How about this analogy? (I’m not sure it’s an analogy; it might be exactly what’s going on)
Data must be turned into information to be useful. What data provides, in the form of grammatical features, is not information. It has to be put together, composed, into information, otherwise known as communication.
The divisions in our field arise when we decide whether the data comes first or if data needs to be imbedded into information for the data to have any meaning.
Now that last statement is crucial. Meaning. The theories that make sense to me say that without meaning, the brain does not process data as input; it lets it slide off the brain much as the many rules taught in regular fl classrooms do. They are meaningless.
So how do we provide meaning for the grammatical features which render clear communication possible (here I nod to those who talk about pidgin or Me Jane, You Tarzan language)? Those who believe it is through learning many rules which must be applied in practice to learn are the so-called “grammarians” or “traditionalists”. Those who believe the rules must carry meaning in order to be applied as communication are the so-called “communicativists”.
I use the word “believe” advisedly. There is no physical evidence for what occurs in the brain when we “learn” or “acquire” a language (using both terms loosely and not in their SLA jargon sense). There is no research that demonstrates definitively that one method works and others do not. IOW, there is an element of faith, faith-based teaching, in the teaching of fl.
It really is like religion. Some religions make no sense to me; others make sense. On that basis and that basis alone, I feel an affinity toward some religions and not others. My reasons for “believing” that a communicativist approach makes more sense are based in both research, personal experience, and the history of language teaching.
One thing I’ve noted: those who believe we need to teach grammar rules without tying them to meaning offer no evidence for the efficacy of their approach, in contrast to the communicativists, who rely quite a bit on research and surveys.
The biggest obstacle to intelligent discussion of this issue is two-fold. The first part is that teachers who have strong communicative elements in their teaching but nevertheless teach some grammar explicitly take offense easily, believing themselves to be under attack. The other side of that is the weak argument that it all works, an eclectic approach covers all bases nicely, and we really cannot say whether one element in teaching fl is more effective than another. Given these two common reactions, discussion on Listservs that will move us forward are rare, IMHO.
A typical reaction is: “…since a grammatical foundation seems so unnecessary to you …..” Just assumption after assumption. This person started off with the assumption that we work toward the AP, and then went on to ask a very long list of questions about what I do. It was a really good list, too; she covered the duties of fl teachers very well. But given the end point, AP, it did not serve any purpose to say I do this or that since it would all be swept away by the fact that I am not aiming toward AP. All she has to say then is, “Well, I have to prepare them for AP and that’s why I do what I do and if you have to prep your students for AP, you’d do the same things I do, incl teach grammar.”