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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Language Teaching 2

An Open Letter To Ian Parker

Thank you Ian for taking time to post your view on the subject in this post.

I hope teachers and anybody reading this post check your link out. Even if we do not comprehend all of what is written there, (I don’t, not ‘all’ of it, but it is NOT necessary to delve into research details), only, how the learning of the process of Language Acquisition is used by you is what is relevant for me as Language Teacher, at least, and it would give people some idea as to whats going on: how important it is to understand HOW language works…if not in depth atleast the foundation ought to be laid down right when it makes a lasting impression  on children and in a way that matters and aids the process : grammar ought to be taught in school.

I think a lot of teachers, trainers, syllabus framers and parents would agree that the way we deal with Grammar and think about it has to change at the school level itself. Children do not become something great one fine morning. Their hard disk keeps processing information and how they relate to the world around at each and every stage of their lives. A lot of important impressions become the seed for a decision later on in life and they draw on the memory of earlier days : On how it was and How I had FELT IT SHOULD be. And a great researcher or a scientist is born. So what we teach them at school and ‘how’ we do it is very important.

I hope what Ian says in his comment and an exploration of these sites, and his own site provides an additional philip to the work some people have started here lately in the way languages are taught. I mean in Ahmedabad.

Also, owing to many international schools here, offering the International Baccalaureate Course, Teachers have had to deal with a part of curriculum called the TOK – Theory Of Knowledge. Hence this discussion might make sense to a lot of people who have to design a lesson on Language Acquisition as an Idea or behaviour.

I am a High School ESL Teacher living and teaching in India, where people speak various languages – often a different language within a span of, say, a hundred kms. Every state speaks a different language and lately as I moved West from the East of the country I found myself with a Language Handicap. It has been a struggle to navigate my way along in a city where every public sign is written in something that looks like a picture to ME…and to think that I, like any average, common Indian  speak four different languages including English. I can read write speak in all four easily.

Yet, here in Gujarat, am lost. And have the luck to watch me picking up another language. It’s interesting, how I often use the other languages I already know,  to figure out rules in this one and yes, I am constantly looking for rules, so I become more independent, so I don’t have to mug up expressions I might need to communicate.

English is THE ONE common language we have in this country. Yet, English Language Teaching continues in a very slip-shod, unsystematic way, especially what bugs one is the extremely SLOW dynamics of information insemination across domains and borders. What becomes twenty years old in the West might be what percolates down to us via some enterprising individual as “the latest”. The Government has no ‘policy’ as such it seems and I have been around for nearly fourteen years now.

I hope we get some useful insight into how important Grammar is to Language Teaching through inputs from people who care and share my angst against the unsystematic and utterly unimaginative Language-Teaching-Learning practices we have here ( and I am NOT just talking about English or ESL/EFL).

I Advocate We teach Grammar.

Every web-designer worth his salt knows ‘code’. In fact, the wizards would tell you code is poetry . What code is to a web-designer, grammar is to whoever uses language all the time!! 🙂

Well, technically language is the code. But for my purpose I took the liberty of consigning that status to Grammar, which is basically the conventions or codification of the conventions on the basis of which a language is used to make sense. Hope nobody minds it that much, in context, where I am preaching teaching Grammar again, but in a way that is in keeping with contemporary understanding of language and how it works.

Introduction to Ian Parker : A Brief Bio in His Own Words

I am a retired scientist. I gained my PhD in theoretical Solid State Physics from the University of Sussex (England) in 1969. I have worked most of my life in Industry. I have a strong interest in Artificial Intelligence and am a regular contributor to the usergroup “Creating Artificial Intelligence” I speak fluent German and French and have some knowledge of Spanish.

He blogs here, and have Guest Written here and here on my request, on the importance of teaching Grammar. Thank you.

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