According to Dr. Patricia Wetzel of the Department of World Languages and Literatures, grammar and technology have more in common than one may think. For instance, both are critical tools in language instruction. Putting them to good use requires knowledge of how they function. And when it comes to methods of language teaching, the two have developed in parallel.
Professor Wetzel teaches Japanese at PSU. As a Doctor of Japanese Linguistics, her research has focused on keigo, the honorific language of Japan. Her other interests include: linguistic anthropology, sociolinguistics, linguistic pragmatics, and pedagogy. Language instruction and how educators train future teachers are at the center of a presentation Dr. Wetzel recently gave at the University of Pittsburgh’s Asian Studies Center.
“Does Grammar Matter in an Age of Technology,” asks the presentation’s title. The answer is it does, but that’s not the takeaway. What stands out is the examination of the role grammar has played in language teaching, the evolution of instruction, and the relation of both to advances in technology and the cognitive sciences throughout history.
“I noticed our approach to language teaching was changing as technology changed,” said Dr. Wetzel. “Modern media have presented us with a completely new genus. Novel linguistic principles are developing as people communicate using the internet. All of this is going to affect our teaching. We want our students blogging, sending emails, using technology, but what conventions of grammar should we teach them for communicating in such ways?”
Professor Wetzel’s presentation suggests history might indicate how pedagogy might have interfaced with questions in the past. Prior to the 20th century, text was the only lasting record of language. As such, writing was considered the highest form of use. As vernacular languages began replacing Latin and Greek in the Middle Ages, there arose a need to translate texts. For hundreds of years thereafter, grammar translation was the method used to train translators. According to Dr. Wetzel, this practice of second language learning held that meaning existed in the ether before language was used. To use language was to ‘package’ meaning in words, and with the right grammar and vocabulary any one language could be ‘repackaged’—translated—into another.
The grammar translation method gave way around the turn of the 20th century when the new fields of linguistics and psychology appeared. This happens, perhaps not coincidently, Wetzel proposes, around the same time the gramophone, a new technology capable of recording spoken language, is invented. Influenced by Structuralism, the direct method of language learning held that grammar could be learned inductively and therefore need not be taught. On hearing and repeating it frequently enough, a learner would, by some innate capacity, absorb the grammar associated with a particular language.
When advances in cognitive science and innovations in technology came, Wetzel notes, changes in language pedagogy often were not far behind. With Skinner’s behaviorism and the ability to record directly onto tape comes the audio-lingual method. More recent approaches to language learning combine the structuralist notion of automatized subroutines (formalism) with what we know from psychology and sociology about how all conventional behaviors are embedded in social action.
“Like technology, language and grammar are always changing,” Dr. Wetzel said.
Today, it’s information technology that reigns supreme and Professor Wetzel correctly points out that it is changing the way we communicate. Globalism and connectivity have made the world a smaller place. Where not too long ago a student learning Japanese had few available resources to interact with Japanese culture and gain insight into the contexts of which the language is spoken, wireless and internet technology can now connect learners to cultures in real time. The presentation notes that cultural awareness is in large part a key element of language instruction in the classroom. Learners are taught and experience the cultural norms of the societies where specific languages are spoken. In all this, information technology provides students a way to connect to and communicate with the culture of the language they’re learning. And grammar plays a role in this integrated method of learning a language too, Wetzel notes.
As technology is embedded in our lives, it is necessarily a part of our culture and therefore has some impact on our language, grammar, and methods of communication. To a certain extent, the ways technology influences how we use language informs the ways we learn new languages. Teachers like Professor Wetzel and the students who will one day join her as instructors have to consider the ways technology changes use and how grammar instruction is to keep up with that change. Dr. Wetzel’s presentation “Does Grammar Matter in an Age of Technology?” considers the ways it has happened in the past and in doing so sheds light on how it might in the future.