In my last post I argued against viewing many structures as advanced, especially when they exist in the students’ L1. While I think my main point of considering many structures as somehow advanced and difficult for students to be nonsense is well-founded, I do stand corrected on two grammar points I used as examples.
Looking deeper into the matter, there is a difference between adjectival passives (or pseudo-passives as one commenter called them) and actual passives. A sentence like “he is married” is an example of a past participle adjective rather than a true passive as “married” serves a predicative function in the sentence.
Compare “He was married in 1990, but now he is divorced” with “He was married by a priest in 1990.” There is a slight difference in the meaning I think.
On the “have got” end, I do still think it originally comes from one of the ways in which we use present perfect today, but it has lost that nuance. It merely has a similarity of form rather than a similarity of meaning. Compare “I’ve got the car for 5 days” with “I’ve had the car for 5 days.” The first implies the length of time I will have it while the 2nd implies the length of time I have had it. It follows then that the meanings are not exactly analogous.
These two examples lead very well into my second reason for thinking grammar is incredibly overrated in the classroom.
Reason #2: If it confuses us, how could it possibly help the students?
In the simple definition I use in teaching, grammar is simply the structure of the language. For instance, in English we use subject + verb + object, the past tense is used to talk about finished actions in the past and we make it with S + V2 + O, etc.
Does this really help our students for them to know this? Does it make sense to them? My contention is that it doesn’t help them nearly as much as the importance we place on it seems to indicate.
Let’s face it, how many of you knew what an SVO language was before becoming an English teacher? If you walked into a Turkish language classroom and someone told you that Turkish is an SOV language, would that have meant anything to you before becoming a teacher? My guess is no. So why do we teach it to the students?
Do we ever teach that “to give” is a ditransitive verb? How about that “I wish I were…” and “If I were you…” are past subjunctive structures, or what about even the basic difference between an object and a complement? I’m betting that almost no one has taught ditransitive verbs, done a lesson on the past subjunctive, or a lesson on objects vs. complements. Yet our students use these structures all the time and, of course, native speakers use them as well.
Let’s do an experiment. For those who don’t know, a ditransitive verb is a verb that takes two objects such as “to give.” For example, “please give me the ball.” “The ball” and “me” are the dual objects. Now, take a minute and think of some other examples of ditransitive verbs…
Not so easy is it? What if I asked you how to determine if a verb is ditransitive or not before seeing it in use? The fact is, we can’t.
Now do the same with the past subjunctive. The past subjunctive can be used for counter-factual information, hypothetical situations, wishes, suggestions, or doubt. Besides the examples given above, please take a minute to think of some other sentences using the past subjunctive…
Again, I’m willing to bet most readers were unable to come up with any. Why then do we ask students to do things like this?
What I’m betting you could do was come up with a whole lot of sentences using the previously given examples. You could probably think of a hundred sentences with give, or if I were you, or I wish I were. Using language with examples that emerge from the class is what is worth teaching – not sweeping categorical rules. We want information like this to become chunked in our students brains and then recalled in situations similar to what we saw in class, on tv, in a book, etc.
I used the grammar points above because I’d bet that most teachers aren’t familiar with them and it gives us a good feel of what learners are going through.
Moreover, the teacher often has to figure out the rule before class or review it. I often see experienced teachers walk into a class and bungle up passives, conditionals, or present perfect. If we actually have trouble understanding how it works, what makes us think that passing on this knowledge to the students will help them?
How often have I seen a teacher give a rule and then ask students to make sentences with it? It’s not easy, especially if the student is put on the spot in front of the whole class. Just think, if we can’t quickly do it ourselves in our own language, how can we expect students to do it?
If we have taught complements vs. objects, ditransitive verbs, and subjunctive moods to our students all this time without knowing what they are, what’s to say we can’t do the same exact thing for every other grammar point?
How many of our students ever run through the long lists of grammar rules while speaking? Well, we can easily spot the ones that do because they take ages to produce a single sentence and it comes out in little pieces.
I think this is really where ideas like teaching students to chunk language and learning through context come into play. Students are given opportunities to use language in certain situations and then the teacher helps lead them to the most appropriate language. Through lots of usage opportunities and comprehensible input, the language will chunk and, more importantly, it will start to sound correct to the student’s ear.
This is always a goal in my classes. I don’t care if the students know the rules much, I want them to be able to say, “well, this just doesn’t sound right. It should be this way” because they’ve had so many learning opportunities inside and outside my class that he language comes naturally.
What do you think? Does teaching grammar rules have a positive impact on student learning?
Steven Pinker on Language & Thought – A good video showing how grammar talk can be extremely complex and almost useless in a language teaching environment.
In Other News:
I did a guest post over on Barbara Sakamoto’s Teaching Village on different ways of using a text in class for her Stuff All Teachers Should Know Series.
I’m also doing a number of workshops at conferences this year. Last weekend I did a workshop on storytelling over at Cevre Koleji that went incredibly well although I was rushed into giving it in 25 minutes.
If anyone else will be at these conferences I would love to meet up. Shoot me a message.