Back to school Part 2: TomAYto TomARto

In my last post, I described two basic routes to learning language as a means of communication. At this point, I should reiterate that what I am talking about here are not routes to any real kind of fully-functional fluency. One of the most profound realisations you have when you start learning a new language from scratch is just what an absurd goal that is for a beginner class or student. Frankly, it’s a minor miracle if I manage to dredge a word I learned in a previous lesson up from my addled brain or can approximate a sound my teacher can recognise. Forget how long it might take!

In this regard, arguments about teaching methods which are predicated on achieving some kind of long-term accuracy and fluency are really badly framed. Saying that you should follow a lexical approach / task-based teaching / grammar translation / Communicative Language Teaching or whatever because that’s the way to become fluent and accurate in some unimaginable future is an ultimately unprovable claim and leads us to some kind of warped academic version of the old song:

I say TomAYto, you say TomARto

I say potAYto, you say potARto

tomAYto, tomARto

potAYto, potARto

Let’s call the whole thing off.

I freely admit that I may have been guilty of this in the past myself, but I shall endeavour to do better henceforth. So, in recounting my experience of learning Russian, I will be referring to different kinds of classes, but I want to focus less on the potential long-term effects of all this, and more on the here and now: how they help and hinder my current state of mind as a student. What I also want to be clear about from the beginning is that I feel I have learnt something from both methods / teachers I have encountered. In later posts, we’ll also see that whatever the method, certain aspects of the learning process seem unavoidable. Ultimately, we have to acknowledge that our choice of method of learning and teaching will be a preferred route that may ultimately deliver folk to a similar destination – and in the case of a beginner student, that destination is not best described as fluency.

Here’s a case in point. In my sixth lesson with my teacher Anita, I learned the following dialogue:

A: ты (когда нибудь) был(a) в Испании/охфорде?

B: да / нет. А ты?

А: да.

A: когда?

B: давно.

В: один год / месяц / день назад

 Два / три / четыре года/месяца/дня назад

 Много / пять лет/месяцев/дней назад

А: и как?

В: отлично/хорошо


 Не очень


We learnt this conversation through a technique called dialogue building. You can see how this works in this video. At the end of the lesson, I was able to have similar conversations using different options we uncovered during the building process. I was reasonably accurate within the lesson, and post lesson, I started to make use of был(a) (was/have been) in other contexts and occasionally even used the preposition в with its appropriate case endings – Испани и/ охфорд е.

I had already learned some answers to ‘как дела’ (How are you?) so the и как? section wasn’t exactly new, but rather reinforced what I’d learned so far.

What I pretty much forgot until quite a lot later was all the endings to do with numbers, although I did remember the use of год/года/лет (year / years) as this had come up in a previous lesson where I was asked my age and I said I was пятьдесят один лет instead of пятьдесят один год.

I also didn’t know at this point that the same ‘rule’ that applies to в here also applies to на and that в and на can both mean in. I learned this in a later lesson, where we did a short dialogue about where you live. I learnt in the north, south, centre, etc. (Я живу в Лондоне – на севере / на юге but в сентре!).

And finally, while I learnt that was/were is inflected according to gender ( был, male, and былa, female ), I didn’t know the neutral or plural form.

This all happened online, before my first lesson in a more formal school setting, which as it turned covered very similar ground, but in a rather different way. The material we did there followed the following pattern:

– We read out three short dialogues featuring в and на (each was translated after)
– We read a grammar box about в and на and how the noun ending changes.
– We practised by asking Where is Washington / Rome etc. and answering by changing the ending of the countries.
– We then asked where is (words given) the White House / the Colliseum, etc.
– We looked at another grammar box showing guidance for words which go with в and words that go with на.
– We looked at a list of words with на.
– We were told about the past of be and read some rules (был, былa, былo, были)
– We read some dialogues about Where were you yesterday? / Were you in Irkutsk?
– There was then a pairwork activity where we (should have) asked each other ты был(a) в [country]? / гдe ты был(a) в [country]?
– Finally, there was a drill dialogue prompted by pictures Where we asked Where is Nina? // Nina is in the shop / church / park, etc. (Some of these words took в and some на (which we’d learnt earlier).

You will have noted I said ‘should’ve asked each other’, because in fact we didn’t do this exercise in class. You will also note that ты был(a) в [country]? is more or less the same outcome that I started with in the dialogue I did with Anita. As you can see, the difference in approach is that in my more formal / tradiitonal school-based class, we had to learn all the grammar of the sentence and practise it before we were allowed to say it. Furthermore, you can see that the sentence itself was really there as a further practice of в (and the associated noun endings) and the rest of the conversation was seen as relatively unimportant. Communication was clearly not the main goal within the framing of the lesson, but then we can’t definitively say that this doesn’t help students communicate outside the class. Certainly, I have heard my fellow students make use of this grammar to describe, for example, what they did or where they were in the previous week and others have asked questions about what people did.

In a sense, both methods covered similar ground that potentially leads to basically the same sort of conversation. At this point, a teacher might argue – as, in fact, my teacher did – that if you did not learn the grammar rules thoroughly and just ‘talked’, then you would forever be stuck in your fossilized state of inaccuracy (even if you are ‘fluent’), while the person who paid more attention to grammar rules would go on to become accurate and then accurately fluent. As I said earlier, this seems an unprovable point – even if the entirety of one’s learning could be restricted to any single, clearly definable method. So for me the issue becomes more about the enjoyment of the individual classes themselves, and how far they help achieve our more immediate learning goals.

You will have to decide your own preference yourself, but I suspect my preference will alredy be clear. For me, it’s just more motivating to have a very basic real conversation rather than ask about where places are, (especially when I know where the White House is!) or ask about some fictional person (Nina) being in some fictional place. Yes, there is a modicum of satisfaction in completing an exercise correctly, but acheiving some kind of communication is definitely a greater buzz. Also, with less space available in the more formal classes for students to talk about their lives, thoughts and feelings – indeed, less space for any kind of freer speech – there is also less space for humour and playfulness. That often ends up coming out in English – a point I’ll return to in my next post – but also occasionally in Russian. However, the roles that L1 plays at these levels will have to wait for my next post.

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2 Responses

  1. Sandy Millin says:

    Absolutely fascinating to see these two approaches compared. Thanks for sharing this Hugh!

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