Response to What’s Interesting About Grammar

After the initial responses on this thread, I stopped responding to individual posts and printed out all the subsequent posts up to the point where the thread petered out, about June 25. I found in the past that reading several hundred posts at once gives you a different perspective on the whole List or thread, kind of like listening to music from another room where certain elements which ordinarily get lost now stand out.

It also allows me to respond in a general way where to respond to specific posts introduces the specter of personal animosity or even hostility where none should exist. Here’s a quote about me on another List: “Could you please explain, in return, why your posts are always so rude,

self-opinionated and polemical? Are you not capable of a simple, courteous

discussion with people of other points of view, but similar goals?”

So I will try to be as “nice” as I know how. Also, I’m writing fast, so forgive any mistakes. Lack of clarity should be pointed out to me.

There seems to be a confusion of acquired and learned language. This is why it is so pernicious to say Krashen or communicativists or whole language teachers do not deal with grammar. They do; Krashen’s word for it is The Monitor, and he says you need to use it. What communicativists argue is that explaining and practicing grammar absent an opportunity to use the language results in learning only the grammar, not the language. If you think the grammar IS the language, then I am not sure we even have a conversation here.

Another level of confusion is between conversational or colloquial language and literary and formal language. The notion that the grammar of the latter is more anything than the grammar of the former flies in the face of everything we know about language. I think what people who say this mean is that the grammar (and pronunciation and word choice) is different from that of informal, conversational language. Even that opens up a can of worms b/c conversation at a diplomatic reception in Baku is going to sound different from that in a sports bar in Phoenix. But the grammar of each is just as complex, subtle, what have you. And, again, if you do not know this or understand it, it is hard to see how we could have a conversation about language b/c you’re mixing structure with sociolinguistics, the kind of person who thinks the truck driver in Joisey speaks a simpler language than a prep school English teacher in New England.

A huge factor, one which is always addressed in elementary introductions to linguistics, is the confusion between reading/writing and speaking/listening. The spoken language is primary; the written form is an epiphenomenon. Writing is recent; speaking goes back to the dawn of our humanity. I guess teachers are so attached to the written word that they mistake it for the basis of language, whereas it’s the other way around. The importance of literacy in our culture obscures this fact. To say that someone who speaks L2 but is not literate “can only get by? rips the use of L2 out of its context and inaccurately

Just the sheer ability to read properly is sometimes missing. For example, in the paragraph above, there is nothing whatsoever to suggest that teaching reading and writing is not very important, and yet there will be those who interpret it as saying that literacy is not important. We are warned about taking an either/or approach, yet I see no one doing this. The issue of straw men will be taken up later.

Daniel quotes Lee & VanPatten regarding the closer approximation to the standard. Non-student learners i.e. immigrants going directly into the work force, do not approximate the standard so much. To me, this is obvious and does not address the issue of the thread, which is, does Explicit Grammar Teaching (EGT) effectively instill the patterns of L2 in the learner so that he gains some level of proficiency. The newscasts from Glasgow put on display the Glaswegian dialect. It seems what we’re saying in defending classroom learning is that it might not be a good idea to teach English in such a specific dialect unless the person is going to live in Glasgow. That just seems obvious. If you want someone speaking in an educated way, you give them an education. The question remains: how do they best acquire WHATEVER variety of L2 you want them to?

And this leads to another misunderstanding and Wes addressed it: when a student goes beyond elementary, then he is studying the language in an academic setting and can be expected to know something ABOUT L2. Just as we would like our English-speaking students to know something about how their language works, so students on a more advanced level should know something about how L2 works. that’s academic. The question remains, how do we get learners to that advanced level? EGT doesn’t seem to have done that in the past, yet we cling to it.

Now maybe this is just me, but I often read contradictory statements by the same person from post to post. This is the problem with not having a frame of reference. Theory has been derided on this List in the past (not in this thread), but theory is the way you conceptualize what it is you are doing; why you are doing it. The same person will say doing X is great and in the next post say that doing Y is great where Y contradicts X. That is the danger of eclecticism, as much as we all practice it; we can wind up working against ourselves, just throwing pizza against the wall to see if anything sticks. We like to be nice and say, “Oh, that sounds like a neat idea; I think I’ll try that in class on Monday,? without looking at how it fits with what we are trying to do. I know, because I do this myself quite often and wind up asking myself on Tuesday morning, “Now why did I do that? What was the point??

Mary Y. raised the specter of language being a special case whose learning is different from that of other learning. By putting foreign languages and even L1, we make them into academic subjects and begin to believe that they are learned just like Greek Mythology, ceramics, physics, or World History. Grammar study is like those subjects, but is learning or acquiring a language the same kind of learning? that’s exactly what Krashen was getting at when he coined the word “acquire? and distinguished it from “learn?. He believed language learning to be a kind of “organic? process, something we are primed for like learning to walk. Unfortunately, critics have ascribed to communicativists the notion that learning L2 is like learning L1. Personally, I’ve only seen this advanced in ads for those tape courses. Language teachers know the process has to be different, but how different? What evidence is there for the acquisition of a second language being an intellectual, highly conscious process like the absorption of the ebb and flow of armies of the American Civil War? What evidence is there that people acquire second languages without conscious study?

