Let’s Teach Grammar Please – 3

Intensive language training (for the US troops he means) would be wasted effort for an impossible goal.

The problems are:

1) It’s extremely hard to learn a foreign language after puberty.

2) The foreign languages American children do study in school (French, Spanish, likely Mandarin in the future) aren’t spoken in current trouble-spots and may or may not be in future trouble-spots.

3) Americans with advanced foreign language skills don’t join the military.

4) Most soldiers don’t need to speak the local language. Sure it’d be great if they magically did, but they can be effective without it. Local translators and future automatic translation will help.

While American children may or may not learn another language at school, it is still imperative that most  Indian children learn English at school.

The reasons for that would be clear to most Indians and therefore, I refrain from elaborating them in this post, which is about whether we are teaching it with the right perspective, at this moment, and whether we are right in doing away with Grammar teaching, totally from our curriculum.

Two ideas in that article caught my attention. Firstly, it indeed becomes extremely difficult to learn a new language after puberty. Which means it is sensible to teach new languages at the earliest possible stage of a human child’s developement.

Secondly, the reference to automatic translator machines to help us cope with the problem of the impossibility of learning new languages as and when required – instead to use automatic translator machines.

In the context of the discussion about what is the right age to introduce a new language to learners,  I remember,  the West Bengal Government had taken English off the Board recommended English syllabus, on the presumption that it was hard for children to grasp  a new language but their own mother tongue while they are very young.

So English as a second language came to be taught from Class V in State Government sponsored, mostly Bengali medium schools.

Children started ABC – alphabets – at age ten. Which means they start on a new language, and a foreign one at that after nearly seven years of schooling. Seven, because here children start school when they are three years old, in Preparatory, moving on to Class 1 through Nursery, and Kindergarten. They are ten years old when they are in Class V.

Learning a new language at ten years of age –  is the scenario in English medium schools meant for the financially well-off middle class children. Of course in most reputed English medium schools, they introduce English at the Prep itself, formally bringing in the State Board prescribed books at Class I. But learning starts earlier. Which is one reason these children always have had a slight edge over the others coming from Government sponsored schools here in India.

In ordinary Government sponsored Bangla medium schools however they do not follow the age stricture too closely, and often children are admitted directly to Class I at their parents’ discretion, and in rural areas or in small towns – children in Class I could be anywhere between twelve to thirteen years old! These children pass their Boards at eighteen instead of at sixteen as is the case with a child from an aware and educated family in the big cities.

Was it a good idea to introduce a new language at that age? Well, time has proved that it wasn’t.

Of course the theory Niel refers to, existed even then, but pity that it was not taken into account for some reason. So after destroying the lives of one whole generation, they re-introduced it.

English study was reintroduced – but not from Prep or Kindergarten itself, but from Class I when the children became six years old.

And now to the more important part: the question of creating, developing, monitoring these automatic translator devices or programs that Niel mentions in his article.

So who are the people that would develop these sophisticated translator programs? Clueless Next Gen English Teachers, who were never taught Grammar? Or engineers expert in code, computer hardware and software or database management pros or who?

Engineers that are assigned this job would NOW re- learn Grammar to develop this program?

How do we make sure which one would get this job – then why neglect teaching something that might become useful to anyone that is attending classes. We do not know what their futures are going to be like, what they are going to do with their lives.

As teachers, aren’t we responsible for giving them a quality education that would serve them in good stead in whatever they might choose to do in future?

I mean if we are teaching organic chemistry and static electricity to everyone, on the assumption that someday one of them might need it, why should we not consider teaching the conventions of a language that everybody would be using, all the time, anyway, in a world that is increasingly turning global with every passing day? In the Indian context English is the passport to the world outside.

Truth is, the school would do well to introduce all the basic skills at the age children go to school, which means key stage one, when they are about four to ten years old.  Research shows this is the time they learn fast and learn best.

At key stage three, when they attain puberty and are in their teens, the learning process speeds up even more. An average teenager is forging more neuro-network in his brain than me or another adult teacher no matter how bright we are. Research has proved it and most teachers are aware of the fact that, whatever part of  our brain cells is not being used at this age, either dies or becomes defunct. The more you work, the better it gets for the brain actually.

