Grammar Wars

Thomas Leverett, Feb. 2008

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The communicative revolution taught that second language grammar acquisition was natural: it took place at its own pace, much like first language grammar acquisition. Nobody has to explain it to you; you just get an appropriate amount of input, and you figure it out for yourself, much as you did the first time around. One teacher, in my early days of teaching, used that to explain why he never explained grammar to his students. Nobody ever explained it to me, he said, and I figured it out anyway.

There is enormous and profound reorientation involved in this approach, especially in comparison to the grammar-translation method, which had students poring over grammatical differences until they were fluent in grammatical terms, if not the language they were studying. To the new communicative practitioners, being relieved of the burden of understanding and describing grammatical rules correctly was being relieved of a huge and unpleasant burden, one that itself made language learning a chore, when it so obviously could be so much more pleasant, involving real communication, personal exchange, and mutual understanding.

In the 1970s and 1980s the communicative practitioners brought their new ideas to places like Korea and Japan, where language learning had never quite come out of the grammar-translation era, and where students had in some cases spent years studying rules of grammar, without being used to having to use any of the language, ever, in real or practical situations. The first battles of what I refer to as the Grammar Wars took place between students who expected the old methods, and the new practitioners, who were unwilling to get caught up in explaining arcane grammar rules, and were more likely to focus their classes on conversational use of language in practical situations.

As a teacher fresh out of graduate school in 1986, employed in Korea, I was in the perfect spot to observe the fallout from this clash in expectations. My fellow teachers were all for the most part communicative practitioners; the students were from a grammar-translation background, but were well aware that they lacked basic oral fluency, despite having as much as seven to ten years of hard grammar training behind them. My program set up oral interviews as exit finals and its management was dogmatic about the idea that oral fluency, not grammatical adeptness, was the desirable goal. Our classes were set up to be communicative: the teacher facilitated language use; students were expected to produce language in real, meaningful situations every day; strategies for succeeding in group and pair conversations were stressed over mastery of finer grammatical points.

Anyone who taught in similar situations (and there were many) can probably agree with me about several common features of these situations. First was that textbooks still stressed grammatical points, so we were on our own when it came to explaining how exactly a student could learn to survive and succeed in a conversational situation. It was a commonly heard observation that our students were often book-smart, with wide vocabularies and great knowledge in their field, yet unable to carry on a basic conversation with a cab driver or a stranger on the phone. Yet how were we to correct this deficit? We shared lessons and ideas, but the new books on the subject hadn't arrived yet; the field was still adjusting to the new paradigm.

Second, though the students weren't entirely unresponsive to the new methods, they were clearly uncomfortable with many of them. They were aware that their training had left them too strong in grammar, too weak in oral fluency, and in many cases they enjoyed the opportunity to try speaking and using the language with each other. But, used to sitting passively for hours on end in not only language but also other classes, for most of their lives, they were simply unprepared to actually produce a new language, sometimes four to six hours a day or more. Their natural stubbornness kicked in; they subverted the groups or pairs, or mumbled, or spoke their native languages when not being directly watched or monitored. In Korea as well as in other places, a social ethic among students often prevented any one of them from being too eager to adapt the new culture and its oral speaking habits; better to kick back, silently and skeptically, waiting to speak only when forced or pressured to do so.

Third, the grammatical questions never ended; they sprung naturally from students who were trying to figure out what they read. We could refuse to answer them, answer them after class, or answer them quickly in class and then change the subject. But others would pop up immediately, or one answer would lead to another question. They genuinely wanted to know, from a native speaker, why our language would do what it did. For example, why is there a present perfect? Why do we need it? How do you determine when to use the as opposed to a or nothing? How do you explain this?

I felt guilty going to other teachers for answers to such questions, since our dogma taught that we shouldn't even be dealing with such things. This, in fact, varied from place to place; in some places, veteran teachers went on explaining grammar as if nothing had changed at all; in other places, teachers were so dogmatic that they refused to even bring up the subject of grammar; when asked these questions, they would just tell their students to look it up if they really wanted to know; in some cases that I remember, they wouldn't even bother telling the student where to look it up, or how to find it.

