Grammar once more

I think that Michael’s perspective is different from mine. He needs to teach something in class. Grammar is a useful thing for a teacher to teach. It is a more or less logical explanation of how the language works. Students can understand it and feel that they have learned something. The teacher appears to impart knowledge to a group of students in a classroom.

In my view a language learner has to learn the language mostly on his/her own by listening and reading and then speaking and writing. The learner needs exposure and much of that exposure should happen outside of the classroom. But in reality few students are motivated enough to put the effort into acquiring the language outside of the classroom.It is not the time that is lacking but rather the interest or commitment. So we are left with the classroom. So what can one do in a classroom? One can talk, read out loud and do role playing etc. But with 15 or 20 or more students the efficiency is low. So teaching grammar is quite a useful thing to do. Nothing wrong with that as long as we do not expect that this will bring language fluency.

Someone said in a comment below that we need to teach the conditional to a beginner. In my view you do not teach the conditional to a beginner. Or at least you do no mention the term “conditional”. You do not give rules about the conditional. Many learners who have studied the conditional at school still say “Even I try hard, I still forget”, “Even I word hard, I do not make much money”. They have studied the rules but still get it wrong. They have to create the correct habits. They need to practice saying the correct phrase. “Even though I work hard… Even if I try hard….”. They need to create the habit of using the correct phrase. They need to become observant of these phrases when they see them.

The first time this kind of sentence is encountered it is explained. The learner is asked to be observant of similar phrases in his listening and reading. He is encouraged to save the words “even” or “though” to his database. This will create real sample sentences from his/her reading and listening. The learner may save “even if” and “even though” to his database and to study them. Then when he goes back to listening and reading he starts to notice them. Eventually this pattern starts to be natural.

The same is true for most grammar terms and rules. Knowing the term “modals” or “countable nouns” “phrasal verbs” “gerund” etc. is not going to help most people become fluent.

So find the best way for you to learn the patterns of the language. If for you this is grammar,fine. Unfortunately I have met many people who have studied grammar for 10 years and still cannot express themselves comfortably. It is for this group(and for myself when we start other languages) that I have developed The Linguist system.

Grammar again

Mark and Michael seem to have a lively exchange going on the value of teaching grammar. (see comments to Credentials) My point of view is as follows. I have short grammar books for the different languages I have learned. I have dictionaries as well. I often refer to the dictionaries. I almost never refer to the grammar books.

Grammar is presented as a short-cut to learning the language. To me it is a distraction. When I learned Chinese or Japanese or Korean (in Korean they even a term called “copulative verb” or something) there were all kinds of grammatical explanations that I just ignored. These explanations seemed contrived to resemble grammar explanations for European languages but did not help. I had to see the actual phrase patterns. Even in learning German, I could read the lists of declensions and conjugations many times, but it never sunk in. If I read a lot and listened a lot, paying special attention to the words and how they come together in phrases; and if I got used to certain phrases, then I would slowly start to use them correctly more often.

Forcing me to write grammar tests would?? would have seemed to me an unpleasant and inefficient way to learn. I think for a lot of people this is the case. Of course many people are conditioned to want grammar because that is how they have been taught. They ask “why” is it said this way. In my experience the people who ask “why” will not learn well. The people who just accept the language do better.

There is a body of research that suggests that learning grammar is an impediment to fluency since it creates filters. The learner has to refer to a grammar filter before expressing himself or herself. This is difficult to do in a conversation. What is needed is to develop the right natural reflexes. Thus it takes time and a lot of exposure for Chinese people to stop saying “he” for “she” even though they understand the “why”.

The study of grammar and the frequent (and unavoidable) mistakes on tests can create negative feelings towards the language, which are referred to as “affective filters”. This makes the learner nervous, up-tight, and?? reluctant to leave the safety of the native language.But to learn well you need to let yourself go, imitate and have fun. I have found a more holistic approach to be more successful in the long run. I do not believe that people who learn to be genuinely fluent in a second language do so in the classroom.

At The Linguist the learners build their personal databases of words and phrases based on their reading and listening. When they write we can identify their problems. Most of these problems relate to the inappropriate use of words, not to grammar. Pure grammar issues, like verb tense, agreement, prepositions, articles etc, are usually less than 20% of what is wrong with their writing. At The Linguist Inapproriate phrases are highlighted in the learner’s text and the correct phrases highlighted in the corrected phrases. There are individual notes for each error where we often do refer to grammar. But this explanation is with reference to an error that the learner has committed. We do not start by teaching rules of grammar. The learner then puts the correct phrase into his/her phrase database and is encouraged to look for similar phrases when reading and listening.

I believe this input based system is more enjoyable and more effective than grammar and test based instruction. I am not sure why a person who believes this is an “arrogant twit” as Michael suggests. I have found that many people committed to the more conventional ways of teaching language, however, often show little patience for other approaches.

Organizing your ideas

Improve Your English Skills by Writing, (Part 4) from The Linguist Library. A podcast of this content will follow in a few days.

Organizing Your Ideas

Most of you will not write a book, but you may have to write letters, emails or reports. Many of you will answer writing questions on tests and exams. You will need to have a reliable formula or plan for organizing your ideas.

We all know the importance of planning so that our writing will appear coherent. It is best to plan our thoughts before we start writing. However, sometimes this simply does not work. I often find it easier to just start writing. Once I have a few ideas down it then becomes easier to start planning and organizing. Words influence ideas. The German writer Goethe once said “When ideas fail, words really come in handy.” With modern software it is easier than ever to rearrange and reorganize your writing.

