Why is learning ABOUT grammar so prevalent in today’s language classes?

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Re: Why is learning ABOUT grammar so prevalent in today’s language classes?

Postby Elenia » Wed Feb 27, 2019 4:06 pm

I don't know where you're from, or what the native language of your classmates is, but grammar teaching is usually pretty lacking in the part of the UK I'm from, which would explain why so many people don't get it.

Yes, it is possible to learn a language without knowing the terminology. My cousin is a pretty competent native speaker of English without having a clue what a 'verb' was.* But it does get a bit difficult to explain, for example, why Swedes use hennes/hans (hers/his) in some sentences and sin/sitt/sina (hers/his) in others if you don't know how a sentence is built, what a clause is, and the difference between object and subject. You can get a feel for it without understanding the terms, with ample input. After five years of exposing myself to Swedish, I was developing a feel for it, but I was still getting it wrong more often than not. One lesson with a teacher and a few exercises means that I'm now getting it right pretty much every time. Having learnt French previously meant I wasn't completely lost when my teacher started whipping out the grammar terms. Another Brit taking the course hadn't studied any other languages previously and found the concepts we were learning in our grammar sessions harder to get to grips with. Not knowing the terms was part of the reason she was having more trouble than me.

Of course, as reineke and Cavesa have pointed out, learning the grammar in isolation isn't really helpful. I floundered in French grammar classes, and I never became particularly confident while speaking French. I had no idea what an indirect object was, let alone how it would like to be complemented. I didn't have a mental picture of the language, I had not read or listened to enough of it to have a mental picture of it. There was nothing for me to attach all these grammar concepts to. What was the subjunctive? Something I spat out in one set phrase to pass exams. When was it used, and why? Hell if I knew to the first, to confuse poor little anglophone me to the second.

I actually dislike grammar. I've spent years mostly avoiding explicit grammar study and focussing on input. But if you actually know how to study grammar, you'll get to grips with how the language works and how to use it yourself a lot quicker.**

*I'm pretty sure she knows now. Probably.
**Disclaimer: I have absolutely no idea how to study grammar. That's why I still speak German like Yoda.
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Re: Why is learning ABOUT grammar so prevalent in today’s language classes?

Postby Speakeasy » Wed Feb 27, 2019 4:11 pm

Grammar: Frequently Discussed, Never Resolved
Discussions of the importance of grammar in the study of either one’s native language, or in the study of a foreign language, come up from time-to-time on the forum. Example questions include: (a) to what extent is the instruction in this subject useful?, (b) should grammar be explained at all?, (c) how to teach/study grammar effectively, (d) at what point in a study should grammar be introduced?, and (e) are the materials and the teachers up to the task?

Level of Concentration: Introductory Courses
As to the question of the depth-of-coverage of grammar in instruction materials, I will rely on my own, very extensive collection of language-learning materials (approximately 1,000 items), for both independent study and classroom study, from the 1940’s through to the present, a collection which by its very nature covers all of the major language teaching philosophies of the periods. Based on my thorough reading of the entire collection, I am left with the impression that ALL of the language texts (not grammars) at the introductory stages provide minimal, but balanced, explanations of the structure of the target language. In other words, I have neither witnessed nor experienced what-I-consider-to-be an excessive emphasis on grammar at the introductory level.

Level of Concentration: Intermediate & Advanced Courses
My collection includes in excess of fifty “genuine” intermediate level courses from the 1940’s to the present, along with a dozen “genuine” advanced level courses, all of which were prepared for use in a classroom setting. It would appear that it is at this intermediate level that a significantly greater in-depth instruction in grammar begins and that this process continues into the advanced levels.

Time in Class: Then, Now?
The Introduction to the FSI German Basic course, an audio-lingual course published in 1961, includes the following guidance to the instructor and to the course participants: “… Many questions which he (the student) may feel tempted to raise in class will be found to be answered in the notes on grammar. The tutor is specifically requested not to discuss the language with his students and the students are requested not to ply him with questions. Time in class is to be spent using and manipulating the language and not talking about it ...”

