martes, 30 de septiembre de 2014

How we learn about languages, grammar and syntax

When Alex turned 6 this year, I made the decision to get registered as a home educator, which I regret because it means that at least once a year someone from the department of education will try to convince me that my children need to be motivated by me to learn, otherwise they won't. Since I last saw our moderator, I have continued to follow my own way of teaching, which is mainly to let the children self-direct their learning. But the hours of conversation I had with her were enriching, even if only to acknowledge how different our views on how children learn to read and write are. She was dubious about my ideas but was open to listen and asked me questions about how I planned to proceed. I must admit I couldn't give a satisfactory answer to all of her questions because it is too soon to know, the kids are still little. I think the best way to do it is to play it by ear and learn as we go. After all, the world is constantly changing and the way we educate children should also be changing.

One of her questions was: 'How will they learn grammar and syntax?' It was prompted after I had stated that I'm not going to sit down at the desk with them and formally teach them to read the way they do in schools. Instead, I will continue to read aloud to them as I've been doing since before they were born. And I will answer all their questions or help them search for the answers that I don't know. They now know how to type, a need that has arisen from playing games on their tablets and the X-box.

'I haven't thought of that yet,' I said. She gave me a look as if to say, 'Well, you should.' I did and even worried about it for two minutes, because it so happens that grammar is important to me. In fact, I'm a grammar buff, and English in particular is one of my favourite languages along with Spanish and Catalan because they're the ones I know best. I cringe when I hear native speakers of English say something costed so many dollars (the past of 'cost' is 'cost', irregular, except when it means to set a price for something), or that they were bought up instead of brought up, or that it's between you and I (wrong, it's between you and me, because it's a prepositional phrase and 'me' functions as an object), or 'Me and my son play' ('My son and I play' and we are both the subject of the sentence). For a while, it seemed that everyone on Facebook was expecting a new edition to their family. Aggrr! Every time I read that I felt their morning sickness myself. I guess I am allergic to grammatical errors, like the guy in this comic strip. When I go to Spain it's even worse. Sometimes I wish I was deaf so I wouldn't have to hear so many people savaging the language day in and day out. But then of course I see it in writing...


I thought: If I don't open the textbooks now and teach my kids grammar and syntax, will they be like all those sloppy speakers and writers? But wait, those people went to school! If they don't know what an adjective or a pronoun is, it's because they had no interest in knowing when they were forced to learn those things. So, of course they didn't learn them.

Because Dave and Alex are growing up bilingual they talk a bit funny sometimes. They've reached the point where their English is now better than their Spanish because we live in Australia and for most of the year the only Spanish they hear comes from me. They construct sentences in Spanish which are carbon copies of English and simply don't work. As I've always done, I repeat the sentence in correct Spanish, but I've started to point out to them that Spanish syntax can be quite different from English and you can't finish a sentence with a preposition, as in 'This is the pencil I wrote the letter with.' Last night Dave said to me, 'Of course I can. I just did it.' (I love it!). I said, 'But it sounds funny because that's not how people say it in Spanish.'

Back in April when the moderator raised the 'grammar problem', I checked what they were teaching in school at years 1 and 3, which are the ones Dave and Alex would be in if they went to school, and again I considered most of it to be irrelevant and a waste of time. So I didn't give it a second thought.

As with everything, I have found out that I don't need to worry about how the kids will learn their grammar because they have naturally started to wonder why we speak the way we do. All children tend to regularise language, and that's why they say 'I buyed' and 'I sleeped' instead of 'I bought' and 'I slept'. In linguistics this is called analogy. Spanish verbs are a lot more irregular than English ones, so Dave and Alex make a lot of these common mistakes out of a natural attempt to regularise language. I am not constantly correcting them like I see other parents do (I find this very annoying, especially when the parents are sloppy speakers themselves). I am confident that they will one day speak proper Spanish just by following my example. But one day, not too long ago, Alex pointed out to me that I had said something which he believed to be incorrect. To illustrate it, it was something like this: 'You said 'loose' instead of 'lost'.' I said to him, 'That's correct. 'Loose' is an adjective and 'lost' is the past of 'lose' which is a verb.' And I thought: Eureka! This is how they will learn their grammar. How could I have thought, even for a second, that my very curious and self-motivated children wouldn't question the way we use language.

Since Mar has been with us --three months now-- our discussions about languages and grammar have become even more interesting. A few weeks ago we decided that the three of us would speak only English to her because it seemed that in school she wasn't learning English as fast as one would have expected. This proved to be an excellent idea. The three of them adjusted to the new plan willingly. Mar started asking questions that she had been too shy to raise in school. Every day she asks at least twenty questions about how things are said in English, and we all answer them. The boys sometimes say, 'That's just the way it is,' and I say, 'Because in Spanish the verb 'to be' has two forms, so there is only one word for 'boring' and 'bored'; the distinction is made by the verb, not the adjective like in English.' We used to laugh when she said she was boring, but she now says she's bored. She even gets my silly jokes when she says she's hungry and I say, 'Hello, Hungry.' And the three of them hear me talk about adjectives, verbs, nouns, past and present... Mar has difficulty with the verbs 'make' and 'do' which in Spanish and Catalan are expressed with only one word. Dave and Alex usually correct her about this. Alex will say, 'You use make when you actually build something, like making a cake, but you don't make a cartwheel because where is it? I can't touch it.' Dave says, 'Actually, you bake a cake.' And I chip in with, 'But you make a speech, which you can't touch either, but you can listen to.'

Mar also helps the boys with their Spanish, although she's got some typical native bad speaking habits of her own. She tells them about the things that are literal translations of English and don't work in Spanish. For example, in Spanish people are not years old, but have years. They are also now used to hearing Mar and me speaking Catalan (when we slip back to it). We know Dave understands everything we say because he usually butts in the conversation. Alex laughs at the new words he hears and says things like: 'Mummy you said 'plat'. Not 'plate' or 'plato' but 'plat!'

I'm doing the same as always: just answering their questions, still not using textbooks, and reading and writing for the love of it. And learning all the time. A few months ago I started teaching myself Italian and I can now hold a conversation and understand everything that is said to me in that language. The children hear me practicing and they laugh and even copy me. I think I might tackle Chinese next.