Words and grammar

English grammar in second language learning


While native speakers have years of childhood to gradually acquire at least some mastery of grammar, those learning English as a second or foreign language must do so in a much shorter time frame.

by Andrew Rossiter

Page index : Second languages are not first languages What is grammar? How is grammar best taught?

First-language learning and second language learning are two largely different processes

When a small child first starts to speak, he or she begins a process of language development that will continue over many years, if not over a whole lifetime. The acquisition of a first or "native" language begins on the day an infant is first exposed to sounds and words from people around him or her; it is a very slow process, taking several years of full "immersion" before the child is able to express basic messages without ambiguity, and many more years before the child - by then usually an adolescent or young adult - is fully or essentially litterate. Yet even with these long years of language acquisition, which generally  include years of instruction in school, the language skills of many people remain limited even in their own native language, or languages.

Second language learning is carried out in a far more limited time frame, and therefore calls for a more guided approach. It is the teacher's job to provide much of the guidance.

Before looking at the question of second language learning, it is important to define what we mean by second languages. For the purposes of language education, a second language can be defined as an additional language, i.e. any language that is not learned in a home environment in childhood, but is learned essentially as a language skill in a classroom or other specific learning environment. In this sense, a "second" language may be a foreign language, a national language which is not that of the learner's home environment, or any other language that is acquired or learned in addition to the learner's native language(s). Thus a "second" language may actually be the third, fourth, fifth etc. language that a person learns. In the general framework of second language learning, there is no fundamental distinction between "EFL" and "ESL", though there will be many contextual differences.

The significant element in the expression second language learning is the word "learn". Various attempts have been made to show that second languages can be taught largely by mimicking the process of first language acquisition (Communicative Language Teaching, The Silent Way), with the emphasis on language acquisition rather than on language learning. And while it is true that in some situations and with some learners, communicative or acquisitional processes can produce good results, notably when the main purpose is to achieve a good mastery of spoken English, the inescapable reality for second language teachers is that in most cases, particularly when writing and reading skills are involved, students need to learn, or at least acquire, some formal knowledge of grammar.

This raises two questions. Firstly what do we mean by "learn grammar"? And secondly how is grammar best taught?

What do we mean by  "learn grammar"?

Even Krashen (1), who championed language teaching by acquisition and convinced a generation and a half of English teachers that formal grammar teaching was pointless, never said that grammar itself was pointless. Besides, in the 21st century, Krashen's distinction between language acquisition and language learning has been contested, formal grammar teaching has made a comeback, and the question is no longer whether to teach grammar, but how to teach it.

Krashen objected to formal grammar teaching because he saw it as a process where prescriptive rules needed to be learned then applied. This process, he maintained, was one that hindered rather than helped language learners, who would acquire grammar better by absorbing it through experience. The problems here are firstly that nobody has been able to prove that teaching grammar, as such, hinders its acquisition, and secondly that the expression teaching grammar can be interpreted in a multitude of different ways.

If by teaching grammar one means making students learn grammar tables (where they exist in English) by heart, then Krashen had a point. Any such ultra-formal way of teaching grammar is sure to fail with a large number of students – but even this technique will be successful with some second language learners, as there are plenty of learners who like or even need this type of formal framework on which to build their language skills.

Krashen rightly insisted that language teaching, like first language acquisition, should work from the simple to the more complex, a piece of advice that will not come as a surprise to any teacher; where he seems to have got things wrong is in imagining that grammar is intrinsically complex. It is certain that grammar can be made to seem extremely complex when looked at through the pages of a voluminous linguistic grammar of English; learning grammar can be made to seem an arduous task when a teacher insists too much on the book-learning of rules and exceptions, on linguistic explanations,  and on a morphosyntaxical approach to language. But this is linguistics rather than grammar. 

So to the question "What do we mean by grammar?", the answer has to be much simpler. In pedagogical terms, grammar is a set of fundamental conventions that determine how chains of words correctly express the meaning intended. And generally speaking these rules or conventions are not complicated, particularly in an analytic language like English. 

Grammar allows an action or process to be correctly situated in time, allows words to relate to each other as required, distinguishes statements from questions, and affirmations from negations. Some grammatical rules may be acquired intuitively by some learners, but there are few if any second language learners who will be able to "acquire" all the rules for themselves. For all second language learners, as indeed for many native language learners, input from a teacher who is able to point out and explain the essential rules of grammar will help language acquisition, certainly not hinder it.

How is grammar best taught?

