Effortless English Archives

Automatic English For The People

Saturday, July 15, 2006

The Grammar Joke

by AJ

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"Grammar is the biggest joke in language education"
-- Jerry Dai

Wow. I love that quote. Its from a speech by Jerry Dai, that I found on Tony's blog. Jerry is a Chinese immigrant who lives in Toronto. He speaks near perfect English and sounds like a native speaker (though mispronounces the word "pronunciation" ;) Before mastering the language, Jerry, like most foreign language learners, suffered through years of traditional language education. As in most countries, Chinese educators are obsessed with grammar. As a result, so are the students. Jerry arrived in Canada at the age of twenty with years of English study under his belt, but he could not communicate effectively. Frustrated, he embarked on an intense two year period of self study.

What did he do during that time? He did not study grammar or vocabulary word lists. He focused on listening & reading & pronunciation.

David Long, director of AUA's Thai language program, by all accounts speaks excellent Thai. Though I can't judge this directly, I've been told by many Thais that his speech sounds natural, effortless, and fluent. How did he learn Thai? By listening intensely for one year. In fact, David did not speak Thai during this entire "silent period". His Thai language program uses the same approach-- students listen first. There is absolutely no grammar instruction in the program.

And then there's me :) By all accounts, I seem to have mastered English ;) How did I do this? When I was a child, did my parents teach me grammar? Did I learn about the past perfect progressive tense in elementary school? No. In fact, I never knew what the "past perfect" was until I became an English teacher. Walk around SF and ask any native speaker "what is the present progressive tense" and they will give you a confused look. Of course, any native speaker of any language (unless they are a language teacher :( will usually give you just such a response if you ask them grammar questions.

Grammar, especially the obtuse, analytical, incredibly complex mish-mash of "rules" used in English language education, is not only useless-- it is harmful. Grammar, you must understand, is an artificial construct. Grammar is a model. Its a model developed by academics to analyze languages. If your goal is to get a Phd. in Linguistics, and become the next Noam Chomsky, grammar is indeed something you should study intensely.

But if you actually want to master English, or any foreign language, grammar is not very useful. Grammar study ingrains a lot of very bad habits. The worst is a tendency to analyze the language rather than acquire it. I see this all the time with students-- they'd rather analyze and debate minute grammar points than truly understand, acquire, and use the language in a natural and intuitive way. Grammar study causes them to analyze and translate every utterance.... producing stilted, unnatural, painful speech (painful for them and painful to the person they are trying to talk to).

As Steve Kaufman, Jerry Dai, David Long and others have noted, the language education field is filled with teachers and researchers who have never actually mastered a foreign language. They also note that much of what passes for "language education" is counter productive, and serves mostly to prop up the perceived authority of the teacher and school.

I have not mastered a foreign language. But I'm determined to master Spanish. As I reviewed my learning plan, I realized I had a very clear choice. I could follow the advice of traditional educators-- people who sound very authoritative, but who have rarely mastered a foreign language themselves. Or I could follow the advice of people who have actually mastered another language-- who did so as adults, and who speak the language fluently, naturally, intuitively, and without hesitation. Since my goal is to speak Spanish, not obtain a Phd. in Linguistics, I've chosen to follow the advice of the latter group.

We can all judge the end results for ourselves, in a couple of years. But I'm already convinced. Already, I'm experiencing great benefits. I'm thoroughly enjoying the process of learning Spanish. My motivation is growing week by week. I can feel my comprehension improving, even though I'm still not able to communicate much. Perhaps most importantly, I can imagine myself as a fluent speaker.

These things never happened when I followed the grammar-analysis approach.

The tragic part about this is that so many students blame themselves. They think there is something wrong with them. They think, as I used to, that they don't have a talent for languages. They think that mastering English (or another language) is impossible. They think the teachers and schools are right, and therefore they must simply be bad students.

In the end, I agree with Jerry: Grammar is the biggest joke in language education.

Its a cruel joke.

San Francisco, CA