Friday, July 11, 2008

Worksheets are SO passé

Recently I invited someone to learn Spanish with a group of friends, by attending a very fun event that repeats regularly, which happens almost entirely in Spanish, and involves learning something useful and new. I know that the person I invited is at least moderately interested in learning the skill in question. He is also rather desperate to learn Spanish, for personal (romantic) reasons. Attendance in the event in question certainly involves a commitment (one hour per week minimum), but does not cost anything other than time.

The [lame] excuse I received was: "I don't have time. I only have limited free time, and I want to learn Spanish before I learn anything else."

To be fair, I will credit the person with ignorance. He is, after all, a monolingual American who has not had a fair chance to learn a second language. Chances are, his first exposure to Spanish was either in jr. high and high school, and perhaps he never thought seriously about learning until, I would venture to guess, he met Hispano-parlante people of interest, either at work or in the ever-amorphous landscape of a twenty-first century personal life. Now, highly motivated to learn, and approaching middle age, he finds himself in (what my dad would have called) a bind, or a pickle.

I am not one to use coercion to get people involved in something new. However, I have resorted to begging. In this particular case, I resolved to engage in neither. I will take out my frustration in this situation through what the blogging world may refer to as a vent, by just letting loose with the conviction that worksheets for learning a new language are SO passé.

Sometimes I feel like taking someone by the shoulders and shaking him and asking, ever so gently, "How did your mama teach you English in the first place, son?" I don't know about you, but my mama taught me English by talking to me. Listening to me. Laughing with (and sometimes at) me. By saying prayers, tucking me in at night, kissing me goodnight, and fixing me breakfast in the morning. You better believe I was dreaming in English by the time I was knee high to a grasshopper. And if it worked for me and my mama, it'll work for you.

Spanish worksheets are boring. I feel that I am well qualified to make such a bold assertion. After all, I started studying Spanish by doing worksheets. And I admit that there is certainly some merit in practicing a grammar point ad nauseum, or in writing out in longhand all the conjugations of a verb. I often encourage my students to write things down or to make flashcards or use repetition to the benefit of their memory skills.

However, the idea that a classroom or a textbook are the only (or best) ways to learn a language are illusions created and supported by this public school nation. Worksheets are busywork. They are easy to reproduce. They are easy to grade. They keep large groups of human beings occupied, during the dangerous, hormonally-charged and politically raging period of adolescence and young adulthood. Worksheets have their time and place, to be sure. Without them, young men and women might get married a lot younger, and our society would perhaps look very different. I am not entirely dismissing the validity of the occasional worksheet. Currently, I pay 10 cents a page, and confess in all contrition that over a twelve year teaching career, I have singlehandedly destroyed a small rainforest, which my FaceBook friends are only beginning to replant with their little green patch requests.

But don't let me mislead you. I hazard to say that you will not learn as much Spanish as you may want or probably need by just doing worksheets. Some things in this life have to be learned with hands, heart, ears, feet, mouth, and intestines. You may have heard that the way to a man's heart is through his stomach. I don't know about that. My husband, bless his heart and his stomach, will eat just about anything I throw at him. That's one reason I married him--he's someone who likes my cooking. But I think that the way to a man's linguistic centers in his cerebral cortex may also be through his estómago. Anyway, it's a good reason to avoid Taco Bell in favor of the little Mexican places in your neighborhood, like La Rancherita (Hobart/New Chicago), or El Amigo (Valpo), or "Nuevo León" (Pilsen, Chicago). Or wherever you live.

Be brave. Join the Spanish Sigh Club. And let's hear your susurros and your gritos en español. As a language learner and as a teacher, I can only summarize the evidence I have witnessed with my own ears. My best students' success stories, and my proudest linguistic moments, have not been in a classroom. Spanish, like English, like Chinese, like Swahili, like Catalán, belongs in the real world. Get out there and use your skills, baby. Let's see how you sound in another language.

Te estoy escuchando,
Señora F.

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