Wednesday, September 13, 2006

On the Importance of Grammar

Clearly were it not for the fact that languages have grammars beyond simple linear arrays of words, they could not be learned nearly as easily as they are and we could not express thoughts of any complexity at all. As for the first point, children acquire enough of their native languages to go to school quite early in life (though anyone teaching K-6 will tell you that you need to keep your sentences very simple early on in grade school) and virtually all of the syntactic constructions of their native languages (other than, perhaps, a few literary bells and whistles) by the time they are 12. They do that without explicit instruction. Indeed, few parents know enough about the structure of their languages to say anything substantive or even helpful. Fortunately they don't need to.

In my morning paper there was a story on a ten year-old Somali native who has been in the U.S. about a month, who had two years of English in Somalia before coming here. He professed being confused by the Language Arts lesson on "compound words and short vowels." This human interest story is a worthy one in part because the suburban Columbus school system being featured is not only helping recent immigrant children make the transition required to be successful in school, it is also helping their parents with their language skills and with an understanding of the school system. Between the two, I can assure you, the most important of these two activities -- helping the kids and helping their parents -- the most important linguistically is helping the parents. Since this kid came here when he was 10 already knowing some of the language, there is a good chance he will learn to speak English like a native speaker.

The least important thing the school system is doing is teaching kids "Language Arts" if that means telling kids about English grammar, as this possibly misleading news story suggests. Not knowing for sure what educationists mean by this term, I went to Wikipedia where I learned that "Language arts refers to the class of art forms, including novels, poetry, songs and others, that focus on the creation of art works which are primarily language based." That is what I was hoping language arts would be about but this gives me pause to wonder what the teacher was doing teaching "compound words and short vowels." And this brings me to the important distinction between knowing the grammar of a language and knowing about the grammar of a language. All native speakers of a language know the grammars of their languages, albeit implicitly or tacitly. Few native speakers of a language will know about the grammars of their languages.

Many years ago, I had some 10-12 U. S. Air Force Academy foreign language teachers in a graduate level introduction to linguistics course, smart students all. I asked them what they focus on when teaching languages and they said that they spend no time at all in teaching them anything about the grammars of the languages they teach or even try to correct the grammar of their utterances in general. Instead, their focus is in developing their ability to speak and understand the language. This was a refreshing thing to learn. No more meat and bones in language instruction -- just meat.

I am going to opine that the vast majority of the people of this world know virtually nothing about their languages though they will all, of course, know how to use and understand them. Knowing about a language is something that linguists are interested in. It is not something that speakers need to concern themselves with. What about language instruction, not for children who will normally not need it, but for adults?

In the case of the Air Force Academy, as I just noted, grammar is ignored. It is ignored for the most part in most conversation-oriented language instruction courses whether this is a computer learning course of the sort Rosetta Stone and other companies produce or a language immersion course.

There are tricky parts of languages where the temptation to teach a little grammar arises and this is with the conjugations of irregular verbs, most especially the conjugations of be. When I was in graduate school, a colleague told me, when I asked how it was so easy for him to get up and ruining with new languages so quickly, that he didn't memorize verb conjugations per se, but combinations of subjects, the verbs, direct objects and where relevant indirect objects for all the irregular verbs he imagined he would want to know. The Rosetta Stone puts one through drills of this sort using pictures to provide appropriate contexts of use.

One thing is for sure and this is that while teachers shouldn't teach their students about the languages they are learning, they themselves need to understand grammar well enough to organize lessons in a useful way. I remember telling a college Italian teacher about this fancy new theory of English syntax that Noam Chomsky had created that involved the assumption that there exist a set of basic sentence types called "kernel" sentences in any language and we learn the syntactic rules for forming them as well as a set of transformations (also syntactic rules) that altered them by changing word order and/or inserting or deleting elements from them and by inserting kernel sentences inside other kernel sentences to form complex and compound sentences. She replied that there was nothing new in that notion. I was a bit deflated since I was leaving where we both were for Cambridge, Mass., to study under Chomsky.

