What do you do the first week of class?

Here’s what I do. On the first day I enter the classroom right on time, smile at the students, put my stuff on the table and write my name and other info on the board. Usually the students are silent; they don’t know each other yet, and for some of them this is their first time in a college class. Then I turn around, smile at the students again and say “Buongiorno!” and motion for them repeat “Buongiorno, professore!” I reiterate in English what I wrote on the board and then I call roll. I smile at each student and ask him or her why he or she is taking Italian. If a student is at a loss for words, I ask “curiosity, you love languages, you need credits, your life would be empty if you didn’t know Italian?” They all chuckle. This sets the tone. I’m in charge, serious about them learning Italian and well organized but they can see right off the bat that I’m fun-loving. And they find out immediately that they are not anonymous faces in a full room. Each one has name and a voice. Each one is special. After roll call I ask, “Do you guys want to read the syllabus now, or shall we do some Italian?” The answer is invariably “Do some Italian!” and I start the Lezioni Preliminari that I have thoughtfully prepared over the years. I tell them to get out a pencil and paper and get ready to write down everything I write on the board. As I write I pronounce the Italian and translate it bit by bit, and ask them to repeat every so often. When I’m done with the first chunk of language I ask them if they have any questions. Then I say, “OK, now stand up and have this conversation (the one we just wrote on the board) with at least five different people! By the time you get to the fifth person you’ll know it by heart!” They are amazed, but they do it. All of a sudden the classroom is noisy and raucous as 50 nineteen-year-olds get busy introducing themselves, smiling at each other, shaking hands, saying “Sorry, gotta go now” and going on to the next person. The conversation is all in Italian, but it goes like this:

—Good morning, sir/ma’am.
My name is Dave Pardess.
What is your name?
—My name is Joe/Lisette García.
(We shake hands while we say…)
—It’s a pleasure.
—The pleasure’s mine.
(I look at my watch and make a sorrowful face.)
—Well, I have to go now.
—Me, too.
—See you later.

We do as much of the Lezioni Preliminari in this fashion as time allows. About fifteen minutes before class ends, I pass out the xeroxed Lezioni Preliminari packets so they can see and read what we’ve done in black and white. I distribute these packets free of charge so we can get right to work the first week of class. I tell them to make sure they buy the text materials at the student store by the beginning of the next week. I take care of adds right after class, and invariably at least one student tells me “This class is so much fun. I can’t believe I learned so much in one day. I can’t wait for the next class. Thank you so much, professore.”
At the next class meeting we have fun doing more of the Lezioni Preliminari and then we read the syllabus (except for some technical info) as a class. In fact, the students do all the reading by taking turns, and “snaking” around the room. I also have students fill out a student info sheet, which I collect to get to know more about each one and how to contact them if the need arises.

