The other day Scott Thornbury brought up the notoriously difficult grammar point of gerunds. It became clear from Scott’s post that there isn’t even a consensus on what they are or if they actually exist. This brought me back to my posts about how I feel grammar is extremely overrated in the ELT classroom.
In the course of the discussion that ensued, Scott asked if grammar was perhaps at the very least an expedient means to an end for learners with little actual time in the class. A very good question and one I decided to answer here rather than in the comments, as I’d like to give a lengthy response.
While I think simple grammar has its place in the classroom, I would answer “no” to Scott’s question if we’re talking about complicated distinctions like gerunds vs. infinitives.
Here’s my argument:
I think far and away the biggest mistake we adult learners and teachers of adults make is that analytical understanding of grammar aids acquisition. This is probably the biggest complication when looking at adult vs. young learners. Adults constantly want to understand why something is the way it is instead of just accepting it and using it. This need to understand actually acts as an obstacle to acquisition. As language learners, we need to accept language as it is and use it.
I can’t remember exactly who, but someone once made a comment that helping students to analytically understand grammar makes them comfortable in the classroom and therefore lowers the affective filter, aiding learning. I would agree. That, I think, is the main positive effect it has.
If analytical understanding truly aided language acquisition, then lecturing and grammar translation would be wild successes. It’s quite clear they are not. So why do we persist in trying to teach language this way?
Now, I do think that knowledge of grammar rules can help, but only if the rule is simple to apply and mirrors the students’ L1. For instance, adding –ed to make the past tense in English or not using the verb “be” with he/she/it in Turkish. These are very simple rules that can be clearly understood by students with nearly no explanation.
Actually, there should be a distinction made between application of simple rules and analytical understanding. The former is useful while the latter is not.
An example of a simple rule is adding “s” to present simple verbs when he/she/it is the subject. We don’t have to understand why that is and it wouldn’t be helpful to do so, we merely apply the rule. To go back to Scott’s discussion, telling students that the infinitive is more common after verbs than gerunds is useful. Telling them that one is more nouny and one more verby is not.
Trying to explain something complicated like gerunds vs. infinitives, articles, or the myriad rules surrounding relative clauses is not useful in my opinion. In fact, most students pick up these “rules” and use the language correctly without explicit instruction the majority of the time. I never teach explicit rules for articles yet even my beginner and elementary students start to use them correctly as the course progresses if encouraged to do so. In the same way, I have as yet to have a student that could tell me the difference between a subject & object relative clause, but most of them, if given a choice between sentences on the board, can tell me in which ones we can omit the relative pronoun.
How is this possible? Well, they are simply taking the language they know and repeating it to themselves. They go with whatever sounds right.
Think about it. How many times have you taught a finer grammar point to a class until every one in the room was very confident with it. They could even give example sentences and do basic substitution drills. Yet, the students fail to use the new grammar afterwards no matter what context you provide. In fact, they don’t use it again until you actually direct them to do so. If analytical understanding aided production, wouldn’t the opposite be the case?
When is explicit rule teaching helpful? There are a couple cases:
1) There is a similar structure in the L1 and they transfer over the grammatical chunk.
2) Simple rules that don’t require in-depth understanding of grammatical concepts.
3) To aid error correction, especially in writing when dealing with really complicated language. Students can be more confident of their work if there is a rule supporting their language choices although, again, I’d consider ear and sight correction a more important goal.
4) To aid in guessing about how to create unfamiliar sentences based on the rules they know (although really the same can be done by making logical guesses based off of the language they are familiar with rather than some sort of rule and I would say it’s preferable).
Grammar concepts are ultimately quite murky and, let’s face it, in real-time conversation there is absolutely no time think about conceptually complex rules before formulating a sentence. The same applies for most test situations where writing and speaking are required. I can think he with verb+s pretty quickly, but I can’t determine whether what I’m about to say is something connected to both past and present vs. something definitely finished in the past vs. my L1 that would use a present construction.
I remember my first month of teaching; I was ecstatic when I realized the difference between the use of “be” & “do” in present simple was one of verbs vs. other parts of speech. With a grin, I walked into my elementary classes and happily explained this distinction. Yet, my students still consistently failed to grasp this difference.
Then I thought about it. As a native speaker of the language it took me over a month of looking at it and trying to teach it and the difference only clicked with me because my grammatical knowledge had been growing and growing. I analytically understood a grammatical point, but this didn’t really aid my students in terms of meaning and use or really help them at all as they still couldn’t figure out an adjective from a verb unless they really stopped to think about it. We were back to square one.
The same went for me in Turkish. There is a clear grammatical distinction between subject and object relative clauses in Turkish and looking at them really helped me figure out the English equivalents. Yet, despite this knowledge, I still could not use them. I simply couldn’t figure out how to make sentences with them or when to use which form.
Then I started going to the café with co-workers and students after class and the majority of the conversations were in Turkish. One day I joined the conversations and was using relative clauses. Sure, it was a bit haltingly, but it quickly improved. Something had just clicked. I looked at myself and realized my understanding was no different, but intuitively I had started to figure out when to use what. The same went for all the Turkish structures and concepts that differed from ones in English. There was so much stuff that simply never made any sense to me and then I would just find myself using it one day.
If we really look at our learners and our own language learning experiences, this is almost always what happens. There is a point where it just clicks. When we first start to learn language, things go quite slow and we’re always formulating sentences in our heads. With use and exposure, these phrases and transformations become internalized and automatic. Quite quickly we move from checking our utterances against grammar rules to checking our utterances against what sounds or looks right.
This is really the goal. I think much explicit grammar teaching of complex concepts literally slows down the process of actual acquisition as students break language into pieces, obsess about rules before producing, and spend more time translating.
Think about moving to a new country. You always pick up some useful phrases and apply them immediately. You make no grammar mistakes because you have the necessary language as a chunk. Why then do so many beginning students say things like “Where you live?” or “I 18.”? Instead of taking what they’ve heard or seen, they are either translating in their heads or trying to construct sentences based on barely remembered rules. Other students, especially ones that picked up English at younger ages I’ve noticed, never make these kinds of mistakes. They’ve learned things in whole pieces, not bite-sized chunks.
What does all this mean?
1) Students need lots of exposure to the language.
2) Students need to use that language so often that it becomes automatic and comfortable.
3) Getting students to understand the finer points of grammar may make them feel comfortable, but ultimately doesn’t aid their inter-language and production abilities.
4) Spending lots of time on conceptually complex grammar rules is time not well spent.
In the end, my strategy is to give an explanation and then just move on. Turkish students can never figure out why we say “Have you read any of the Harry Potter books?” rather than “Did you read any of them?” Often the murky answer to this question is that it’s the past connected to the future or life experience or something else that the students simply never conceptualize. I provide the appropriate rule, which makes them feel like they know it and therefore comfortable, we move on, and then I encourage use of the structure in that vein through error correction in the class and getting them to notice examples of it in material we use. Sometimes rather quickly, the students just start using it right although I guarantee they aren’t thinking about the rules we worked out previously when they make these sentences.
Over to you. Is the distinction between simple application rules and conceptual distinctions valid? What’s the importance of this adult need to analytically understand things rather than just accepting it as “In English, we use this language in this situation”, especially as it regards motivation? What are your experiences as language learners?