What’s the best way to learn a language? Ask any language teacher, and odds are the answer will be immersion. But, what do teachers and students do when full immersion isn’t possible? If students are resistant to the target language? When singing songs in Spanish is “too babyish” or “silly?” When the teacher isn’t fluent enough in the target language to immerse students? (Foreign-language teachers seem to be in perpetual demand.) No learning scenario is perfect, so how do we do the best we can with the resources we have?
This post is the first in a series about historic Spanish teaching and learning methods. Our goal with this series is to answer the age-old question: How can we lower the effective barrier in order to learn/teach another language?
Before we begin, a caveat: there are hundreds, if not thousands, of examples of early primers, textbooks, readers, and similar resources in the world. While this series does not attempt to explore them all, it does attempt to survey early resources focused on the methods of teaching and learning languages and specifically the methods for native English-speakers. This myopic exploration most aligns with the goal we established above.
While teachers and learners often joke about the ghosts of technology past–VCRs, projectors, etc.–chances are that even the deepest recesses of schools’ supply closets won’t yield a phonograph. So, what do phonographs (pictured) have to do with teaching and learning Spanish?
In 1922, Máximo Iturralde published a book entitled The Iturralde Method (For the study of Spanish with the Aid of Phonographic Records). You can read the entire text from the Library of Congress. Long title aside, this book represents one of the first examples of teachers trying to incorporate technology into the language classroom.Would students benefit from immersion-only tactics? A focus on grammar and mechanics? A combination of both? Would phonograph technology help or hinder language acquisition?
To answer these questions, we must first address what the “basics” are. In the context of teaching, some might say the basics are difficult to pin down. For example, in some classrooms, the basics might be a teacher, textbooks, and stationery. In a full-immersion classroom, the basics might involve students, notebooks, and some pens or pencils (and maybe some refreshments for good measure). In a technology-driven environment, the basics might involve SMART board technology, computers, headphones, learning guides, and so on.
The things that do not change in the language classroom, the “true basics,” however, are language and the person or people trying to learn it. But, in order to avoid getting too granular by talking about morphology and the like, let’s just say the basics are the learner(s), the lexicon/language, grammar, and fluency, the latter of which is our goal.
Ultimately, for most teachers and students, some level of fluency is the goal of the language classroom. Fluency can be broken into four components. (These components are called different things by different disciplines and teachers, so we’ve streamlined the terms here.)
Oral Comprehension Fluency
Simply put, understanding what the learner is hearing, whether from a phonograph (ha!), another speaker, a teacher, a television program, etc.
Basically, recognizing and understanding whatever text in the target language, no matter the “container,” such as a piece of graffiti, a cartoon in a newspaper, a translated copy of Don Quixote, etc.
Essentially, producing speech that is comprehensible to others (i.e., orally comprehensible to others)
In short, producing understandable units of written language, such as words, sentences, paragraphs, etc.
So, back to that phonograph. Can technology that produces and records sounds, as the phonograph could, lower the effective barrier for language acquisition?
Máximo Iturralde synthesizes his conclusion quite nicely in the preface of his book. To quote, Iturralde argues: “The basic principle . . . which blends the material for conversation with essential rules of grammar, is the one which this work adopts” (p. 6).
On the same page, Iturralde goes on to argue that his adopted method of mixed immersion, meaning using the phonograph and in-class conversation combined with grammatical instruction, stands in contrast to conversation-only learning and what might be considered the more “traditional” methods of translation and composition. We discuss these other methods in the next posts.
Does technology, from the phonograph to the computer, help or hinder the language-learning classroom? Iturralde argues that technology has a place in the classroom but that completely abandoning grammar instruction reduces fluency in at least one, if not more, arenas. That means that, at least from Iturralde’s perspective, videos, online chatting, and so on are wonderful aids to language learning, but working through the finer points of the mechanics of language, whether with a teacher, a workbook, online exercises, or elsewhere, is necessary for most learners.
Is he correct? Will students eventually grasp the broader rules and concepts from the specifics, or are grammar lessons necessary? Let us know what you think by commenting below, and then join us in the next post as we investigate further.
Featured Image: Public Domain in United States of America. (ca. 1908). Woman, with Large bow in her Hair, Putting needle on record on phonograph. [Photograph]. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/96514245/.
Spanish Lesson Image: No Known Rights Restrictions in the United States:.(1929). Mayflower Hotel, language class, 1929. [Photograph]. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2016844352/.
Phonograph Image: No Known Rights Restrictions. Bain News Service, P. First Phonograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2014702526/.
Referenced text: Iturralde, M. (1922) The Iturralde method for the study of Spanish with the aid of phonographic records. New York, The Iturralde language method company. [PDF]. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/22003130/.