I Advocate We Teach Grammar

I propose we teach grammar.

Not because I harbour evil designs of making some lives unnecessarily miserable with boring study of rules. But simply because they are not just a set of rules as most of us are wont to believe.

O well, I truly believe Grammar study isn’t just about mugging up rules. You can think of it as the ‘logic’ that tells – rather ‘shows’ – us what the conventions of a certain language are and how the elements of language work together.

Language is easier to learn if one knows how its elements work. Most of us that speak and write well in a certain language, are able to do so because we have ‘figured’ this ‘logic’ out or perhaps it was the training in language studies, one may have had at school.

Gopi a very brilliant teacher of TGES had once declared that she produces pretty cool sentences, that she is at ease with the use of the English language, but doesn’t remember whether she is using passive or active voice of a verb. The point here is that, yes, Gopi, you think so, but you do KNOW!

She may not be thinking of the terms, but her mind knows. Her language-brain has figured out the various acceptable arrangements, functions and the conventions of how they are used.

What aided her in her case is obvious – long, systematic and wide exposure. Regular drilling. Plenty of opportunities to use the language in real life situations. Most of all, systematic, persistent monitoring through feedback, by teachers, peers, books, journals, music, cinema and the community in general.

Gopi is about five years younger than me. It means she went to school roughly about the same time as I did. It was a tradition among teachers back then to do some grammar in class: especially, lots and lots of exercises in changing the tense of verbs in sentences, the voice, the mode of narration, word forms.

They also taught us what each part is called, along with the rules for using them. Just as the biology or the physics teacher taught us what stuff are called and how the universe works. How many of us remember that today? Or care? But we still can function more than efficiently with our hands and minds and use a pressure cooker quite correctly. So then why teach those subjects even? And, to all and sundry? Language at least is useful to all, but why should Biology or Organic chemistry matter to someone like me?

A lot of us drive today. I mean women. How many of us do so knowing where the coolers are or how it all works? What about computers? Plenty of people use a Laptop today. Ordinary teachers like me as well. Yet, do we, do I know how my machine works? Am I helpless when simple things go wrong?

Wouldn’t life have been easier if someone had taken the time to explain my machine to me? At least I would have been able to take better care of it. I would be able to use it better too. Is it not empowering to know more about the stuff we use?

I do believe knowing always helps. Those who understand their bodies, do better at coping with its idiosyncrasies and pain and all that. In fact, with patients today in the

West, I believe it is common practice for doctors to explain to them what is going on in their bodies, and what treatment procedures the docs are about to undertake, to help. This not only enlists his patient’s co-operation, it also perhaps helps psyche the patient to experience psychosomatic (am not sure if this is the term, if am wrong somebody please let me know) responses to his condition for healing to begin from within, which works faster anyway. I really am not sure of the medical facts but what I mean is when the mind is at peace, it can help the body heal.

I do believe knowing the names of the parts of your car, and knowing how they work empowers you to use it well. It gives you the power to talk about it when things go wrong. You then understand what your mechanic is doing to your beloved car – wrecking it further ensuring a second visit soon for a few thousands more or really fixing it. It gives you better buying insight. It certainly helps you to use your car better and appreciate it for what it is.

ClichéMen love their cars – one major reason for that is they understand the workings of it. O yes! They do know the names, and the rules/functions. THAT is WHAT makes them go ‘wow!-’ when they see a good car. Am sure we have all come across shy men open up and rattle off all the features of his favourite Skoda when the talk finally comes around to “Nice car!” They know how the gear works, so can appreciate the new gear features. Just the same way somebody aware of how language normally works would appreciate what you do to your sentences in poetry or prose. “O look at that formation now, see how he turns it around – lovely!”

Appreciation for fine things usually come from an ‘understanding’ of the inner intricacies of stuff – be it wine, your car, beautiful diamonds or just plain language.

By the way, how many of us, including teachers, even realize that it is the one most important programming tools we are using 24/7! How do you train? How do you mould those minds, moderate behaviour at a crowded shopping mall? How do you transfer knowledge and skills? Using bloody what? Just as a Programmer would use his Visual Basic/Java/C++ or whatever to communicate with his machine to make it do stuff for us, we’re doing the same with everyone around us with language. We don’t realize it as it’s so integral to our system. So vitally important after nourishment. So basic. We are so used to it. We hardly know its there. But it is there nevertheless.

