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.