SPECIAL REPORT #5
The Grammar Book Deception
Flawed Designs that Set You on the Path to Failure
In our previous report, we saw that the 4th KEY REASON why the subjunctive is so difficult for most learners is because even specialized grammar books do not do justice to the subjunctive. In real-life situations, the subjunctive is present at least 50%-60% of the time. Being such a complex subject, and its relevance so essential for successful communication, you would expect it to have a prominent coverage in most grammar books. Wishful thinking! Its appearance is restricted to just a few pages and no more. In a desperate effort to fit as much information as possible in such limited space, authors are forced to resort to such specialized jargon that after studying the topic most learners end up even more confused than when they started.
KEY REASON #5
WHY THE SUBJUNCTIVE IS MAKING YOUR LIFE MISERABLE
The Grammar Book Deception
Before deciding to write a book on the Spanish Subjunctive, I had tried to select books and materials for my students from many different sources. I resorted to “quality” materials and print publications, as well as materials over the Internet. As a teacher, the task of selecting what to give them was overwhelming. Unlike other topics in which it is pretty simple and straightforward to select the materials, the Spanish Subjunctive felt like trying to put together a puzzle with missing pieces.
It was really demoralizing. Whenever I felt I had found something interesting, there was something else missing, so I had to find even more materials that could target that missing area as well. In the end, for every single item I needed to teach my students, I needed to use an incredibly huge amount of information from many different sources, and sometimes this would create more problems than it solved. For instance, there was no logical cohesion between the ideas; the names used to refer to the same process were in many cases different. This forced me to start to create my own notes to accompany and glue together all of those materials, as a sort of guide. This worked very well for me, for a little while but more on that later.
The 4 Types of Grammar Books
When dealing with the Spanish Subjunctive, most Grammar books fall into one of these four categories:
- Good Explanations but not enough phrases that trigger the use of the subjunctive.
- Poor or rather technical explanations but with a good list of patterns / triggers to recognize and use the subjunctive.
- Not enough examples of the Subjunctive.
- Not enough practice.
Flawed Design #1
Good Explanations but not enough phrases that trigger the use of the subjunctive.
For any given type situation, there are hundreds of different structures that could possibly trigger the use of the subjunctive. However, I have seen a countless number of books that give very good explanations, but they just mention one to three triggers, when in reality there could be over fifty! The authors may assume that seeing just a couple of phrases is enough for learners to understand the logic behind those triggers, and immediately come up with dozens of other similar triggers on their own, just by the power of mental association.
Let me break it to you: it never happens!
Flawed Design #2
Poor or rather technical explanations but with a good list of patterns / triggers to recognize and use the subjunctive.
In this case, I remember feeling excited about having a complete list of triggers, but the logic or justifications why the Spanish subjunctive had to be used or not were rather shady and unclear. I often had to use some of these types of materials in combination with some of the explanations from books in the previous category. In my personal experience, the main problem with this approach is that different authors tend to use different terminology to refer to the same process, and this creates a lot of confusion in learners who are struggling to understand the jargon in the first place.
Flawed Design #3
Not enough examples of the Subjunctive.
Some other books have decent explanations, a good list of Subjunctive phrases / triggers, but there are not enough examples for those phrases. Some are very unnatural, created mostly to prove a point. So even if they were grammatically correct, no native Spanish speaker in his right mind would ever say something even close to those examples. In first language acquisition, the child acquires the language through interaction and exposure to his surroundings. He is surrounded by real language, lots of samples of language all around him. That is what helps him figure out how things work, unconsciously of course.
When it comes to a second language learner, examples play a crucial role in enabling him (or her!) to figure out how things work. Theory is essential to understand how things work too, of course, but the examples are the glue that links theory and practice. They bring everything down to earth and make things clear! A huge number of books lack this essential element: plenty of examples. It is sad because some books are really good, but without this crucial element, they are not valuable for learners.
