Desired Side-Effects of a Bilingual Approach


by Wolfgang Butzkamm, Aachen University (RWTH), Germany

One of the desired side-effects of a bilingual approach (notably, the sandwich-technique, see my earlier contributions or Wikipedia) is to allow teachers to use authentic texts sooner. Here are two examples of Peanuts cartoons I used with a group of grade 4 primary students in Germany. One of them starts out as follows:

Linus: “School President?  Me?”
Lucy: “Why not? I’ll be your campaign manager.”

In the other one Linus says: “I’m an average pupil in an average school. What’s wrong with being average?”

Because of the will-future and the gerund both texts would be considered too difficult for beginners. But they are not difficult at all, although German expresses these ideas differently. For “I’ll be your campaign manager” I simply gave an idiomatic translation plus a brief explanation with a literal translation:

Teacher: “Ich mach / ich bin dein Wahlkampfmanager. Im Englischen heißt es nicht „ich bin“, sondern „ich werde sein“, um anzuzeigen, dass sich Lucys Versprechen auf die Zukunft bezieht. Wir können uns das im Deutschen sparen, weil wenn man etwas verspricht, sich dies immer auf Zukünftiges bezieht.“ (= In English it is not „I am…“ but “I’ll be…” in order to show that Lucy’s promise refers to the future. In German, we can do without this because  promises always refer to the future).

That was all the grammar they needed at the time, and the children acted the sketch out with verve and enthusiasm. So why not use a future tense or a past tense form in the very first English dialogue?  Didn’t we learn the ideas of pastness and future time roughly at the age of three? And why not use a useful phrase like  ”I don’t know” right away which Germans can easily handle? The mother tongue has paved the way although German doesn’t use do-negation. But a literal translation is all we need to clarify the construction.

In a British context, a teacher of German once remarked that many students never learned to say “Ich hätte gern ‘ne Cola” (which is normal for “I’d like a coke, please”), because “hätte”is subjunctive, and since most pupils dropped German after two years, they never got as far as the subjunctive. But we could use this phrase in the very first lesson of German, couldn’t we? The error – too much emphasis on grammatically graded texts –  seems to be world-wide. I’m not saying that grammatical grading should completely be given up. But we should take a fresh look at it. The thin language soup served up to beginners is the price paid for the mother tongue taboo.

The mother tongue taboo, or a watered down version of it, must go. It is self-crippling. Yet it still seems to be the mainstream philosophy, which I find scandalous. Well, as John Maynard Keynes wrote: “The difficulty lies, not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones…”

For further  discussion see the article “We only learn language once. The role of the mother tongue in FL classrooms. Death of a dogma”, downloadable here.

3 responses to “Desired Side-Effects of a Bilingual Approach

  1. “The thin language soup served up to beginners is the price paid for the mother tongue taboo.”
    Die Misere des FU meisterhaft zusammengefasst!

  2. This also goes back to learning in chunks. In German lesson 1, no one would ever try to explain “Guten Tag” as “Tag is masculine, and here the word ‘gut’ is declined in the accusative case…”, but rather as a chunk of language the underlying grammatical aspects of which you might realize later. Teaching “Ich hätte gern” right in the beginning is no different. These could be taught in the beginning and the underlying concepts explained later. Beginner courses are all about learning to communicate as much as possible and becoming functional without a huge vocabulary to work with.

  3. In the same vein, Jim Scrivener argues for analysing the concepts behind grammatical constructions.

    For instance, to convey the meanng of “I had the car repaired” learners can choose sentences that contain the essential meaning of the sentence:
    I repaired the car.
    I bought the car.
    Someone repaired the car.
    The car had an accident.
    I used to have a car.
    I didn’t repair the car myself.

    I leave it up to you to work out the fitting sentences ;-).

    Once you have the statements, it’s simple enough to turn them into concept questions which allows a more interactive approach in the classroom:
    Did someone repair the car?
    Did I arrange for this to happen? …

    Once the core meaning is understood and transparent to learners, the slots can be changed, but the concept sentences still work (e.g. I had my hair cut.)
    Source: Scrivener, Jim. 2005. Learning Teaching. Oxford: MacMillan. p. 219f.

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