Can we learn grammar through conversation?

Not long ago, I got into a little argument with another English teacher.

The argument started when he sent me a bunch of worksheets he had created for students. These worksheets were long and complicated. Various sentences were highlighted in many different colors, and the colors corresponded to different grammatical concepts. At the bottom of the pages were verbose multiple-choice questions, many of which used academic terminology that reminded me of the English grammar exercises that I was forced to do in elementary school.

Looking at these worksheets gave me a headache. I told the other teacher that I prefer to base my classes around conversation, and to deal with grammatical issues only when they become a problem, or when the student explicitly asks about them. In this way, I explained, the learning process for my students more closely reflects the way that children learn their native languages unconsciously. When something isn't clear to them, they ask a question. When they make a mistake that creates a barrier to communication, or that relates to their personal development goals, I point out the mistake. We talk about it for as long as necessary, and then we go back to our conversation.

Well, when the other teacher heard that, he had a fit. "Students want structure!" he exclaimed. "That's what they're paying you for."

I thought about that statement. And I realized that, to a certain extent, he was right. Students do often pay for structure. And that's not a good thing.

I used to work in advertising operations in New York. When I say "operations," I mean that I was one of the people responsible for actually doing the difficult work. Among other things, I planned campaigns and made sure that they ran smoothly. But many of my colleagues did not work in operations. They worked in sales. And when they talked about their client relationships, they sounded a lot like the teacher with the complicated worksheets.

In other ways, these sales people were quite different from that teacher. They were all quite attractive. They dressed well. They smiled a lot. They were very good at reading other people's emotions, and very good at saying whatever their clients wanted to hear.

But most of the time, in terms of the actual product that these people were selling, they had absolutely no idea what they were talking about. This ignorance did not affect their commissions, though. Their smiles, stylish clothes, confidence, and charisma were usually enough to persuade clients to fork over their money.

And then, once the deal was made, the clients would never see those sales people again. Any actual support for the product or service would fall to someone like me. Someone who worked in operations. In other words, someone who actually knew what the hell they were doing.

Very few people in this world are good at both sales and operations. It's usually one or the other.

So how does this relate to structured English lessons?

Well, the rigorously structured lesson is actually a sales technique. It convinces you that you are spending your money for a reason. After all, it's not as if you could create your own worksheets, is it? The more difficult the lesson is, the more you become convinced that you still have a lot to learn. And, ironically, you start to believe that the right person to teach you is the same person who is making you feel bad about your own abilities. This is the same kind of psychological trap that keeps people in "romantic" relationships that are actually based on fear and abuse.

Here's the dirty little secret about language acquisition: It's a natural, mostly unconscious process that requires nothing more than continuous exposure to comprehensible input.

What is comprehensible input? It's a chunk of language that you understand intuitively as you hear or read it. Why do you understand it intuitively? Because it's so close to your current level of comprehension that you don't have to work very hard to figure it out.

How do you know that the language you're going to be exposed to is at the right level for it to count as comprehensible input?

Well, that's where the teacher comes in.

A good teacher will shape a conversational lesson in the following ways (among others):

  • The teacher will use graded language. That means using vocabulary and grammatical structures that the student is likely to understand.
  • The teacher will make sure that the topic is relevant to the student. This does not mean that the topic doesn't matter, or that it should be chosen at random. It simply means that the student ought to feel like the communication is worthwhile in itself. Not as a lesson, but as actual communication.
  • The teacher will focus on the student's ability to communicate in a useful way. If the student is telling a story, then are her main ideas getting across? Is she using idioms in the same way that native speakers would use them?
  • The teacher will make reasonable choices about when and how to correct the student's mistakes. No one wants to feel like the person with whom they are communicating is more interested in criticizing than in listening. The appropriate frequency and method of correction, as well as the type of mistakes worth correcting, are carefully determined by the teacher, based on an understanding of the student's level, learning style, and goals.
  • The teacher will offer a series of challenges that are reasonable and interesting for that particular student. This could mean, for example, asking a question in a colloquial way, and listening carefully to the student's answer so as to determine whether the colloquialism was understood. Or it could mean introducing a difficult word (relevant to the student's interests) in a context in which the student is likely to understand and remember it.
Do you disagree with everything I've said above? I understand; let's book some time to discuss it. Be sure to include some notes about your goals, which grammatical constructs you have problems with, and other subjects that may interest you.

Other Verbling articles by this teacher:

Business Emails: When Using "You" Can Be Impolite

Writing In Another Language: The Ultimate Challenge

Reading Difficult Texts Aloud: Fluency For Advanced Students

"Stand" vs. "Stand Up": What's The Difference?

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