So I propose we teach grammar at school, like we used to, using technology and current theories about language acquisition. Functional Communicative Language Teaching Method was the craze at one point of time. That helps in a certain situation and with a certain purpose. It is a only a method of teaching language skills, and an approach to imparting language skills. It  doesn’t necessarily have to clash with grammar teaching or learning at all.Most children go to private tutors anyway to learn language in depth.

But for the purpose I mention above, it would be necessary for a student to have acquired NATIVE SPEAKER like proficiency in English. That is impossible to achieve with the way we are teaching language now. The examination results, burgeoning prep IELTS centres, various privately run spoken English classes that flourish, the amount of private tution a child needs at home etc prove this fact.

The curriculum we are using, our methods, fail to meet the needs of the stake holders nearly at all levels.

Please read what Ian Parker, a retired mathematician and who has been concerned with AI has to say about the importance of teaching Grammar here. That would be his second post regarding the subject. The first one is here

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6 thoughts on “Let’s Teach Grammar Please – 3

  1. I do agree that it is important for the English language to be introduced in school at an early age. Having said this, however, I disagree with the statement that it’s extremely hard or impossible to learn it at an age past puberty. I dont think it is difficult to master any language at any age, provided you are determined enough to want to master it. Infact, I believe it will be nearly impossible for you NOT to learn the language if you surround yourself with it and hear it used around you all the time. My parents moved to East Africa well past their puberty, and the fact that they heard Swahili (the local language there) being used around them all the time made it impossible not to pick it up and use it in their day to day speech. They certainly never bought any books or audio to help them learn the language…they just picked it up from its daily use around them. Similarly, if someone really wanted to learn another language, they would have to make the effort to surround themselves with the language…by possibly engaging in groups that speak the language, or listening to audio, watching video in the language quite a bit. I learnt French too at an age past puberty, and the best tool that my teacher used to teach the language was making us watch French movies. At some point, you’d start to associate certain words with certain gestures and pick the language up. The key is to use the language in your every day life. And ultimately, it all boils down to attitude. It’s only impossible if you think it is. If you truly put your mind to learning it, it really is easier than you think. Sometimes the whole going-to-school-and-having-to-learn-the-language attitude puts a lot more pressure on to learning the language than there ought to be.

  2. @ Rolling : Indeed I agree that it is impossible to speak a new language with near native proficiency after a certain age. My struggle with Japanese which sometimes drives me to nuts is an example of that. The first language also has a role to play in the acquiring of new languages and once you are set in your ways it is nearly impossible to get rid of an accent that originates from your native language. Although it is possible I believe to speak a new language if you are exposed enough to it but you will always almost end up sounding foreign.

  3. @ Vee, I agree completely that one can learn a language after puberty. It becomes difficult for most tho.
    I only wanted to emphasize, that we ought to teach English with Grammar in school, as it helps in cutting down on acquisition time or work at sophisticated translator programs in that language.

    Also, later on, they are expected to talk about language at higher levels of language study or while teaching it. Also, if you know the rules, you don’t have to mug-up that much, wouldn’t you agree?
    As for length of ur comment, it shows your passion for what you believe in and your willingness to share your views, so I actually appreciate it. Please feel free and at home 🙂

    @ Odzer, yes, you know, I have picked up Gujarati, but struggle with accent, plus not knowing the logic of constructions, have to mug up expressions 🙂 which is tedious.

  4. Umm, I’m not sure what to say to this. All through my education in school, Grammar was taught as an equal part of English (the other two being Reading (literature) and Writing (Activities))

    I found this method extremely enjoyable, and it resulted in the good command I have over English. I think if grammar were emphasized too much, it would take the fun out of the thing. It would resemble a course in mathematics then.

    To me, sentence construction, semantics and grammar have developed as instincts. When reading, errors stand out to me. I don’t have to make an explicit effort. Though my proficiency has reduced due to lack of practice.

    I think these instincts have developed because of the way I was taught and because I love reading.

  5. they are taking it off, it is no longer being done in states like Guj or WB. The State Govt syllabus has discarded theoretical Grammar studies, only keeping a basic “no definition, no formal learning” functional part.

    You probably did not go to a state govt school, did you?

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