A Short History of Approaches to Teaching Foreign Languages

This is how I understand it. Please correct me if I’m wrong. One of the old fashioned methods—the Grammar-Translation Method—was originally used for teaching Latin and Greek, both of them highly inflected languages. The idea was for students to learn some grammar and some vocabulary so they could read and translate into English a literary text written by one of the Classical authors and then go on to do the same for other such texts. At that time, knowing Latin and Greek was the hallmark of a cultured, highly educated European or American. Modern French and German were originally taught using the Grammar-Translation Method because it was felt that the goal was to be able to read French and German literature in the original. If a person wanted to learn to speak the language they could hire a tutor or go live, work or study for a while in the country where the language was spoken. A few people were auto-didacts, i.e., people who could teach themselves a language and how to communicate in it. Before World War II, universities in the western world taught all foreign languages more or less using the Grammar-Translation Method. During the war, American military personnel were taught phrases in French, German, Italian, etc., to help them function in European countries. I still have my uncle’s government issue French Phrase Book. After the war, it was felt for the first time that language learners should be taught to speak the language while learning to read and write it. To force instructors to give spoken language top priority, the Audio-Lingual Method or Aural-Oral Method of the 60’s was mandated for most American high schools. Although the totality of my high school French was traditionally taught, I learned German and Spanish with textbooks from the Holt, Rinehart and Winston aural-oral series such as Verstehen und Sprechen and Entender y Hablar. After I caught on that it was all memorization I aced every test and my high school GPA began to soar! I was such a fanatic that I bought personal copies of all my language textbooks at a local bookstore in San Pedro and also all the A-LM (Harcourt, Brace and World’s Audio-Lingual Materials) textbooks that they used in the Palos Verdes USD, and I still have all of them! When I got to UCLA the college versions of the Audio-Lingual method were being used in a few departments, but not in the Department of French. UCLA professors Oreste Pucciani and Jacqueline Hamel had written Langue et Langage, an all-French textbook based on the theories and practices of Pucciani’s high school French teacher Ferdinand de Sauzé, which had been dubbed the Direct Method. The Direct Method was in vogue at UCLA and at Cal and Stanford (Jian and Hester’s Découverte et Création) for decades. In Direct Method classes the instructor never uttered a word in English. English was totally banned from the classroom from day one. Students had to answer instructors’ questions in French and then go up and write their answers on the board. The textbooks were grammar driven and logically ordered so that students were always learning new grammar and vocabulary based on that of previous lessons. It worked for many students, but not all. Several of my fraternity brothers frequently asked me for help with grammar and vocab. Direct Method works for French because of the huge number of cognates French and English share. It is more of a challenge to teach the other Romance languages via DM. I have the German version, Deutsch durch Deutsch, but I don’t think it was a big seller. Even though English and German are both Germanic languages, the big words in German are usually opaque to English speakers. Compare the French word ‘conversation’ with the German equivalent ‘Unterhaltung’. I took a summer course at UCLA on teaching via the Direct Method and the instructor assured me that it was the best way to teach any of the world’s languages. I sensed that that was bogus right off. Just try explaining Japanese SOV syntax and turn-of-phrase to English speakers in Japanese with no recourse to English. What a waste of time! Right up until the 1980’s, American universities tried to get through all the verb tenses in European languages in the first year, which left little or no time for students to talk to one another in class. Oreste Pucciani once said something like “Oh, no. We don’t want them to talk to each other in class; they’ll teach each other their mistakes!” Those who wanted to speak the language were provided with an optional year of conversation classes they could take while continuing second-year study of the language. In the mid 1980’s the Communicative Approach of Tracy Terrell (UCSD), partially based on the theories of Stephen Krashen (USC), swept the nation. Students were expected to study grammar before coming to class so they could spend class time doing Activities. To keep students’ anxiety levels down, instruction began with a rather long Silent Period, during which students could absorb the language with their Affective Filters (or “guards”) down and mostly respond physically instead of verbally to the instructor and textbook (Total Physical Response or TPR). After the Silent Period students could speak, but their utterances were not to be corrected (at least directly) by the instructor. The goal was to get students to speak the language even if they weren’t sure their grammar was perfect. Communicative Approach textbooks contained a huge amount of vocabulary. Tracy Terrell’s reasoning was that since most students take only one year of a language, they cannot be expected to speak error free, and that exposing them to a lot of vocabulary would make it possible for them to understand the answers of native speakers. Some of my good students told me that they were frustrated because they were never quite sure what they were saying was correct and were therefore hesitant to speak. After a year or two of teaching via the Communicative Approach, I decided to do my own thing, and I got vastly better results. The current in-vogue approach seems to be Flipping the Classroom, which means that students learn on their own by studying grammar, vocabulary and culture online before coming to class and doing mostly group work during class time with the instructor acting largely as consultant. I have tried this student-centered approach in two community college classes. For Spanish 1 it seemed to work kind of OK, but I suspect it was because many of the students had already had a year or two of high school Spanish. Most of them did not prepare for class. In Italian 1 it was a train wreck for multiple reasons, and I made the decision to switch methods mid-semester. I, for one, do not appreciate being forced to use any methodology I determine will not bring superior results. We are not university Teaching Assistants who are required to use current departmental methodology to teach mostly highly motivated students. I think we need text- and maybe cyber- materials that will give us the freedom to best serve the needs of our CC students.

Q & A: What’s your idea of an ideal textbook?