Self-Instruction of Grammar
We’re all unique, nerds even more so. Part of my nerdiness expresses itself as a deep-seated need of knowing what the rules are. Once I know the rules, and assuming that accept them, I make a conscientious effort at following them. The corollary is that, if I don’t like the rules and if I refuse to accept them, then, like everyone else, I can be obstinately rebellious. While, generally speaking, I am a “grammar freak”, my experiences in language-learning have taught me that “too much, too soon” is every bit as bad as “too little, too late” and, at the risk of being accused of re-posting, I often offer the following little-heeded advice concerning the use of grammars …

I would abstain from acquiring an elaborate/advanced grammar before entering the intermediate level of language study. Often, the examples used to illustrate a point of grammar: (1) involve complex sentences which are simply too challenging for the beginner, (2) use vocabulary well beyond the introductory level, causing the student to divert his attention to a dictionary where he will be confronted with multiple meanings of a word which might not even clarify the situation for him, particularly in cases where idiomatic expressions are involved, and (3) contain other elements of grammar which are not readily apparent to the beginner, but which are essential to the understanding of the rule of grammar presently under discussion. Consulting an elaborate/advanced grammar before one is truly ready to do so can have the paradoxical effect of confusing rather than illuminating the beginner. For this reason, I often recommend recourse to a SIMPLE grammar such as the “(Language) Verbs & Essentials of Grammar” series by McGraw-Hill.

… and that’s all that I’m going to say about that!
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Re: Why is learning ABOUT grammar so prevalent in today’s language classes?

Postby Lianne » Wed Feb 27, 2019 4:15 pm

Brun Ugle wrote:I would have said it is the opposite. There is often far too little grammar explanation in modern classes and books. And they seem afraid to use the actual terminology and instead call verbs “action words” and adjectives “describing words” or other such nonsense. A simple five minute explanation of a grammar point can save weeks of frustration and confusion, in my opinion.


Yes, this has been my experience as well. I've even tried to ask about grammar rules in classes and been told something like "don't worry about that; it's too complicated". It's frustrating because I feel like I need to learn through rules. I can't learn through just a bunch of examples. Of course, examples help, but only built upon the foundation of actual rules.
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Re: Why is learning ABOUT grammar so prevalent in today’s language classes?

Postby Cavesa » Wed Feb 27, 2019 4:44 pm

romeo.alpha wrote:[
I think one of the reasons it's prevalent is because grammar errors can be objectively tested for. If you ask for a particular conjugation, and something else, perfectly understandable is written, then it's still clearly wrong. Then since that's what's being tested for, it's also what needs to be taught. This is compounded by the fact that traditionally languages are not taught by teachers who speak the language well. When I was learning French in elementary school, it was taught by classroom teachers who couldn't speak it themselves. So they aren't in a position to assess someone's progress.


Yes, this definitely plays a role. There are definitely teachers, who goes after what is easier tested and what seems to be the easiest to teach, because the books can basically do it for you. I've seen bad examples of teachers just testing grammar but not really explaining it (I was sometimes doing their job for my classmates). Or they forget that they still need to make a good curriculum. It is a very common problem that a teacher doesn't really progress with the class, and blames the grammar being hard instead of their poor skills.

reineke wrote:“While without grammar very little can be conveyed, without vocabulary nothing can be conveyed”
Wilkins (1972)

“Learners carry around dictionaries and not grammar books”
Schmitt (2010)

The key principle of a lexical approach is that “language consists of grammaticalized lexis, not lexicalized grammar.”
Michael Lewis

With all respect, I think these three statements are not against grammar teaching, or grammar being openly explained.
Nobody doubts the importance of vocabulary. And I have yet to see a class "too focused on grammar" that wouldn't also focus a lot on vocabulary. Testing vocabulary is even easier than testing grammar, and teaching it is even less complicated for the bad teachers.

Learners carry around dictionaries and not grammar books becuase grammar is a less vast area to cover, which has been discussed in many threads, especially those on the intermediate level.

In many threads on vocab, I have said that learning lots of vocabulary is important and finding your way around it is not always comfortable (beyond a certain level). But people butchering grammar are indeed very difficult to understand and unnecessarily make themselves underperform.

