Many linguists and language teachers believe that pedagogic grammar is an important aspect of second language acquisition (SLA); however, others believe that a foreign grammar cannot be taught explicitly. There are several theories that try to explain the difference between grammar acquisition in first and second language as well as the properties of Universal Grammar (UG) that make learning a foreign language possible.
Based on our own classroom experiences and years of studying languages, we believe that the current methods of explicit grammar instruction in the classroom are not conducive to learning a foreign language. We believe that textbooks do not follow the advice or research of linguists regarding grammar acquisition and, in effect, make learning a foreign grammar harder than it needs to be.
Before research began on language learning, methods used to teach foreign languages in the United States were based on the Classical Method previously employed for teaching Latin and Greek. The studying of classical languages was thought of as "mental gymnastics" and "indispensable to an adequate higher education." Students were forced to memorize declension and conjugation patterns, vocabulary lists, and other grammatical rules. Translations and drills remained the only use of the language, while pronunciation and conversational skills were ignored. Opponents of this method maintain that there is no theoretical basis or practicality to the Classical Method (also known as the GrammarTranslation Method). Yet it remains the most popular teaching method because it does not require that teachers be experts or even fluent in the language, and it is the easiest gauge of foreign language ability that can be determined by standardized tests.
A major aspect of SLA theory is the Natural Order Hypothesis that states "the acquisition of grammatical structures proceeds in a predictable order." Observations of students learning English as a first or second language indicated that certain grammatical morphemes were acquired before others. Furthermore, distinctions or differences among native language did not seem to interfere with this order of grammatical acquisition (e.g. native speakers of Chinese and German learned English morphemes in relatively the same order).
The Larsen-Freeman order of grammatical morpheme acquisition for learners of English in a natural setting is as follows:
- short plural;
- regular past;
- third person singular;
- irregular past;
- long plural;
In comparison, the Larsen-Freeman order of grammatical morpheme acquisition for learners of English in a structured, classroom setting is as follows:
- third person singular;
- regular past;
- irregular past;
- long plural;
- short plural;
Another hypothesis of SLA is Krashen's Acquisition-Learning Distinction. According to Krashen, acquisition is more related to the development of first language abilities while learning describes the development of second language abilities. Acquisition is a subconscious process of implicit or natural learning. This term is applied to the way in which humans learn their native language without the use of formal rules or instruction. On the other hand, learning describes the conscious study and knowledge of grammatical rules that are most often associated with foreign language education. As seen by the discrepancies between Larsen-Freeman's two orders of acquisition, there is indeed a difference between these two manners of obtaining the grammar of a language. Although by analysis of these data, the difference does not seem that extreme.
Although English has been the most studied language with respect to acquisition of grammatical morphemes, research on grammar acquisition has also been done on other languages such as Russian and Spanish that confirm the validity of the Natural Order Hypothesis. The orders presented by LarsenFreeman can only be applied to those students learning English, but a basic understanding of a natural order can be applied to other languages as well. This order may not be the same, however, because of the differences in grammatical features of the diverse human languages. Further research needs to be done so that these natural orders can be discovered and utilized in the teaching of foreign languages. Originally, my research was to include these other natural orders, but I was unable to find any research pertaining to the languages I was studying. So I decided to focus instead on the way grammar is taught in general in classrooms and how it is presented in textbooks.
The Inductive presentation of grammar allows students to form generalizations about grammatical rules after oral and written practice of examples given in class. Acquisition may occur quickly and after little exposure with this approach; however, some students are too easily confused if the rules are not presented directly before practice is required. Those students benefit more from the Deductive approach, in which the teacher presents the grammatical patterns and then the student is given ample time to become familiar with them. Whereas the Inductive approach works best with regular patterns, the Deductive approach works best with irregular patterns, "for these by their very nature cannot be discovered through analogy." The Deductive approach does save time for the teacher and the class; nevertheless, a major drawback is the tedious and technical presentation of grammar that may bore or frustrate the student if he doesn't understand the rules.
Although these two basic approaches to teaching grammar seem to correlate to Krashen's acquisition vs. learning, Krashen states that both approaches are indeed learning and not acquisition. With Inductive learning, students focus on form and not meaning. The rules are learned consciously and the student analyzes the structural components of the message instead of the message itself. Conversational courses often employ the Inductive approach with little focus on the grammatical rules, although students still do learn the rules and are consciously aware of them. This fundamental difference between Krashen's acquisition and the teaching approach of induction is often overlooked by those who employ the Inductive or Implicit method to emulate native language acquisition in the foreign language classroom.
Similarly, opponents of teaching explicit grammar maintain that this method only teaches about the language and not the actual language itself. As Omaggio stated, this method "sends a clear message that the focus of the lesson is on talking about the language rather than on talking in the language."14 Students learn the linguistics of the language but not how to communicate easily or effectively. They may be consciously aware of the rules and how to use them most of the time, at least in writing, but they are unable to speak with any real fluency. "Use of the conscious grammar... is limited to easily learned, lateacquired rules, simple morphological additions that do not make an overwhelming contribution to communicating the speaker or writer's message".