Flawed Design #4
Not enough practice.
As we have seen so far, it goes without saying that good explanations, a very complete number of triggers and phrases that use the subjunctive and lots and lots of examples are essential for any learner to understand how the subjunctive works. However, the part where everything really “clicks” and falls into place is when students do practice. Practice is by far the most crucial of all of the elements mentioned before. Mind you, I am not saying good explanations, triggers and examples are not important because they are key elements. But it is through practice when all of that theory becomes a reality for you. It is here when trial and error plays a huge role, just as it happens in first language acquisition.
In the real world, the child acquires language by exposure to the language AND trial and error. It is through trial and error where the magic happens, where the child begins to identify patterns that work and patterns to discard because they don’t work. If you ever expect to really master the Spanish subjunctive so as to use it effectively, you need a book or program that offers you plenty of opportunities for you to test your knowledge in as many occasions as possible.
And sadly, if you look at most grammar books, that rarely happens. As we saw earlier, with luck, the subjunctive will get about twenty pages in the book. Out of those twenty pages, eighteen will be all about theory and two pages just for practice.
Even then, the practice will be so narrow focused on what was explained before that it will just be a collection of some of the same examples mentioned before but with minor changes : almost identical sentences to enable you to solve them easily to prove to you that thanks to those “amazing” explanations, now you are able to solve all of the exercises on the subjunctive easily. Good luck with that in the real world.
That is a fallacy at best and it will NEVER EVER work for you in real life. It is the same as giving a book with driving instructions to someone without any driving experience and having her study them. And then after that, she gets a couple of questions on those instructions, almost quoting word by word what the instructions said. And moments later, she passes the exam with flying colors. Do you think that person would be ready to drive in the real world?
BEING THE COMPLEX TOPIC IT IS, the practice section devoted to the Spanish subjunctive needs to be HUGE, just the opposite of what all grammar books present you with.
Being the complex topic it is, the practice section devoted to the Spanish subjunctive needs to be huge. There has to be short explanations, each with its own set of exercises to consolidate that knowledge. And then newer explanations that build upon that previous knowledge, more practice, even more practice integrating everything and then newer explanations that build on that. That is the logic that any program must follow to get you rock solid in any topic.
How do books on the subjunctive work? I invite you to take you current Spanish grammar book or any you may have that tackles the subjunctive. I am no fortune teller but I can predict with almost 100% accuracy that you will find long and complex explanations filled with jargon all the way, not many examples, and the minimum amount of practice they can get away with at the end of the book.
Can you see why no matter how hard you may have tried to make sense of AND use the Spanish subjunctive you have always come back to square one?
KEY REASON #5 WHY THE SUBJUNCTIVE IS MAKING YOUR LIFE MISERABLE:
MOST GRAMMAR BOOKS ON THE SUBJUNCTIVE ARE FLAWED, they lack clear explanations, a good set of triggers, solid examples but above all, a good wealth of practice to let trial and error be your best teacher.
By now you can tell I am a firm proponent of comprehensive practice for any grammar material, but especially when it comes to such a complex and multi-angle topic as the subjunctive. And regarding practice, not all practice is created equal. Grammar drills play a huge part in automating the structures and improving your response times whenever faced with a situation in which you need to respond in a split second. However, restricting all practice to grammar exercises is like only driving a car simulator expecting to be ready for any real world driving situation, no matter what.
It is a good starting point, but you need real-life experience, something that NONE of the grammar books I have EVER seen pay attention to. They just focus on drills as the ultimate goal but in reality, mastering the drills should be the 1st step for using the Spanish subjunctive in real life. And this is the focus of our next report.
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This article is part of our FREE SPECIAL VIDEO REPORT SERIES: “THE 5 KEY REASONS WHY THE SUBJUNCTIVE IS MAKING YOUR LIFE MISERABLE AND HOW TO TURN THE TABLES IN JUST 30 DAYS!”