I don't think the discussion here is even about vocab vs. grammar, that would make no sense, both are very important. The OP was asking about the grammar explanations and teaching methods, and that they find them exceeding the space communication and practice and less "boring" stuff gets in the class.

trui wrote:More seriously, like Brun Ugle said, being able to use specific words that are consistent across learning materials to identify what you're learning/teaching is very useful.

Just think of how you'd describe the problems with my previous sentence without using any standard grammar terms whatsoever.

On the other hand, you don't have to take your grammar terms from Latin (?). Although Dutch students are learning the Latin terms, there's perfectly good Dutch grammar terms too such as:

bijwoord "by word" adjective
werkwoord "work woord" verb
naamwoord "name word" noun
hoofdzin "head sentence" main clause
bijzin "by sentence" subordinate clause

But the specific terms don't matter, although I prefer the Dutch one; what matters is that they're consistent.

...
Yes vocab matters more in the end, but if you want a fast track to sounding natural/native in a language, then grammar and a couple thousand words is a good start (What I did with Dutch).

Of course trying out what you learn with native speakers goes without saying. It might not be strictly necessary, but it's a quick way to see if you're on the right track. For every piece of grammar I learned, I tried it out with a native speaker and asked if it was correct and natural.


It is normal that there are more than one terminologies. In Czech, we used Latin based and originally Czech words too, I don't think it is much of a problem. The natives not in need of the Latin ones forget them. And the foreigners can actually find them helpful, I'd say.

But a problem can be the use of the native invented terminology, and the foreign terminology. When people start throwing English terms or Czech terms for the French grammar features, I get confused. Some of the terms are obvious, many are not.

That's why I'd recommend any learner to get used to one terminology right from the beginning. If they opt for the latin or native based version that the natives have invented, ok. But I think the confusing part is often not a particular term. It is several terms for the same thing being mixed in chaos.

I totally understand someone can be baffled by the terminology. I used to be baffled too, when I was learning about both the Enlish "present perfect" and "předpřítomný čas", as that sounds more like "before-present" time, and that confused me with more than the tense itself.

I'd say that using resources with only one terminology would actually make the beginning learners much less confused.

Lianne wrote:
Brun Ugle wrote:I would have said it is the opposite. There is often far too little grammar explanation in modern classes and books. And they seem afraid to use the actual terminology and instead call verbs “action words” and adjectives “describing words” or other such nonsense. A simple five minute explanation of a grammar point can save weeks of frustration and confusion, in my opinion.


Yes, this has been my experience as well. I've even tried to ask about grammar rules in classes and been told something like "don't worry about that; it's too complicated". It's frustrating because I feel like I need to learn through rules. I can't learn through just a bunch of examples. Of course, examples help, but only built upon the foundation of actual rules.


Yes, this really happens. My former boyfriend was on a high school for technically oriented people. People good at physics, maths, and in general logical stuff. They got a German teacher, who refused explanations and thought they'd just get it from observation. That was her theory. In reality, she was making these people memorise sentences for tests, without understanding the system at all. Their coursebook was a chaos barely useful in class and totally useless for self study and review. No wonder that not a single one of those people was able to put together their own simple sentence after two years, and all of them hated learning German. My then boyfriend followed my advice, bought a grammar book, and improved. But the damage done to his relationship to German and language learning had already been done, I don't think he ever continued German.

"action words" or "describing words" :-D Yeah, that is part of how you explain the terminology, but not the terminology itself. It is funny, that the teachers don't force the students to say similarly stupid stuff instead of the chemistry or physics terminology. Would people learn these sciences well, if they had to use weird circumventions instead of the basic vocabulary? Imagine a student talking about "the earth ends" instead of roots in biology. It would be the same thing.

The "don't worry about that, it's too complicated" approach is horrible. First of all, you basically tell the student they are too stupid. Way to teach! You also tell them the subject is too hard to be learnt. Awesome, now they are definitely motivated to try. (actually, French teachers do that). And you do not assume they could succeed, welcome to the merry world of self-fulfilling prophecies.