There are three essential rules to follow when it comes to teaching grammar effectively:
  1. Keep  it simple
  2. Teach grammar, not linguistics
  3. Teach grammar through relevant and clear examples.

There is no scientific definition of what grammar is. In short, grammar is what you make it.

Successful grammar teaching at all levels below C2 therefore comes from concentrating on the fundamental conventions or rules of grammar, not on the oddities and exceptions, and from showing how simple the fundamentals of grammar really are, not how complicated grammar can be.

Keep it simple

The first step towards successful grammar teaching is to present grammar as the relatively logical framework of language usage that it is. This means that the teacher must first of all be familiar with the fundamental conventions or rules of English grammar, in order to be able to explain them simply and coherently to students.

To take a classic example of how grammar can be made to appear either seriously complicated or relatively simple, look at tenses.  Fortunately, most EFL / ESL teaching materials present English as a language with at least three tenses, and anything up to sixteen, depending on how they define the word tense. For the purposes of teaching, it is pointless to quibble over the number of tenses there are; it is even more pointless to go with the approach currently favoured in the world of linguistics, which is to say that English has just two tenses. In morphosyntaxic terms, that may be true; in semantic and pragmatic terms, it is not, and students know this. Any second language teacher who, citing Quirk or others, tells learners that there is no such thing in English as a "future tense" is obfuscating and inviting confusion, not teaching grammar.

Teach grammar, not linguistics

A key to the successful  teaching of grammar is therefore to avoid confusing the words grammar - which should involve a pragmatic or semantic approach to language - and linguistics, which is most commonly a morpho-syntaxic analysis of language.  Part of the problem surrounding the teaching of "grammar" is the enormous confusion between the two terms that exists in so much writing and teaching, particularly at the highest levels.

Grammar and linguistics are not synonyms, so it is useful to make a clear and simple purpose-based distinction between the two terms.

The purpose of (theoretical) linguistics is to explain the inner systems of language; the purpose of grammar is to show how language is used.

So while linguistics is a discipline for academic study,  grammar should seek to describe the simple and often intuitive set of rules and principles that are shared by most users of a language, from children upwards.

 Teaching grammar means essentially, but not exclusively, knowing the rules of "standard" English – while accepting that some aspects of this standard English may vary according to context, particularly when referring to spoken English. Take just the simple example of the expression "She has not". This is universal standard English, but it is not the only way of expressing a meaning which can also be quite correctly expressed as "she hasn't", or as "she's not" (depending on context and style) but not, in written English, as  "she ain't", which is generally not accepted in any formal written style. In standard American English, acceptable variants might even be "she didn't" or "she did not" when referring to past time.... 

In language classes worldwide, students have a habit of asking questions about grammar, whether they are invited to do so or not, and teachers need to be prepared for this. The simpler yet more precise the answers that teachers can provide, the more effective they will be.

Use plenty of relevant and clear examples.

The use of examples is fundamental to large areas of teaching, and second language teaching is no exception.

While Krashen argued against the formal teaching of grammar, he argued strongly in favour of learning through example; indeed teaching a language through examples in context is seen as a fundamental part of communicative language teaching. Yet in reality there is no need to choose between teaching grammar rules and teaching through examples, the two techniques are not mutually exclusive. On the contrary, they complement each other.

That being said, it is still important to stress that teaching grammar solely through examples, without any explanation of the rules, will not produce the best results. Many students will be unable to work out rules from examples unless they get some help, which implies that teachers need to be proactive, understand the basic grammar themselves, and able to correctly relate examples to the principles of grammar that they illustrate. If this is done effectively, language proficiency can be developed through learning from examples that illustrate in a coherent way how English grammar is used.

Finally, it is important to remember that for most learners, second languages have to be mastered in a very short time frame, often just a few hours a week during the school year or through a short course. The passive acqusition of grammar by learners is generally a long and slow process, and one that can seldom be completed in the time allotted for the purpose in a school environment. By pointing out the grammar rules that underlie familiar examples, the teacher can greatly accelerate the process. The more efficiently a teacher can help students understand the fundamental rules of the language, the foundations on which the language is built, the more successful the teaching should be.

1. Stephen Krashen (born 1941). From the 1980s to the early 21st century, Krashen's hypotheses of language acquisition had a major impact on the development of language teaching worldwide, notably in the English-speaking world. Krashen was a prolific writer, but he summarised his own work neatly in a series of lectures published under the title Explorations in Language Acquisition and Use (Heinemann 2003).

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