I’m not literally a foreign language teacher, and certainly was not trained in FL pedagogy. But since I teach Middle English literature, and since many of my students find Middle English baffling, I often feel like I’m teaching a foreign language, though I am without portfolio (so to speak). Usually it’s the native-born monolinguals who have the hardest time; immigrants, heritage speakers, and students who have minors or majors in a FL pick up ME just fine. They’re used to code-switching, they have a better grasp of grammar, they have a sort of mental flexibility about language and its oddities. I’ve done a lot of reading about FL pedagogy, trying to figure out how to bring those techniques into what is supposed to be a traditional literature course.

Despite my efforts, there are two areas where my current (soon-to-be former) students are really struggling: verb endings (especially second and third-person singulars, thou goest and he goeth, for example), and clauses involving relative pronouns, especially when combined with inverted syntax of a sort common in poetry and even more common in ME (“Ask I you that listen that I say . . .” where the second that, in ME, translates to that which or what: “I ask you who listen to what I say . . . “). Not getting these points means that while my students can get the gist of their reading, they’re often shaky on who does what to whom. Because I’m really teaching literature rather than language, this is a problem. If you’re just trying to order in a restaurant, you can say “Querer un cafe” and the server will probably work out that you mean “quiero.” But if you’re analyzing poetry, you need to understand the forms of words and how they interact.

It’s possible that having a small class, this term, is distorting results: if I had this many students having these problems among a group of 70-odd, I wouldn’t worry about it. In a group of <20, however, the percentage of problems stands out.

If I have any readers who really are FL teachers (Z?), do you have any suggestions?

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2 thoughts on “I play one on TV

  1. I am a FL teacher and one of my research areas is pedagogy (I’m an applied linguist). I would suggest reconceptualizing what the problem is, e.g. “they don’t know who is going where/saying what” rather than “they don’t know verb endings/inverted syntax”. Then, focus on those questions: who is going where? who else is there? who is talking? what are they saying? Try having them act it out while reading the text aloud, and make sure the correct person is doing the action. Or make them describe what other people are doing in front of them. This does take longer (grammar is generally a shortcut for adult learners), so it would probably affect how many poems you could analyze. However, for students with low meta-linguistic awareness, focusing on the language-context connection can be more effective than relying on an understanding of language they don’t have. I hope this makes sense. If not, I can elaborate further 🙂

  2. Thank you! It’s long narrative poetry, not short-form, but the sort of focus you suggest, used on extracts early in the semester, might help. (As you note, grammar is a short-cut for adult learners, i.e. me, which is why I describe the problem via verb endings.)

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