Some people learn well just from the examples, it is definitely true. But many of us don't. And I would bet a bag of coffee that even those learning from examples would need many more examples than they can get in the class. The rules help us get over the initial obstacle with fewer examples, I'd say. And they help people make their own sentences, rather than parrot those few example phrases.
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Re: Why is learning ABOUT grammar so prevalent in today’s language classes?

Postby aokoye » Wed Feb 27, 2019 4:48 pm

Talking about grammar in language classes is far from new. Very far from new. The grammar-translation method is a good example of that. Looking at various language primers that are out of copyright also shows evidence of the prevalence of teaching grammar.
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Re: Why is learning ABOUT grammar so prevalent in today’s language classes?

Postby aokoye » Wed Feb 27, 2019 4:50 pm

Sayonaroo wrote:Isn’t it so that they can give quizzes, tests, homework so they can give the students grades ?? It’s hard to give grades if all you do is give the students comprehensible input and not test them by forcing them to output via speaking, or writing.


There are definitely ways to assess students without requiring TL output.
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Re: Why is learning ABOUT grammar so prevalent in today’s language classes?

Postby reineke » Wed Feb 27, 2019 5:04 pm

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Re: Why is learning ABOUT grammar so prevalent in today’s language classes?

Postby zjones » Wed Feb 27, 2019 6:55 pm

My cousin is in high school. She's very smart and had been learning Spanish for over a year when I related to her my experience learning French. I complained about conjugation in Romance languages, and she was confused. She didn't know was conjugation was, she had never heard the word. There was also a vocabulary issue: she had never learned the verb "to give" in Spanish, but she knew the word for "princess" and "castle". What. :shock:

From what I've heard from other learners, the building blocks of language (grammar and useful vocabulary) is not getting enough focus in schools. That's why students come out of high school able to say "How are you?" and "The apple is red" in Spanish, but are entirely unable to build their own sentences.
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Re: Why is learning ABOUT grammar so prevalent in today’s language classes?

Postby Iversen » Wed Feb 27, 2019 7:42 pm

My school years lie many years back, but I remember them as a mixture of grammar-translatation and some attempts to make us speak freely (and write short essays at home, though not from the beginning). And for me the grammar part was the thing that kept the whole thing together - so to say the instruction manual for using all the words we were taught. So if you ask why people run about with dictionaries and not with grammars, my answer would be that it is to late to study grammar when they already are running around, and their grammar books are not suited to quick lookups. That's why I recommend making 'green sheets' with the essential morphology (and to some extent also those parts of the syntax which are suited for the boiling-down operation). The regular morphology of even of languages like Latin and Icelandic can be resumed on a handful of sheets, and then it becomes feasible to look things up.

As for the recommendations of a purely communicative approach I have seen at least one striking illustration of how badly things can be screwed up by ignoring explicit grammar. From 1968 to 1972 I went to the 'gymnasium' (aka lycée or high school) on the mathematical-physical line, but even there we had one third language to learn, and at my school that language was French. Our teacher was actually extremely intelligent, extremely entertaining and spoke the language fluently. Right now I'm trying to remember whether we had two or three years at our disposal (probably two), but anyway, he tried the communicative French-only approach for 1½ or 2½ year, and he did everything you are supposed to do plus quite a few things more more. He pointed things out, he made us answer in short sentences to questions that already contained most of the relevant words and he explained grammatical notions with small 'puzzles' that to a sufficiently shrewd mind should deliver one and only one result and so on and so forth ... but to no avail. I have forgotten whether we had French for two or three years, but I do remember that with only half a year back he started a lesson by sitting down at his desk and looking sternly at us - and then he spoke in Danish for the first time ever (we had almost forgottern that he was a native compatriot since we hadn't ever heard a Danish word from his lips).

His message was that with maybe one or two exceptions ALL of us would be flunked in a bad way at the impending exam.. and we knew off course that he was right. Practically none of my class mates would be able to ask where the toilet was or check into a hotel in French, and they would have to study it at home first if they were to translate a passage from an ordinary newspaper. So he basically told us that from now on it was to hell with modern pedagogical methods, now we would get French served the good oldfashioned way with grammar and translations both ways etc. etc. And after just half a year almost all passed the oral exam, though generally not with brilliant scores. They had learnt to speak a modicum of French in one half year.

