How will grammar help you to speak better English?
There is usually not much debate on this topic. Most people appear to accept it as fact. “Of course it’s true. Grammar is the most important thing!” they say. but if you ask them why, they can’t really tell you!
I would like to start by saying they are not completely wrong. If we divide “grammar” into two different categories, that might help us to see why they are not completely right either…
The first category is “book grammar”. This is the most common one, seen in classrooms all over the world. This method was derived from the way Latin was taught in England in the 19th century. It hasn’t changed much since then!
The second category is “natural grammar”. This is the one that every three year old child seems able to do in their own language(s), but adults learning a foreign language often have a hard time emulating.
Why is that? Well, the answer is obvious, but some people refuse to see it. The human brain is hard-wired to learn languages from people – not from books!
This fact should revolutionize the way teachers teach language – so why hasn’t it? My take on this question is twofold: One – we couldn’t break out of the industrial education style. Two – people tend to fall back into default mode when there is no intrinsic motivation. in other words, we all want to slack off when the teacher is not looking!
To make matters worse, teachers also slip into default mode more often than we would care to admit. And for most teachers, default mode is either more grammar teaching or letting the students take control of the class. Both of these have disastrous results!
So what is the answer? I think the key word here is DEDICATION. That means both the students and the teachers have to be dedicated to the task that they are doing at any moment.
Let’s take an example: A teacher wants to teach a class of teenagers who are preparing for a final exam in two months. What should s/he do?
a. Let them study by themselves?
b. Force them to do the next chapter of the book?
c. Discuss exam strategies with them?*
d. Set them a series of tasks that will test specific skills that will help them improve their performance in real life?*
If you chose “a”, ask yourself how effective this is likely to be. If you had a class composed 100% of studious types, this might work. You could wander around giving guidance to those who need it and monitor their progress. But how many classes are really that quiet?
If you chose “b”, ask yourself, “is it really necessary?” You may have a good reason to do this – like “it’s bound to come up in the exam” or “we have to finish the book”, but are these really good reasons? How do people pass tests? The most successful learners are always the ones who did the work, not the ones who memorized the “key facts” just before the test – or even the “geniuses” who didn’t have to study because they “know everything”!
The problem is, not everyone needs to study the same thing at the same time. And nobody learns at the same pace or even in the same way! This means that the industrial model CANNOT work!
We need a totally new way of learning and a new way of teaching. People have been saying this for a long time, but nothing seems to really change. There are now so many “methods” that it is difficult to know which one is the best. What if they all are?!
It’s a modest proposal: Taking into account what Howard Gardner said about learning styles and combining it with the essentials of “cognitive” and “behavioural” models (as espoused by Chomsky and Skinner) we might come up with a model of teaching that caters to individual needs and covers the generally accepted norms of education for the culture.
If we can break out of the “QWERTY syndrome” and adapt ourselves to the new age, we might just learn something, and – even better – we might actually teach something!
*So the correct answer was “c” and “d”, probably in that order!