—Should a textbook be grammar driven? Could a textbook possibly be culture driven?
—As a linguist I shudder at the thought of a textbook being culture driven. What a mess!
—Should the presentation of grammar topics be logically sequenced?
—Definitely. I couldn’t believe it when I heard Stephen Krashen once say not to teach each verb tense separately but rather to use forms from any tense at any time for any purpose. Can you imagine the confusion and frustration most of our students of Indo-European and Semitic languages would experience if we did that? (I am told that Chinese verbs have neither conjugations nor tenses. Yes!)
—Do students prefer that every section of a textbook be in the same format or do they prefer that the formats of presentations and activities be “changed up”?
—I don’t think it really matters. I say use the format that best makes the grammatical structure clear and easy to learn
—How important is contextualization, i.e., enabling students to use what they’ve learned to converse or compose at length on a given topic?
—I think contextualization is a great way to present grammar interwoven with vocabulary. I look back at textbooks in which every example sentence in a given section just illustrated the grammar at hand. If you read the sentences one after the other they are all separate thoughts; they don’t tell a story. I think contextualization makes more sense.
—What topics do first-year students find interesting and fun to talk and write about?
—Here are some topics I use to introduce the grammar—especially verb tenses and modes—to elementary-level students: describing their language class, instructor and classmates; describing family and friends and their activities; student life; plans for the future; their house or the house of their dreams; everything about food; interpersonal relationships; the daily routine of an adult; what they did over break; their family history; how they feel about things in the present; what people want or don’t want to happen now or in the future; how to tell people what to do and what not to do; how they feel now about things that happened in the past; how they felt in the past about things that happened in the past; daydreaming about the present and future; hindsight about things that happened in the past; what a person could, would or should do, what a person could have, would have or should have done, etc. If you teach a Romance language you can probably sense that these themes follow a logical sequencing of the verb tenses and modes.
—Should there be lots of example sentences and mini-conversations in a textbook?
—Definitely. Some of our students that have trouble seeing patterns in language have compensated by becoming awesome memorizers, and they have to have something to memorize.
—How important are photographs?
—I love them. As a student I was inspired to go to Europe by the black and white photos in my first French book, Le français, by Frédéric Ernst and Sylvia Narins Levy.
—How important are drawings? When I used Dos Mundos and Deux Mondes for the first time back in the mid-80’s I found artist Sally Richardson’s line drawings charming and amusing and sometimes useful for in-class activities. But artwork should never be so extensive that it draws attention away from the language.
—What kinds of activities do students find interesting and fun?
—Interviewing each other, i.e., asking each other personal questions seems to be the most direct way of stimulating conversation. I’m not sure they like a constant diet of it, though.
—How important is personalization, i.e., enabling the students use what they have learned to talk to each other about themselves, their families and their friends?
—Well, since that’s what they know and care about and what they’re probably going to talk about a lot in the future, I think it’s very important and a great medium for the learning of vocabulary and grammar
—What should an end-of-book vocabulary contain and how detailed should it be?
—I think there should be both a The Language-to-English vocabulary and an English-to- The Language vocabulary. Some books exclude the latter and I find that irritating. I think the vocabularies should include example sentences in cases where further clarification of meaning is necessary
—What should the appendices contain?
—Among other things, well organized but compact listings of regular verbs, regular verbs with spelling changes, frequently used irregular verbs like ‘to be’ and ‘to have’, and irregular verbs, and instead of showing all the tenses and modes of any given verb on one page, the divisions should go tense by tense. Do all verbs in the present tense first. In another section do all of them in one of the past tenses, and so on. And since these lists are going to be used for reference and not for teaching they can be listed more compactly by stringing the forms rather than putting them in the traditional boxes. Here’s an example of a perfectly adequate listing of the forms of the present indicative of the Italian verb andare (to go): andare: vado, vai, va, andiamo, andate, vanno
—Does having to turn the book sideways to read the tables annoy you?
—Big time! And the tiny sans sérif type is hard even for young people to read.
—Should topicalized “Extra Vocabulary” be included in the appendices?
—I think so, because, for the food chapter especially, lists of meats, fowl, fish, vegetables, fruits and other foods can go on interminably. So to have more complete lists grouped by category in one of the appendices for reference purposes would shorten the food chapter to a more manageable size so you can get through it in less time.

Assigning a Final Course Mark

Some instructors create elaborate points schemes for determining final course marks. These schemes might include, attendance, participation, homework, and lab attendance in addition to quiz, test, midterm and final exam grades. That’s a lot of record keeping and calculating for an instructor, especially for an instructor who is teaching 15 units or more. What criteria do you use to assign students their final course mark? What do you think of basing final course marks solely on proof that students have learned the material and the skill or using it for communication. Might the averaging of Scantron (true/false, multiple choice) unit tests with their objective little purple score in the right hand corner of the form be a much simpler way of assigning a final course mark? Consider this: I have had students who have been absent many times prove to me that they have somehow learned the material and the skill to use it for communication. Should I penalize them for having been absent? I have had students with psychological conditions never say a word in class and have a hard time doing group activities but come up with stunning results. Do I lower their grade for not having participated actively in class activities? Some of my students rarely do their homework, seeming to soak up everything they need to be successful in class. How about students who never go to the lab because their class and work schedules conflict with the lab’s operating hours? I have learned to be flexible and and base final course marks on results, not points. What are your thoughts?