Let's first think about the reasons for this. The obvious problem with this class was that they all saw themselves as future mathematicians or physicians or engineers or whatever, but definitely not as language teachers or interpreters or anything 'soft' and sissylike like that. And generally they saw the French classes as entertainment rather than as a chance to learn a language so they didn't even try to learn or understand anything, let alone how the French language is constructed. They only learned that when they were forced to learn it. And then it is of course likely that they had stored some isolated vocabulary somewhere in their brains which could be retrieved in a suitable environment - which they got when they suddenly had to study the old way. They would never have expected to learn mathematics or physics or chemistry without some goddam hard work, but as math-phys students they had been under the impression that it was possible to learn a language that way. And they were wrong.

I don't write this as a plaidoyer for the use of a narrow grammar-translation method without any attempt to communicate (or in other words: like I was taught Latin) - at best the pure grammar-translation method can lead to passive knowledge about a language and maybe an ephemere ability to decipher Roman insciptions in churches, which is lost when you dont use it. Grammar has to work on some real living language to be thoroughly engrained into a human brain, but even with a more sympathetic mind than the one of one of my old classmates it is hard to see how you can find time to deduce all the rules of the grammar of a language in the limited time you have for the purpose in school if your don't get some assistance along the way. And that assistance is called 'grammar'.

So the real point is not how to escape grammar, but how to teach it as efficiently as possible without boring the learners to death. One point here is to focus on the most important points first and leave the exceptions for later, another is not to serve the information as isolated drops of wisdom.Instead you should show the context of a rule - like which past tenses there are in a language and what forms they have (person, number), but then turn your attention to the tenses and forms that actually are in common use. And finally: to use consistent example sentences instead of trying to making your examples as different as possible to cover as much ground as possible. For instance the teacher or textbook writer should provide several slightly varied examples using a given form, and each example should be as short and simple in its form as possible. After all, you are teaching a mechanism and not how some famous author once used it in a book. So for instance to teach modal verbs in English you should provide plenty of examples, but none of them need to contain more than 5 or 6 words. Anything beyond that just adds noise.

Oh yes, and one thing more: don't EVER present a rule or fact as an exception to something that already in itself is an exception to the rule you are trying to teach your pupils. As somebody once wrote in a book: your speech should be yes yes and no no, and not yes or no (or no no or no yes no) except when X is a member of class Y (unless X happens to be a,b,c, in which case it actually is yes .. or was it no? I have forgotten by now... Formulate the rules in the simplest possible way - and leave the most arcane details aside, only to be studied behind closed doors by professional linguists who have learned from Chomsky how to make things incomprehensible.

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Re: Why is learning ABOUT grammar so prevalent in today’s language classes?

Postby eido » Wed Feb 27, 2019 7:59 pm

I find learning about grammar relaxing, and helpful.

Like other people have said in this thread, it's good to know how to communicate about grammar. That way, you can learn how to analyze as an adult learner.

My Spanish classes in high school (I graduated in 2015) were your basic ones, I guess. I can't remember freshman Spanish - Spanish 1. But later years were filled with conjugating, conjugating, conjugating. I'm glad we did this because otherwise I wouldn't have done it as an independent learner. There was a lot of writing the correct conjugation on whiteboards (pizzaras blancas, as the teacher called them). It'd be a competition to see who would get their whiteboard up the fastest and with the correct answer. On tests, we'd have multiple choice bubbles to pick the correct vocab word to put in a blank a lot of the time. And in higher levels, we'd have to write a paragraph or two demonstrating our correct use of verbs and - you guessed it - conjugation. I remember once we analyzed a Juanes song - apparently according to the Internet, a common pursuit of classes of this level. I think we even repeated words out loud, going systematically through our whole vocab list each unit. There were a few research projects, such as on sex-trafficking and other deep issues in South American countries. Of course, we started with Power Point presentations on what we had for lunch usually and why we liked it. But none of this was enough to prepare for native content. I only got some natural-sounding constructions and phrases into my lexicon from seeing them in my own explorations of the language.
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