A Student Asks a Question

Last week, a student asked me a question I haven’t been able to stop thinking about. He’s in his thirties and seems like a responsible guy, but I don’t think he’s ever studied a foreign language before.

He’s already several weeks behind. After showing me the tiny amount of work he’s completed so far, he posed a question about the verb endings in Chapter One. He was referring to the familiar (if you’ve ever studied Latin) basic conjugation: amo, amas, amat, amamus, amatis, amant. This translates I love, you love, he (she or it) loves, we love, you love, they love.

“Do we have to learn those endings?” he asked.

“Yes,” I answered calmly, suppressing my temptation to be sarcastic. Or to shout.

“They just seem so complicated,” he said. “I thought maybe we could just flip back to that page whenever we need them.”

My empathetic self thinks this poor fellow has no idea what he’s in for. If he were caught up, he would already have encountered about twenty noun endings that need to be memorized. Latin is about nothing if not endings. Which have to be memorized. My student’s head will explode when he gets to Chapter Two.

And that brings up my less empathetic reaction. What does it mean to learn a language? Flipping back in the book to find answers? How could you imagine that you don’t have to learn the endings and words and grammar that’s in the textbook? What’s the point of taking a language class if you’re just going to rely on the textbook?

I guess if you’ve never learned a foreign language and you’ve never studied English grammar, which most of today’s students haven’t, then you wouldn’t know about conjugating verbs and it would seem to be an abstruse and exotic activity. Hence the young man’s question.

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