By Hugh Gilmore
Ah grammar! Glorious, beautiful, wonderful grammar shyly comes like rosy-fingered dawn shedding light into the dim folds of my eastern temporal lobes. I can think, I can feel, I can smile, and good gosh almighty – at last! – I’m free again: I can look Profesor Needham in the eye and answer his Spanish questions!
Grammar brings logic, system, means and method to the most terrible aspect of my sitting in Cheltenham Township Adult School’s Spanish I class: my teacher’s insistence on clinging to that barbaric technique practiced by nearly all foreign language teachers everywhere – pointing a finger at you and demanding that you give a correct answer to a question you don’t understand in a language you don’t know.
When pointed at and called on, I found being wrong, and wrong so often, embarrassing. I felt my face blushing. When I feel my ears warm, I know I’m turning red. Then my confidence and common sense abandon my brain the way the bats fly en masse from Carlsbad Cavern at dusk. And there I’d sit: a big, useless, burning lump of red.
And so, as our Middlebury-trained teacher came down the line I reflexively looked for a place to hide. Or played with the temptation to leave for the lavatory with stomach cramps. Or fantasized that I could be publicly crabby enough to say, “Please don’t call on me again. I’ll volunteer if I know the answer.” But I did none of those things.
What I did was, as students everywhere do when they don’t know the answer and the teacher is moving up and down the room, mowing everyone down like Old Father
Time with his scythe, I faked The Rapture.
I avoided all eye contact with the teacher. I narrowed my eyes and gazed at the board with intense concentration – as though I needed to get only one more thing straight –
before I stood up and became the star of the class. Boy oh boy, was I ever into this! It would be downright rude to call on someone experiencing The Rapture, wouldn’t it?
Did my sham work? Of course not. Conscientious teachers are going to call on everyone as a means of censusing whether the students are “getting it” or not. I could have saved him the trouble. Please, Profesor, don’t make me join your game of dodgeball with live grenades.
My situation made me realize that back when I was a teacher I always thought that the students who avoided eye contact in class were tipping off that they hadn’t done their homework. Now I sympathized – perhaps they were prepared, but merely sought to avoid embarrassment of being a performing parrot.
Until grammar was finally introduced to our class last week, we’d had no tools to figure out the correct response to the questions we were asked. One either remembered the exemplar spoken and then written on the board or one didn’t. In that situation one is only as good as his memory.
And if I’m sitting in a classroom feeling nervous and anxious already, my memory is only too happy to part company with such an unworthy person. I cannot sit still when I’m tense and remember the exact wording of a sentence you told me a moment ago.
Thus, when grammar finally raised its lovely head in our class, it felt like I’d been given a glorious cheat-sheet. The tyranny of memory gave way to the helpfulness of system. Given a Spanish sentence, I could figure out a noun’s gender and number. I could distinguish the speaker from the “spoken to.” Given a verb I could determine those same things and also know when the action had happened. Subtleties of meaning now arose from syntax and adjectives and adverbs.
And the process could be reversed. Given grammatical rules and the roots of words one could generate fresh new sentences. One could utter things, whether mundane or beautiful, that had never been said before in the history of the world. At the very least one could order a ham sandwich and a beer and have a reasonable expectation of having a ham sandwich and beer brought to his table. Hallelujah! Let’s hear it for grammar.
Every possible sentence in the Spanish-speaking world no longer had to be memorized individually. Furthermore learning systems brings joy to the brain. The brain loves systems. So much so, that when we don’t need them for work or for getting around, we play with them.
All games are based on systems – sets of rules applied to new combinations of variables, resolved and settled through the applications of the rules. Music, math, writing and speaking, even. And what are sports, other than systems where the variables constantly change because they need to accommodate the differences in the size, speed and agility of the other bodies competing against our body.
Since grammar stepped in, curtsied, and led the way, my learning curve has leaped ahead. If I were a stock I would buy me. The process of acquiring new words, although it requires memory, has been speeded up, since I now have new mental file folders to place the vocabulary in. I’m also learning how to interpret the sentences of others and generate ones of my own, since I understand, at least basically, the rules by which they are constructed.
Accompanying this new confidence has been a sense of joy. And it’s not just based on my getting closer to the goals I set. My joy derives from the process itself. For the brain, learning a new language is as pleasurable as treating the body to a sauna and massage.
I still resent the basic system that gives teachers the feeling that have the seigneurial right to compel you to speak, even if you don’t want to, or have nothing useful to say. There’s something offensively “master-slave” about the setup. It lacks mutual respect. (After all, I’m a grownup and a volunteer. My garage mechanic doesn’t demand I name the parts of the carburetor. He shares his knowledge when I ask.)
However, since grammar entered my Spanish mental life – and despite the little annoyances – I bound out of class every Monday night feeling happy. A kind of Spanish-tinted buoyancy marks everything I see and hear. I form Spanish phrases for everything I think. My brain acts like an excited dog whose owner has brought him to the park and reached down to unclip the leash. Oh happy day! he thinks, in that second when he’s been unleashed and whirls to face the entire free world: I can run now, run with the wind, run as dogs are meant to do. And off he goes.
Kind of stretching things a bit, maybe, but it’s how I feel when I get three sharp pencils together and open my Spanish workbook. Learning can be a real high.