I wonder how many English teachers, text-book writers-reviewers, syllabus framers at the Education Boards,  are aware even that there isn’t one but at least half a dozen different kinds of grammars? That it is NOT an absolute set of rules? That it is not even rules as we know them, but conventions of the culture that developed that language? There is nothing absolute about language. No wrong or right. Simply acceptable or unacceptable. Conventional or unconventional usage.

It is simply because of this fact alone that we should continue teaching grammar in ways that is in sync with the contemporary understanding of how language works and with the technology associated with it. Ever since research in Artificial Intelligence* became popular, in fact it did only AFTER some leaps happened in the world of language research – it was perhaps with Chomsky’s work on language acquisition, that sped AI research miles ahead, Development of Machine language improved too.

As language teachers we ought to be aware of how important it is, for developers of machine language, to know how and on what levels the language we use work. We need to know there are engineers who painstakingly study how a child’s mind file words, acquire new structures, embeds patterns, discard aberrations etc so they can figure out how best to graft a language into your interactive intelligent machine.

Awareness of such things would help us appreciate that Grammar teaching is not such a waste of time after all. We do not have to teach what was written 100 years ago. But maybe as practitioners we should try and find out what is the ‘grammar’ of the day? To those who are aware, my question is, doesn’t it make sense to show learners how it works? Isn’t Transformational Generative Grammar a sensible option while dealing with a restless class? Aren’t a lot of games we play based on that?

Most Principals have heard of or have learned about CLT at Government/BCL sponsored or perhaps OUP funded seminars and workshops. Knowing what CLT stands for (Communicative Language Teaching) is itself like ‘O something’ with them. They use it too, I have noticed on many occasions, at interviews especially, to impress or intimidate a teacher or simply to test awareness. However, what we are not paying heed to probably because BCL/OUP or the government isn’t telling us is-the grammar the CLT METHOD of teaching is based upon. What contemporary understanding and theories of language-acquisition led us to profess CLT as an effective method in an L2 environment? Do we not need to know that as well? An understanding of that might help practitioners better use the method and the material designed for CLT.

Why did I write this blog? Am sick and tired of watching teachers bumbling with methods and messing up children’s lives. A lot of them are nipping young poets and writers in the bud and costing the nation some Nobel prizes.

The whole language system is costing us plenty of good engineers and scientists who might otherwise develop and blossom if they could only get a hand out of that gutter called ‘passing exams in school’ especially in English medium schools.

A lot of sarkari paisa (read tax payers’ money) is wasted in misdirected training of clueless English teachers, even more clueless trainers. People spend 12-15 years in an English medium school and still need to go spend an arm and a leg at these ELTS centres to re-learn a Language they should already have mustered. It’s such a waste of time and money.

Isn’t language one of the most important resources that any community in the world possesses?

Just imagine one hour of you lives without any language at all. No words. No sound. Go on – just use sign language. Make your cinema with it. Write your report with sign language. Go build your bridges with just drawings and gestures.

If you have been successful, well then, let’s throw language away and my theory and let this argument rest. Thank you.

Links to site that tells you more about Artificial Intelligence:http://www-formal.stanford.edu/jmc/whatisai/

There is a movie by the same name by S. Spielberg if someone is interested. That doesn’t talk about language teaching par se though.

Steven Pinker is the one to dig for HOW A CHILD ACQUIRES LANGUAGE.

Link: pinker.wjh.harvard.edu/

YouTube VDO here:  http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=3554279466299738997

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2 thoughts on “I Advocate We Teach Grammar

  1. I agree 100%. I have looked at Google Translate. I have played about with Arabic and I have used French to formulate some of my replies. What I do is get a French Translation and edit it.

    In Arabic, as is also the case with French and Spanish, adjectives follow nouns and agree. In Arabic – English adjectives often follow nouns indicating a lack of parsing. Arabic, like Latin, is inflected and one can tell at a glance therefore what belongs to what, so there is really no excuse for putting an adjective after a noun.

    In English – French there is often lack of agreement.

    All this indicates that the preparers of Google Translate understand statistical methods, but do not have any grammar built in. This is a serious omission.

    In English – Arabic it does not use proper duals. The two etc.etc.

  2. 🙂 Am proud to have you here, Sir. Thanks. Wonder if it might be possible for you to write a few lines for Language Teachers ‘showing’ them how Knowing Grammar helps someone like you or in your field.
    Or would you care to simply send in something you might have written earlier anyway, somewhere, in some other context and that is relevant in this one?

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