In my own mind I was curious about several questions, many of which I am still trying to answer satisfactorily. First, adult second language learners seem to want answers to questions about grammar points as a natural process of learning the language; is it wrong or ineffective for them to spend their time seeking them? Is it a good or poor use of class time for a teacher to provide them (even assuming that only one student is really in the position to receive the answer and use it effectively)? Is a discrete-grammar class, one in which a teacher focuses on the points, explains them, and then drills and tests them, truly a waste of time, or a poor use of time, as communicative theorists would argue? How is the second-language learning process really different from the first-language process, besides the fact that now we were dealing with fully grown adults, who had been thinking in their first language their entire lives? I had to admit that I had never heard grammar questions such as the ones I was hearing before I began teaching, had never asked them when I was learning the language as a child, had never heard an answer to any of them, had never even had cause to consider them as questions. Yet the grammar questions kept on coming- not only from the diligent Koreans of those classes, but from every other adult efl/esl student I've taught since those days. I had to conclude that questions about grammar, and how things are done in a language, were a natural part of the process, at least for adult second-language learners. Perhaps the first-language learning children didn't need them, didn't know how to ask them, or were content to let their parents feed them until they had the input data to answer them themselves, from the data alone. Or perhaps the first language set the mind into such a pattern, that seeing or arranging words in another pattern seemed so utterly incomprehensible, that one couldn't resist asking why, if one had the chance, whereas, from the first-language learning point of view, there was nothing to compare it with (generally), so why ask why?

As a teacher I took the middle road, learning how to answer the questions and explain the grammar to the best of my ability, yet also focusing on the use of the language in practical situations, in order to please everyone. But I began to notice a curious split in the teaching profession, based on opinions toward an extremely popular set of grammar books, the Azar series, which teachers either loved or hated. They featured boxes (known as Betty boxes to some) that explained grammar points concisely, and exercises that had simple vocabulary, and thus were made to encourage understanding of how grammar points were used. In other words, the book was built around the learner's process of understanding how and when grammar structures were used, on the assumption that this process should be followed with simple and unobtrusive vocabulary, unencumbered by the intrusive conditions real life can bring to a sentence; it didn't concern itself with analyzing real language or even finding real examples of the structures in use. The teachers who tended to focus on real use of structures, not believing that the student's basic understanding of it had to come first, or was important, or believing that that understanding would follow the active use of the structure, tended to hate the book, as a shallow book, its boxes and banal sentences disconnected from reality. Teachers like me, however, who saw student understanding of a structure and why and how it is made as the foundation of its use, loved the book, as the provider of the first step in all successful student use of any of its structures. It's not that students couldn't figure out the grammar in other ways; it was just that a good clear explanation seemed to hit the spot every time, and for every student, at one point or another.

The book's phenomenal sales over the last thirty years, I believe, have shown the fact that students essentially agreed with me, and were willing to vote with their pocketbook, even when teachers prescribed other books.

My conclusion is simply that second language learners need and appreciate simple explanations for why a language does what it does; for whatever reason, second language learning is different from first language learning that way. Given the possible ways that second language learning is different from first language learning: first, that second language learners receive much less input before they have to produce a language, and have far more pressure to produce before they are ready (this I feel is the primary reason); second, that second language learners have already been programmed, so to speak, to see language in terms of their first language; or, finally, that second language learners have the vocabulary and a situation where the question is appropriate, that the child never has; I would argue that the implication that second language learning is similar to or the same as first language learning is most sorely disproven here.

This does not necessarily imply that programs should set up entire classes to do this, or even that writing teachers should spend class time explaining grammar, though in our program a class does do this, so I as a writing teacher feel I don't have to. As I said above, the question of effectiveness of class time is still, to me, an open question. As a teacher, I've always felt that learners themselves wouldn't waste my time with questions if they didn't really feel the need for an answer, so I've just made it my business to not only get the answers as well as I could, but also provide them on request, either in class, or if necessary outside of class, whenever I could. And I've done this primarily because I've felt unable to tell them that they could live without the answers.

(Feb. 2008)

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