Effortless English Archives

Automatic English For The People

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Grammar Hounds

by AJ

"Monitor "overusers" are performers who feel they must "know the rule" for everything and do not entirely trust their feel for grammaticality in the second language. One case, "S", described by Stafford and Covitt (1978), remarked: "I feel bad... when I put words together and I don't know nothing about the grammar." In Stevicks terms (Stevick, 1976, p. 78), overusers may suffer from "lathophobic aphasia", an "unwillingness to speak for fear of making a mistake"."

--Stephen Krashen

The above describes quite a few students. We've got several "monitor overusers" at our school. These folks tell me they "cant speak English". A few of these folks are very advanced... but their obsession with grammatical perfection paralyzes them. In terms of useful communication, these students are often overshadowed by others with far less English proficiency.

I find these students challenging. By their own admission, they are frustrated. Their overreliance on conscious grammar memorization is not helping them communicate. They fret that they are not "fluent". They moan about every small mistake... no matter how clear & effective their communication is. They have a tremendous fear of ambiguity... and dont understand that language acquisition follows a fairly predictable path.. with certain mistakes prevalent, naturally, at certain stages. They want to be "perfect" or "native-like"... and until they are, they will insist that they "cannot speak English".

Unfortunately, these students are rarely open to another approach. Despite their frustrations, they insist on doing more of the same. When I suggest less grammar "study" and more "natural English input", they are skeptical. These students have a very strong belief that language learning must be an arduous, serious, mentally difficult process. If they arent diligently trying to memorize rules and lists, they think they arent working hard... and therefore not learning.

How to get through to them? In the past Ive tried hitting them with the research. Ive shared information about free voluntary reading and other "comprehension" approaches. While they sort of get it,... many remain resistant.

Recently, I found a better approach. I target the very best students... the ones with great fluency, great pronunciation, and effortless grammar use. Invariably, these students followed a much different approach than the "monitor overusers".

Some examples:

Tip is a Thai language teacher with a strong dedication to "natural approaches". She is also an excellent English speaker despite having never lived or studied abroad. Tip advocates a "listen first" approach rather than too much focus on grammar memorization or speaking perfection. She watches lots of English TV... including shows such as "Sex & The City". She reads extensively.... focusing on authentic materials. Unlike many "monitor overusers", she doesnt use a dictionary to decode too-difficult texts. Rather, she often reads for pleasure-- especially women's magazines like Cosmo, etc.

Tip's English is fast and fluent. She rarely thinks consciously about grammar, and so her speech lacks the stammered hesitation I see so often from the grammar hounds. Despite (or rather, because of) her approach, her grammar is nonetheless excellent.

Shiori struggled in English classes. She did not do well. By her own admission, she didnt learn much English in school. However, when she left school she decided to teach herself. She did so with movies. She watched English movies repeatedly. She focused first on "feeling" the sounds and rhythms of the language. Then progressed to the vocabulary and meaning. She said she avoided all conscious study of grammar.

Shiori, unlike most Japanese students Ive met, has excellent pronunciation and speaks fluently... without the halting, hesitant, awkward utterances typical of most Japanese English learners. Shiori has never lived in an English speaking country. ... and has never studied abroad.

Gabriel owns a flower shop in SF. He's a native Spanish speaker, but now speaks fluent, nearly flawless English. I was impressed by his skill and asked him, "what advice would you give to students who are trying to learn English?" He said he paid little attention to consciously memorizing grammar rules. Rather, he advised new students to watch TV & movies, and to seek out English conversations as often as possible.

The funny thing is that Gabriel's grammar is far superior to the even the best "monitor overusers" at our school. Like a native speaker, Gabriel has a "feeling for grammatical correctness" that serves him far better than consciously memorized rules.

Ive learned an important lesson. Students dont give a damn about my opinions. And they arent terribly interested in research either. What they are VERY interested in is the question, "How can I kick ass with English"?

That's where these stories come in. Rather than bore them with research & my opinion, Im beginning to switch tactics. Increasingly, Im telling stories like the ones above. When I can, I let the star performers tell their own stories (Ive invited Gabriel to talk to my class about how he learned English).

These people, these stories, have far more credibility than I do. These are people who have done it. They have achieved what our students want to achieve. They have powerful "this is how to kick ass with English" stories. They are very powerful salespeople for a "comprehension based" approach.

And so my advice for dealing with the grammar hound "monitor overusers".... find English stars, people who acquired the language and now use it fluently. Let THEM win over the grammar hounds. Let THEM persuade through the power of their accomplishments.