I Advocate We Teach Grammar

I propose we teach grammar.

Not because I harbor 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. It is logic which tells – rather ‘shows’ us how the conventions of a certain language work. Language is easier to pick up if one knows how it works. Most of us who speak and write well in some language do so because we have ‘figured’ it out by ourselves or perhaps it was the training one has had as a child.

Gopi a very brilliant teacher of TGES had once declared that she produces pretty cool sentences – 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 logic of how they are used.

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

Gopi is about five years my junior. That 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 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 either? 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 runs? 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. Would have been 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 a practice for doctors to explain what is going on in their bodies and what the docs are about to do, to help. This not only enlists his co-operation, it also helps psyche the patient to release psychosomatic (am not sure if this is the term, if am wrong somebody please let me know) response to his condition for healing to begin from within, which works faster anyway.

I do believe knowing the names of the parts of your car, and knowing how they work empowers. 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 fav 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 mold those minds, moderate behavior 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 grammar? That it is NOT an absolute set of rules? That it is not even rules as we know them, but basic 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 contemporary understanding of how language works and with the technology associated with it. Ever since research in Artificial Intelligence shot forward, in fact it did shoot forward 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 designed 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 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.

Link: pinker.wjh.harvard.edu/

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

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5 responses to “I Advocate We Teach Grammar

  1. Ahaa !! The template is cool. 🙂

    Could you recover those comments ?

  2. welcome to the new ‘house’ Cuckoo..gee u liked it? yeah, those cmments are in my yahoomail 🙂

  3. Very long post but thoroughly enjoyed reading it. I had read it thru reader but wanted to comment.

    “I do believe knowing always helps..” I agree. Why only language, the basics of any subject helps in life like you said for example computers or cars. Won’t we be able to handle them confidently or won’t we be saved from getting panicky at times ?

    And I so agree with you on teacher/children mugging up with it. Who is the sufferer in the end ? Us the people.. the whole nation.

    Thanks for this post.

  4. You are very geeky Trisha! Our government policy on languages is pathetic. We invest almost nothing in research and development of our languages. There is a clear lack of structured thinking and your post makes so much sense, esp when you point out the drawbacks of our system. Thanks.
    (Sunday, September 7, 2008 9:39 AM)

    Priyank Thx, retrieved ur cmmnts, it wd be great if you share ur exp abt using/learning Russian and with respect to tht, to what extent knowing some rules helps assimilating tht language faster, soon as u come back, please, preferably here

  5. 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.
    (Sunday, September 14, 2008 1:33 PM)

    Ian hope we get to hear from you once again soon. Thank you for ur cmmnt and for writing a post specially for this space. I could not have done with such encouragement. I am thinking abt the experimnt u mentioned and if I get the opportunity, wd like to try it in future.

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