Please, (Feel Free To) Be Quiet

Or: “Stop the madness of constant group work” (Susan Cain)

In order to learn how to speak a language, you need to speak. Don’t be afraid, don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Talk to and with people as much as you can. Try. Talk about yourself and what you like. Share. Try again. Do like children do.

Well, when I was three, I once (no, it was not a one time thing, actually) woke up and told my mom that “I won’t talk to anyone today.” – and I did. 20 years later, I passed a final exam with the best grades in the written part, and only good grades in the oral part. Why? I still wonder. But the professor claimed that “You are good, so why don’t you just speak your mind? The oral exam is about… talking.” 4 years later, SVEB course: let’s do group work. Yey. On Thursdays from 6 to 10 pm, it was silence time, meaning: I barely spoke for the entire 6-month course.

In order to learn how to speak a language, you need to speak. Well, my brain works best in silence, I really need to think twice (three, four times) before I share my thoughts or say something, or I won’t be happy with what comes out of my mouth (I am not happy anyway, but… I would like to limit the damage). I hate to be misunderstood (my opinion is often unpopular by the way,, so I know I will probably need to engage in a long, exhausting discussion leading to… not much except frustration). I absolutely dislike small talk and “round table” meetings, group brainstorming and role plays. My brains just black out. And hours later, I find myself writing down ideas, furiously (please note the chomskyan quote), regretting that I wasn’t even able to have them at the “right time”. Or didn’t want to share them: “If I only had said that…” (my favourite silent line at school when I wouldn’t say a word, even though I knew the answer, and someone else eventually got it… after four, five, six “whatever”-attempts).

And this happens… in my mother tongue. So, when it comes to learning a foreign language, I should be hopeless: I need to overcome my speaking-related issues in a language that I haven’t mastered… in order to learn how to speak that language. So, I’m doomed. Introverts – just to give myself and people like me a label – we are doomed.