Grammar Is Still Just Grammar

Babilonia Taormina, Sicily

If I had high hopes they would have come crashing down this morning. For all the director’s fancy talk of communicative lessons, the grammar lessons was pretty traditional with a communicative speaking activity thrown in at the end for good measure.

This lesson happened to be the future tense. Our homework from yesterday consisted of conjugating the verbs in parenthesis in a given paragraph into the future tense. A very lengthy discussion ensued over the formation and spelling of the future tense. Unfortunately very little was mentioned about the actual usage of the tense. And really isn’t that one of the most important aspects? Just when is the future tense actually used?

Our communicative activity was amusing but not much more instructive. We worked in pairs and in turn pretended we were fortune tellers and predicted our partner’s future. Great. I now know that if I decide to become a fortune teller I should use the future tense.

Really for me this is one of the most frustrating aspects of language learning. They teach you the most obvious usage of any given tense but ignore the complexity of how the tenses fit together and are really used in daily life. It is not enough to say that the future is used for the future. We say in English “I will call you tomorrow” – future tense, “he arrives tomorrow” – present tense and “I’m going to see him tomorrow” – present progressive. They all occur in the future, but all have a slightly different meaning and are not necessarily interchangeable.

How it works in Italian, I don’t know. I can only hope that this is just the introductory lesson and that they WILL get to the actual usage of the future tense tomorrow.

Unlike many of my classmates I started this course knowing a fair amount of Italian grammar, but had next to no actually speaking practice. The first day of class, yesterday, it felt like everyone was more fluent than me, not that that surprised me. Why should I think that I can speak Italian when I’ve never actually spoken the language? What did surprise me was just how much some of them struggled with trying to use the future tense to predict their partner’s future.

After telling our partner’s fortune to our partner, we each had to tell our partner’s future to the class. This is a good teaching strategy, allowing the student to practice a speech act in a small group before having to perform in front of the class. Our teacher took notes, and after everyone was finished she wrote our sentences that contained errors on the board. I personally don’t catch many of my classmates’ errors and found it interesting just how many errors there were and how many of them weren’t really using the future tense at all. These same classmates that sounded so fluent yesterday.

This got me thinking about language fluency and trying to improve one’s accuracy. When we start to become fluent, we can communicate our ideas but we make a lot of errors. If we are not careful these errors become ingrained and it becomes very difficult to improve our accuracy. You could probably speak Italian or any language without ever using the future tense and be understood in most situations. It therefore becomes a real effort to slowdown your fluency to work on your accuracy.

For others it is just the reverse. We are so hung-up on working on our accuracy that we lose fluency, making listening to us tedious. It’s therefore important to balance the two aspects – fluency and accuracy. This is what the director is trying to do by dividing the classes into analysis and practice. A time to slow down and pay attention to accuracy and a time to stop thinking about the grammar and speak your mind.

For links to all the posts in this series see the Taormina, Sicily page.