Whether you start by writing or start by planning, you will need to decide how you are going to organize your ideas. Which facts or arguments belong together? In your plan you should be thinking about how to most effectively get your point across. You need to be deliberate and clear in presenting your views. Yet you also need to gain the sympathy and support of the reader.

When I have had to organize my thoughts, I have often found it useful to be guided by the practices of ancient Greece and Rome, where the art of rhetoric was developed to a high degree. It has helped me to quickly organize my thoughts when I had to make a presentation or even write an essay. The classical approach to rhetoric is very much a part of the tradition of debate in modern western languages.

The ancient philosophers would normally organize their ideas in six parts. In a modern setting it would be something like this.

Exordium: Introduction to gain sympathy from the listeners

“I am glad to be in this town, where I have come so often and have so many friends. I am not used to speaking in public but feel very strongly about the subject.”

Narratio: Lead up to the subject at hand

” Many of you are aware of the issue of public transport and the circumstances of population growth that have created more demands on our system….. Why just today on my way in from the airport…..”

Partitio: Description of the points you are going to make

“Today I will talk about the best way to spend public and private funds to improve everyone’s quality of life.”

Confirmatio: Observation and proofs that confirm your point of view

” So you see the main point of my research has shown that what we need is the following policy. The following statistics demonstrate that…… A public opinion poll showed that……”.

Refutatio: Refuting the opposite points of view

” Now some people have argued that the opposite is true, or that my conclusions do not take into consideration these other facts……but I have found that my evidence is very strong that……”

and finally,

Peroratio: Conclusion and final appeal for support

“So my conclusion is that while opinion may be divided, we all know that we need to work for the common good and that means……. I hope I can count on your support, my friends”

A Simpler Formula

This classical model is still effective today. It can provide inspiration for many modern situations, including sales calls or even job interviews. For the typical writing assignments at school or at work, however, a simpler formula is probably more useful.

The following is a shorter adaptation of the classical formula.

I. Introduction giving background to the issue and stating the question.

II. Arguments in favour of one position

III. Arguments against that position

IV. Summary and conclusion

You should develop your own standard formula for organizing your thoughts. You will find that it is usually possible to adapt most writing or public speaking situations to such a formula.

That magic breakthrough

There is no question that learning to speak another language well takes a lot of work. It mostly takes a lot of listening and reading. It is a lonely road. The opportunities to speak the language are the exciting parts. They are the battles where you can show off your stuff. Depending on your mood, you either win these battles or lose them. Sometimes the language beats you, expecially if you are tired. In time, as you master the language, you win all the battles. Then the language has been tamed. You never completely master the language but you tame it. But you get there on your own. You study on your own. It is a long road that has to cover a lot of ground.

The first language I learned was French and I treated is as a foreign language for a long time. Only when I decided to make it my language did I really throw myself into it. Then it became mine. When it was time to learn Chinese, I had not doubt that I would tame it. I knew what to do. I knew I would succeed. I was able to lose myself in the language. I was able to visualize myself speaking the new language. I saw myself as a Chinese person.

To me the challenge in working with language learners is how to get them to this breakthrough state of mind. How can I get people to unblock all the resistance and the stiffness? Where is the button that I press so that they let go of the comfort of their native language? Once that button is pressed, the rest is all downhill. All that remains then is to put authentic language content in front of them and offer them an effective method to access it and learn from it. But wihtout that magic breakthrough in attitude, it is a tough struggle.

Literacy and language learning

I believe that adult literacy improvement has many similarities with foreign language training. In both cases a person needs to train a skill through constant practice. It is not a matter of intelligence or theoretical knowledge, so much as it is a matter of developing certain habits.I believe that The Linguist can be an effective tool for both.

Both the ESL learner and the adult literacy learner need to make sense of language input that is at first strange or difficult for them. Vocabulary acquisition and constant practice are key. In both cases it is essential to encounter new words and phrases often in different contexts so that they start to become familiar. In both cases the combination of audio and written text create a more powerul learning environment than written text alone. In both cases the accumulation of this vocabulary is more important than the study of rules of grammar.

If the learner can choose content of interest, more or less at his or her level of difficulty the task can be enjoyable and not frustrating. If the task is enjoyable the learner will continue. Continued effort will bring success, but the whole process should be enjoyable and satisfying. Unfortunately at present it is often boring, and even humiliating.

Making English presentations

Last night I attended a dinner where the President of the Canadian subsidiary of a major Japanese trading company made a speech. To say that the speech was not a success would be kind.I know that it is unlikely that many Canadians could do any better in Japanese. Yet somehow more is expected of international business people when they address a gathering in English. Perhaps this is unfair, but it is so. It is now considered a necessary skill to be able to make effective presentations in English

I think the old Greek and Roman rules of rhetoric are still valid. Everyone should study these rules. The University of Purdue has an excellent summary of classical rhetoric which I heartily recommend. These rules apply to speeches and even to sales presentation. I may get back to this subject. In any case I think business people learning English or any other language should get some training in the local practices of public speaking.

Corporate English training

There is a lot of money spent on English training in large and small corporations. From what I can gather it can consist of a limited amount of contact with an English language instructor, often a native English speaker. This contact can be as seldom as once a week and often in a group. In the period between these English learning sessions the employee-students often do very little, because they are either too busy or not very interested.?? I am interested in learning more about how effective this corporate English learning is and what conditions make it most successful.

Of course I feel that The Linguist is an ideal medium for improving all English language skills, listening, reading, writing, and speaking. However, all of our successful learners are self-motivated and find the time to study a little bit most days. I wonder if it is possible to achieve that degree of self-motivation in a random group of learners in an employee English language training situation.