#4. The Value of Repetition (Part 1)
by Jayna Tokie Tanaka
When I greet my students as they enter the classroom, I usually say, “How are you today?” They always answer, “I’m good. How are you?” Their timing is very good, and I answer, “I’m good, too.” The students’ prompt replies are the result of hearing the question I ask and replying with the same answer so many times that there is no hesitation, no time for actually thinking about the answer. Much of our conversation is of this kind. After we hear a question, we usually do not need much time to answer it. The reason is probably that the options for answering the questions in everyday life are few, and a simple “Yes,” “No,” or “I don’t know” may suffice. This type of learning, using sentence pattern drills, which seems to be so out of fashion these days, seems to me to be the best way to make some basic English grammar rules a part of Japanese students’ brains without making the learners realize this. The first rule is that English sentences need subjects.
As I wrote in an earlier column, repetition and drills played a large part in my first encounter with learning Japanese. Although the parts of the Japanese sentences we had to memorize were carefully explained and even translated, we were never made to translate from English to Japanese. We simply accepted as fact that the sentence「明日、ワイキキに行きます。」meant “I’m going to Waikiki tomorrow.” I actually did not realize until much, much later that many Japanese sentences, especially those used in conversation, do not have subjects. It was enough to know that the sentence I memorized would convey the meaning I wanted it to.
It seems to me that the same method would make Japanese students realize that English sentences do need subjects ― and they need them in all sentences. I say this because there are many students have not gotten this message, even after sitting through six years of English classes. (In fact, I have some older students who have been using English for decades and who still sometimes leave out the subject of a sentence when speaking.) I think that the repetition of complete sentences at the very beginning of learning would be of great help in making the use of subjects automatic in the creation of sentences, just as I understood without realizing it that Japanese sentences often do not need them. A simple transformation exercise would be the following sequence with the teacher’s role as the prompter given in italics.
A: I’m going home after school.
B: She’s going home after school.
C: He’s going home after school.
D: He’s going home after lunch.
E: Who’s going home after lunch?
F: Maya’s going home after lunch.
Because students must make transformations, they do not simply repeat, but must think about how to make the sentences. However, if the same exercise is repeated enough times, and students have the opportunity to practice the same exercises in other situations, what was once difficult should become automatic. The emphasis should be on repetition. This kind of exercise is of no use if it is done only once. In this way, the lesson that English sentences must have subjects can be learned without too much pain.
Although language learning means saying the same sentences many, many times until these sentences are produced without thought, some people think that drills and repetition are boring and childish. Of course, they can be boring, and of course, they are may seem like child’s play. Language learning is not easy, and unlike the promise we get from ads we see for certain English lesson CDs, it is not possible to become fluent by simply listening to someone speak in English. Practice and more practice are the only paths to fluency.
Jayna Tokie Tanaka（ジェイナ・トキエ・タナカ）