Our next Twitter chat will take place on Thursday 4th June 2015 at 6.30pm Perth time [click here to check the time elsewhere in the world] and will be on the topic of ‘Getting away from grammar’. We are privileged to have this chat guest-moderated by Daniel Midgley, Lecturer in ESL and Applied Linguistics at Edith Cowan University, WA, and known to many of you through the Talk the Talk Podcast. Daniel has put together this blog post for your pre-chat reading and has posed a few questions for us to discuss on Thursday. Enjoy!
Getting away from grammar
Guest post by Daniel Midgley
English language teaching is notable for its variety. There are so many ways to go!
- Our teaching can take a lexical bent, where the focus is on words and phrases
- We can focus on the situations our students will find themselves in,
- We can use a functional approach by working on the kinds of speech acts our students need to perform, like requests, introductions, compliments, and so on
- Or we can work on the skills of language — reading, writing, listening, and speaking — along with the strategies that helps students acquire these skills.
And yet, despite this variety, we always seem to come back to the same thing… grammar.
Grammar is important — it helps us say things we haven’t heard yet — but sometimes it seems that as teachers we revert to a grammatical approach as some kind of default. We like teaching grammar because it makes us feel like real teachers, especially if we’re new. Our students like it because they feel like they’re getting what they should. And employers like it because grammar is what teachers are “supposed” to teach. Open an ESL textbook, and there it is — grammar. Sometimes it seems like a bit of a stuck record.
And teaching grammar might not even be the best approach. It’s so unlike the way we learn a first language. When we’re young, we learn from hearing words, phrases, and sentences in context. We repeat them over and over, we try out new things, and no one minds if we walk around talking rubbish. But when we get older, teachers say essentially, “Here, let me show you how to perform morphological and syntactic manipulations in a way that’s as unlike learning your first language as possible.” Then we wonder why learning a language is so difficult.
I noted this article with some interest. It’s hyperpolyglot Tim Doner, talking about his experience learning languages.
I began my language education at age thirteen. I became interested in the Middle East and started studying Hebrew on my own. For reasons I still don’t quite understand, I was soon hooked on the Israeli funk group Hadag Nachash, and would listen to the same album every single morning. At the end of a month, I had memorized about twenty of their songs by heart — even though I had no clue what they meant. But once I learned the translations it was almost as if I had downloaded a dictionary into my head; I now knew several hundred Hebrew words and phrases — and I’d never had to open a textbook.
I decided to experiment. I spent hours walking around my New York City neighborhood, visiting Israeli cafés to eavesdrop on people’s conversations. Sometimes, I would even get up the courage to introduce myself, rearranging all of the song lyrics in my head into new, awkward and occasionally correct sentences. As it turned out, I was on to something.
Notice how, rather than studying grammar, his approach seems to focus on input, input, and more input. Words and phrases come first, and then his brain does the work of inducing the grammar in the background.
Of course, this is one person’s anecdotal experience, but is there anything here we can use? Or is this just a guy with an unusual aptitude for language acquisition?
Here are some discussion questions, just for starters:
- Have you managed to get away from grammar in your teaching? Do you teach in a way that puts something else in the foreground? If so, what else is taking the place of prominence?
- What’s your language learning experience? Was the grammar instruction you received helpful, or was there something else that worked better?
- Is it necessary to have a grammar focus in mind, and to design tasks with that in mind? Or can we play it as we go, explaining the things that come up naturally?
- What’s the difference between the way you teach (or learn) and the way you’d like to?
- What, if anything, can we take away from Tim Doner’s experience?
- What research are you aware of on this topic?
- Or can the grammatical approach be defended? Change my view!
Thanks for reading, and I’m looking forward to discussing these issues with you as part of our #AusELT Twitter chat!
Daniel Midgley teaches applied linguistics and language acquisition at Edith Cowan University and the University of Western Australia. He started teaching EAL/D back in the days when it was ESL. He is also a presenter for Talk the Talk on RTRFM 92.1 in Perth (www.talkthetalkpodcast.com).