Is homework absolutely necessary? What kinds of homework assignments produce the best results? Do you have time to correct homework the students write out on paper and hand in to you for correction? Do you assign homework from the web site so you don’t have to personally correct much or anything? (Ooh!) How can you make sure students are not having someone else more knowlegable do their online assignments? Do you assign compositions? At what point in the term? How many drafts? Do you give the students prompts for their compositions? Do they follow them? Do you suspect that some students may write their compositions in English and run them through Google Translate? Do you grade based on points or on results? Have you heard students asking “Professor, do we get points for this?” and then mumbling to a classmate, “If we don’t get points I’m not doing it.” Do you detest the word ‘points’ as much as I do? A good book to read on the topic of points is Punishment by Rewards by Alfie Kohn.

Current Textbooks

What is the organizing principle behind this new wave of textbooks? Why are the big publishing houses cranking out tome after tome of textbooks that force instructors to flip their classrooms and depend on publishers’ web sites? Who told them that would be a good idea? Are publishing houses jumping on the bandwagon just to make a fast buck while the fad lasts? (Is it a fad?) Have you used a textbook that requires a flipped classroom and student-centered learning? How has that worked out? Were you able to tweak it if it didn’t work out? Are textbooks designed for university students always (or ever) appropriate for CC students? How have publishers’ computer web sites worked out for you? Would you prefer a flexible textbook that would allow each instructor the freedom to conduct her or his classes in a way that is of greatest benefit to the students? I would.

The Language Laboratory

The language lab was conceived in the 1950’s and gained popularity in the 1960’s mainly because most students didn’t have personal tape recorders, and anyway the pre-recorded tapes were not readily available to students for take-home use. The Audio-Lingual method was in vogue, and the lab was a place where students could go to put on headphones, listen, repeat, memorize, and drill, drill, drill. Sometimes an instructor would sit at a console in front of a group of students wearing headphones and peering through the plastic windows at the front of their carrels. (If you google the Wikipedia article Language Lab you can see a picture of such.) You never knew when he or she was listening in on you and what they would say or do if you messed up. My first experience with a language lab was as a freshman at UCLA in 1967-68. I was taking Russian for majors because I wanted to be “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” Each week the assignment was to memorize a new dialog of ten to twenty lines from the book Modern Russian. The dialogs were “real language” and right from the start contained different verb tenses and noun and adjective cases. Russian grammar is extremely complicated for an English speaker, so it was impossible to make generalizations from the dialogs so you could formulate your own original sentences. There were also repetition drills, pattern drills, singular to plural drills, pronunciation drills, and more drills. (I must admit I didn’t really mind the drills.) The Russians had beaten us in the space race by putting the first satellite—“Sputnik”—into orbit, and we were frantic to learn Russian so we could compete better in the Cold War. The Russian language lab seemed to be modeled on a communist dictatorship and we were like prisoners in a gulag being brainwashed. Seriously, what I wound up doing was going to the lab once for each chapter so I could see how to pronounce the words of the dialog sentences for that chapter (Russian has a lot of vowel reduction). Then I would go home and study and memorize the dialog so I could get an A on the test. I never used a language lab for any language after that. L.A. Mission College didn’t have a campus for the first sixteen years of its existence; our classes were scattered all over the northeast San Fernando Valley. So we never built a language lab. Instead we got permission from the publishers to copy their cassettes for student home use. During a conversation at UCLA in the mid-80’s Tracy Terrell, principal author of Dos Mundos, told me that listening to recorded material was useful only to practice aural comprehension. Some people use the lab for testing. One advantage of that is that students are in carrels and can’t copy other students’ answers. What kinds of items are on such tests? T/F, multiple choice, matching, fill-ins, writing sentences from dictation, answering written questions with original full sentences, or? It has been said that a lab is a meeting place for language students. For what purposes? In a lab they work alone in carrels with headphones on. With the advent of PCs and the net, are language laboratories a relic of the past? Many students say they go to lab only because they are forced to. They prefer to use their personal computers on their own time. Also, it is hard to justify staffing the language lab when very few students ever go there. Somebody please tell us how to make the language lab fun so students will want to go there.