List members keep talking about communicativists wanting to throw out grammar. My own observations and conversations with many teachers tell me that those who accuse us of wanting to do that assure us that they see communication as the goal and “practice? communicating a lot in their classes. Further conversation often reveals that they conceive of language as a series of grammar topics which must be “mastered?, the “mechanics?, they call them. Before long, they are complaining how students just forget everything they?ve been “taught? (read Krashen’s “learned?) and “butcher the subjunctive? or some such. Again, the focus is NOT on communication but on the grammatical structure of L2. I think this is not dishonesty but a misunderstanding of how people learn/acquire languages. Nothing wrong with learning, as academics we’re all for it; but it is not acquiring.

For example, Dan in one post states that I “admitted? to mentioning grammar “more than CI approach suggests?. First of all, I have in many posts made it very clear that I teach grammar for any number of reasons; it’s just that adding to students? acquired L2 isn’t one of them. Secondly, CI approaches tell us to teach grammar, they just don’t make it central to a student’s academic success the way most fl courses have. I can’t tell you the number of Spanish-speaking students who failed Spanish courses in the early days because they couldn’t “conjugate? despite speaking the language better than the instructor. The issue is not being “pure? or “totally anything?; it’s understanding that presenting students with a lot of grammar rules and practicing them does not lead to acquisition, and by not acknowledging that, we leave the door wide open for teachers to spend their time going over the same grammar exercises again and again, losing most students after the required 2 years and producing little ability to use L2. We have had so many posts on flteach attesting to this phenomenon, and these from people who eventually learned L2! What about all the people who say at cocktail parties (why is it always cocktail parties? I don’t think I’ve ever been to a cocktail party in my life.), “I’m just no good at languages??

In the same post, Dan brings up an important point: interest. Another word could be motivation, or at least knowing how to learn. As he humorously puts it, the LAD falls asleep if the student isn’t interested. that’s Krashen’s affective filter. Again, I’m not pumping for Krashen, just making sure we all realize what Krashen says instead of ascribing things to him he never said.

Dan said at one point says, “Just give a child a few thousand pages of ready reading and he will be fine.? Lord! that’s exactly Krashen’s position and is almost pure non-interventionist: no explanations, no guidance, no grammar…. just CI through reading. I’m not even sure Krashen goes that far in his most perfervid dreams.

Dan elucidates a phrase of his I did not understand by saying: “The point of induction is that the students gradually become sensitive to prominent featues of the language as favored by the language itself, instead of memorizing grammarianss? favorite forms and labels.? Whoa!!! That itself is an entry point for the Focus on Form people, because they would say the teacher’s job is not to TEACH grammar but to HIGHLIGHT it, point it out, make it more noticeable. The word “notice? is even a jargon term in SLA now.

Francie made a comment about her communication skills lacking. She meant in this area of discussion. One of the most valuable things about flteach for me, since 1995, has been the way it has sharpened my ability to express myself, and quickly, as I respond to post after post. My ability to synthesize has always been there but being able to articulate this stuff is hard. I think it’s a good example of how one learns language by doing language. So hang in there, Francie (and you didn’t do a bad job the first time… it takes courage to enter this maelstrom!).

Daniel H. keeps quoting from Fundamentals of Language Teaching. The stuff seems very good. I’ve never seen the book and look forward to reading it. You know, I am still teaching…. Spanish, starting July 31.

There are those who expressed the suspicion that they could not have benefited from their immersion experience without the grammar study they had done prior to it. The only way to figure that one out is to study people who have immersion experiences without prior grammar study. that’s research and a great many people on this List seem to despise research and researchers.

Troy’s post listing four things he “radically parts company with his colleagues on? is the most puzzling to me. I cudgeled my brain to figure out who he was talking about. He specifically said “colleagues in this debate?, so is he talking about us on this List? If so, no one on this List has said the things he lists. Maybe other colleagues at his school? I don’t know. He lists giving grammar explanations in English, correcting errors, using English on tests, and having translation exercises. The problematic nature of such items has been discussed, but I don’t recall anyone saying any of these is a waste of time, or that they never do any of these, or that no other teacher should do any of these. At least, not in this current thread.

Then he goes on to deny that students in communicatively taught classes do well in more grammar-oriented upper-division classes despite numerous studies that show that such students do as well as “traditionally? taught students on grammar and do much better on communication tasks. Oh well.

I am sorry that Troy feels that teachers who try to make their classes interesting and even a little entertaining for students by introducing useful games, purposeful competitions and cultural activities are being “circus clowns?, to use his words. I see myself as a serious person dedicated to getting my students to use L2, but my students do laugh and say they enjoy the class. that’s not being a clown.

OK, I have lots more but I have to go. I’ll pick this up again in about two weeks.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *