Grammar again

Mark and Michael seem to have a lively exchange going on the value of teaching grammar. (see comments to Credentials) My point of view is as follows. I have short grammar books for the different languages I have learned. I have dictionaries as well. I often refer to the dictionaries. I almost never refer to the grammar books.

Grammar is presented as a short-cut to learning the language. To me it is a distraction. When I learned Chinese or Japanese or Korean (in Korean they even a term called “copulative verb” or something) there were all kinds of grammatical explanations that I just ignored. These explanations seemed contrived to resemble grammar explanations for European languages but did not help. I had to see the actual phrase patterns. Even in learning German, I could read the lists of declensions and conjugations many times, but it never sunk in. If I read a lot and listened a lot, paying special attention to the words and how they come together in phrases; and if I got used to certain phrases, then I would slowly start to use them correctly more often.

Forcing me to write grammar tests would  would have seemed to me an unpleasant and inefficient way to learn. I think for a lot of people this is the case. Of course many people are conditioned to want grammar because that is how they have been taught. They ask “why” is it said this way. In my experience the people who ask “why” will not learn well. The people who just accept the language do better.

There is a body of research that suggests that learning grammar is an impediment to fluency since it creates filters. The learner has to refer to a grammar filter before expressing himself or herself. This is difficult to do in a conversation. What is needed is to develop the right natural reflexes. Thus it takes time and a lot of exposure for Chinese people to stop saying “he” for “she” even though they understand the “why”.

The study of grammar and the frequent (and unavoidable) mistakes on tests can create negative feelings towards the language, which are referred to as “affective filters”. This makes the learner nervous, up-tight, and  reluctant to leave the safety of the native language.But to learn well you need to let yourself go, imitate and have fun. I have found a more holistic approach to be more successful in the long run. I do not believe that people who learn to be genuinely fluent in a second language do so in the classroom.

At The Linguist the learners build their personal databases of words and phrases based on their reading and listening. When they write we can identify their problems. Most of these problems relate to the inappropriate use of words, not to grammar. Pure grammar issues, like verb tense, agreement, prepositions, articles etc, are usually less than 20% of what is wrong with their writing. At The Linguist Inapproriate phrases are highlighted in the learner’s text and the correct phrases highlighted in the corrected phrases. There are individual notes for each error where we often do refer to grammar. But this explanation is with reference to an error that the learner has committed. We do not start by teaching rules of grammar. The learner then puts the correct phrase into his/her phrase database and is encouraged to look for similar phrases when reading and listening.

I believe this input based system is more enjoyable and more effective than grammar and test based instruction. I am not sure why a person who believes this is an “arrogant twit” as Michael suggests. I have found that many people committed to the more conventional ways of teaching language, however, often show little patience for other approaches.


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