In fact, language teachers seem to organize their teaching efforts around what they know about the grammars of languages. But why would our immigrant Somali child need to know about compound words and short vowels? Were they learning how to write poetry? The Somali immigrant needs to know lots of compound words and words with short vowels but the native speakers of English in his class already know lots of these sorts of words so why do they need instruction about these things? I know there are people out their who are pulling their hair out by the roots at my heresies (language heresies coming in a close third to religious and political heresies). "Surely," they are thinking, "the optimal way to teach kids who cannot write grammatical English is to teach them grammar." Nay, not so.

Years ago, I read of a study that contrasted the improvement in writing, including both the writing of grammatical sentences and of sentences that were stylistically good, of two groups of students. One group got no feedback from teachers as to their mistakes. The other got feedback -- corrections of sentences with non-standard grammar and bad style. Both groups improved with the latter improving the most, not surprisingly. For years, our daughter took her papers to her mother (good choice) for corrections of this sort. She got small doses of grammar instruction along with the corrections. So, if she wrote something like Walking back home yesterday, a tree nearly fell on my head, her mother might have explained that she had used a dangling participle (grammatical notion), the subject (grammatical notion) of which was unclear and suggest changing it into something like As I was walking back home yesterday a tree nearly fell on my head. The point of this exercise is that grammar instruction should accompany writing since "good grammar" is critically important in writing (if you want to get or keep a good job) and it provides a very useful context for instruction. The kid knows what he/she meant to say by something he/she wrote and when you give the correction and explain why the suggested linguistic form conveys that meaning better, there is a much better chance the lesson will be learned. So, you Language Arts teachers out there, stop teaching kids grammar and have them write until their fingers are cramped. Unfortunately this will give you a lot of reading and correcting and explaining to do but that's what you are (not) paid (enough) to do.

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Blogger Full Metal Attorney said...

I'm thinking that your model--DO first, DO is most important, but ANALYZE is of secondary importance (although still important)--could probably be applied to the teaching of almost every endeavor which asks the student to learn how to do something. I recently started a blog to teach photography, and the most important thing I think I do is to ask the readers to complete particular assignments--asking them to DO. I also show them examples and analyze them to explain why they are pleasing to the eye. And finally, I critique what they have done and explain why it works. But if they didn't do it, the whole thing would be a waste.

The same applies to music, all forms of arts (performing, visual, or otherwise) and of course to the language arts (the first thing creative writing instructors will tell you is that you need to write every day).

12:52 PM

Blogger Le vent fripon said...

Hey, but I think it's important to consider the age of the learner. Young children can learn a language without knowing the rules of the language (i.e. without being able to tell you what rules they are following). Children that do so are really bilingual. But can adults and older children learn well this way? I think adults benefit greatly from grammar. I feel that my proficiency in German depends greatly on my familiarity with the grammatical concept of case.

7:02 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

I think you are probabably right that the acquizition of a skill is best taught through teaching someone to perform the skill, as with learning to focus a camera, take a light reading, etc. The art of photography cannot be taught that way.

If the goal is to learn to speak and understand a language then time spent on explicit, systematic grammar instruction is a waste of time. Practicing speaking and listening is the only way to efficiently get to that goal. Besides the sort of grammatical language a typical language teacher has, as compared to a linguist expert in the analysis of the language, is miniscule anyway.

9:54 AM

Blogger The Wife of Words said...

I would first like to say that I am highly delighted by your posting. I agree with the majority of it whole-heartedly. I came across it while doing a persuasive speech for my Public Speaking class on the importance of integrated grammar more prominantly into school systems.

I have found your words to be incredibly useful and cited you most often in my presentation. (Being as you as such a credited individual.) I would only like to ask your view on teaching grammar as a required core subject. Do you think it would better a students education? What age do you believe grammar should be taught? Anything else you would like to tell me would be greatly appreciated. I could send you my powerpoint if you're not entirely comfortable with me using what you've written. Also, if you want to make sure I'm understanding what you're saying and not twisting your words around.

7:34 AM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

The important thing is to teach people how to write intelligible prose and the best way to do that is have them write and critique their work, including their grammar.

As for teaching grammar explicitly it is important to make clear to students that you are not trying to change how they talk but rather to teach them a formal version of English that is used in writing. This may or may not result in a reformation of how they talk. The best way to do that is send them to college where they may develop linguistic role models that provide them with Standard English exemplars to use as models (different sense of the term) to emulate.

5:08 PM


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