Why are languages being taught like math?

Within the past century there have been many great developments in language teaching, especially from American educators. And yet, the majority of foreign language courses taught in America and around the world are very much your standard grammar/translation course mixed in with “communicative” learning. While this is a very valuable method the major drawback is that it needs to be intensive in order to achieve good results. Your 50 minute high school Spanish class 3 times a week doesn’t count as intensive. Even with all of the worksheets assigned for homework.

So now I must ask the question; Why are languages being taught like math? And more importantly why are they being tested and graded like math?

Let’s do a little thought experiment.

Imagine you are in math class. Nothing too crazy, it’s just your typical fourth grade elementary school arithmetic.

Now like any good student you’ve been studying hard and doing a ton of practice problems on worksheets and from your textbook. Every problem is beautifully solved step by step. And like the perfect student you show each step of your work written out in your best penmanship.

You are well prepared for what’s about to come next. The math test. What’s on the test? Long division and multiplication. The test is an hour long with 100 questions.

But, unfortunately the copier in the teacher’s room is broken. So the teacher decides to give the exam orally. And you can’t write anything down. In fact, you have to do all of the math in your head and have to speak your answers aloud. You still have an hour and 100 questions.

Can you do it?

I imagine you won’t do very well unless you’ve been working with a private tutor or teaching yourself on how to do long division in your head.

That’s how many language classes work to prepare the learner for conversation. Most grammar focused courses are very good, but they rarely give the students the skills to do any real work in the language. Communicative classes try to address this issue but usually put the cart before the horse and miss the fine parts of understanding the language. Students say things without understanding.

Why are grammar classes good? Well, if you take a look at Chomsky’s recent works about languages, you’ll understand something very important. Language developed first as a method for thinking not communication. That came afterwards as a result.

However, it’s very hard to think in another language without acquiring the grammar. Grammar courses are focus on making you aware how the language works and how the forms change. Thinking only happens naturally when the brain acquires the grammar patterns and meaning with sounds.

Are they good at helping you acquire that internally? Depends on the class. If the class is heavy in comprehension, it’ll have stronger results. If it’s taught like a series of math puzzles, once the puzzle is solved there is less reason for the brain to retain the pieces of the puzzle.

Now let’s move back to our thought experiment. Acquiring a language is like acquiring another way to do mental math. You can’t simply understand the rules and apply them when in mid conversation. You must have it already internalized. Your brain must be trained to hold the capacity. The brain must process meaning and take mental notes in the language.

Many language courses are taught focused on reading and writing. And it’s done through the scope of  the mother tongue. Very little attention is given to understanding. Dialogue and conversation is stressed. Thinking is glanced over.  It is presented as a set of grammar rules to decode messages. And remembering all of these rules before the brain has fully acquired them causes too much strain on the mental capacities. Especially during an unrehearsed conversation.

Should we teach grammar? Absolutely.

Should languages be taught and tested like math?

What is the end goal?

One thought on “Why are languages being taught like math?

  1. Very interesting, Zachary. Thank you for sharing this concept of Chomsky: ‘Language developed first as a method for thinking not communication. That came afterwards as a result.’ Very thought provoking.

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