Therefore, as Krashen maintains, it is unfair to "emphasize accuracy on communicatively unessential, late acquired items in the beginning language classes, with students who are unable to understand the simplest message in the second language." Emphasis should be put on learning to understand and communicate effectively in the language, rather than on analyzing texts for their grammatical value or writing styles. If students are unable to say or write the simplest phrases in the target language, they should not be expected to read and analyze literature in the target language either. Yet the natural progression in foreign language education is from courses that focus on basic grammar and conversation to courses that require intellectual and sound analyses of foreign literature, although students may not even be prepared to do so in their native language. Most students do not do well in these courses because they lack a basic understanding and comprehension of the grammatical structures, as well as basic vocabulary, of the language. Requiring students to be fluent in the target language before studying texts written completely in that language would decrease frustration and dissatisfaction with those students' foreign language education.
Writing in a foreign language is often easier than speaking for those who have learned grammar explicitly, yet teachers still expect students to perform perfectly in speech. There is a basic difference between competence and performance however, that teachers need to be more aware of. The conscious knowledge of a grammatical rule has no direct relationship to the speaker's ability to use it in free speech, especially not for a nervous student who is forced to speak in front of the class or who is being evaluated and judged for a grade. There are cases of students who write a foreign language with near-fluent abilities, but who also make several mistakes while speaking. Krashen attributes this to his Monitor and Input Hypotheses which state that students make corrections only when they are consciously aware of them and that students should not be required to speak in the target language until they feel comfortable to do so (i.e. they have acquired enough "comprehensible input"). Furthermore, Krashen's fifth hypothesis, Affective-Filter, claims that students who experience low anxiety and high selfconfidence will have a greater success at learning a foreign language.
Second Language Acquisition theories of grammatical acquisition are often based on simplicity and frequency of occurrence, yet "it is not at all the case that the more linguistically simple an item is, the earlier it is acquired. Some very 'simple' rules may be among the last to be acquired." An example of an apparently simple rule is the possessive -s in English. Yet in both of Larsen-Freeman's orders of acquisition, the possessive remains late-acquired. In addition, just because some grammatical forms occur often does not mean they will be easy to learn or teach. For example, verbs with separable prefixes are very common in German and Dutch, but they are not easy for students to learn, so they are not taught until near the end of the language course.
Another facet of foreign language learning that needs to be addressed is the hierarchy of difficulty "by which a teacher or linguist could make a prediction of the relative difficulty of a given aspect of the target language." Two levels that present particular problems with learning foreign grammar are underdifferentiation and overdifferentiation. With underdifferentiation, "an item in the native language is absent in the target language." For example, the present tense has three forms in English, but sometimes only one in other languages (such as French and German). On the other hand, overdifferentiation is the opposite, i.e. an item exists in the target language but not in the native language. The case system markers for nouns are barely existent in English, but thrive in Germanic and Slavic languages. This hierarchy attempts to make possible the predictions of how easy or difficult it will be to learn a certain foreign language.
Yet another feature of foreign language learning that classes and textbooks seem to ignore is the importance of the knowledge of native grammar before attempting to learn a foreign grammar. If students do not know the jargon particular to grammar in their native language, they will not know the vocabulary in the target language either. Basics of the native language or of grammar in general, should always supplement and precede the explanation of foreign grammar. In addition, requisite knowledge of earlier grammatical rules needs to be reinforced. However, textbooks often do not have the space to review earlier rules before presenting new ones. Therefore, ample class time must be devoted to this task.
Based on several semesters of foreign language study, we do not believe that current methods of teaching grammar in the classroom are sufficient enough for acquiring the abilities to survive in a second language. Textbooks teach grammar inadequately by only focusing on the simple rules by which they hope students will not be confused. Real world knowledge of a foreign language is ignored in favor of written techniques that will only encourage the student to read. The Classical Method is still very much alive in the foreign language educational system, although it has never proven itself to be a practical or successful method of learning a foreign language.
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- Brown, H. Douglas. Principles of Language Learning and Teaching. 4th ed. New York: Addison Wesley Longman, 2000.
- Cook, Vivian. Second Language Learning and Language Teaching. New York: Routledge, Chapman and Hall, 1991.
- Di Donato, Robert, et al. Deutsch Na Klar! An Introductory German Course. 2nd ed. New York:
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- 1995. Mitchell, Rosamond and Florence Myles. Second Language Learning Theories. New York:
- Oxford University Press, 1998. Omaggio, Alice C. Teaching Language in Context: Proficiency-Oriented Instruction. Boston: Heinle and Heinle, 1986.