Saturday, November 14, 2015

Musings on Grammar Teaching

Disclaimer? Rather disorganized, somewhat under-researched, entirely heartfelt.
I shall improve. Meanwhile,...

The first time I started "teaching grammar,” long before any real teaching entered my life, was in school to a bunch of people who couldn't for the life of them understand clauses. And I could never figure out why because every one of them used clauses perfectly well! But why, why is "I am reading a book that is interesting" an adjective clause and "It is interesting that I am reading a book" a noun clause? Why, why should I care! Only, no one had to learn it, and that is where language teaching in many scenarios, most definitely in our country, has got it all wrong.

Of course you don't need to know what a noun clause is. If you use it properly and appropriately, you have processed what a noun clause is, whether consciously or unconsciously, whether you wanted to or not and whether you call it a stupid noun clause or not! Language teaching is not making a bunch of annoyed teenagers identify "noun clauses" and "adverb clauses." It is making a bunch of annoyed teenagers use noun clauses and adverb clauses.

But that is the difficult part, grammar instruction. Today's rant is only about one problem in the haystack... the medium. Anyone in an English-medium school is generally expected to leave their mother tongue / first language / regional language at home. Strict only compulsory English blah. Recently, a friend told me the teachers from his daughter's school told them not to speak to her in Marathi at home! What foolishness. Then my mother goes and says my school had made the same suggestion.

Let us not even get into the whole realm of social anxieties this ban on first language expression must cause. Just think about this, what is a child to do upon entering a grammar class in such a school and being told that cat, umbrella, sadness, rain and bunch are words that all belong to this category called "noun" and that "a noun is a naming word," and to make matters worse, that "every noun has an article."

I was a total Wren & Martin nerd in school. I always had an eccentric amount of fun solving grammar exercises, go figure. But glancing back through the book, it is incredible to me that the first comment on articles that the book provides is this, "they go before nouns." All right, good point, but that is not nearly enough. Whats and hows have no weight if unaccompanied by the why.

To a child who has only ever spoken Marathi, or let's say Hindi, at home, articles make no sense. What is this "the" business? Why can't I say - "I eat banana," that is how I say it in Hindi. Oh but no no don't bring Hindi into the mighty English classroom, god forbid you directly translate something! Let us waste the years of linguistic knowledge you possess. Let's make you memorize "articles go before nouns" till your stomach churns and you grow up into that annoyed teenager who cannot figure out a noun clause. Let's just rob you of the opportunity to actually acquire English grammar!

We start listening to and speaking a language somewhere between the age of null up to three, perhaps four. This first language or the L1 is what the growing brain must acquire for full development. Acquire, not learn. The human brain is built for language acquisition. Chomsky says we are pre-equipped with the "language acquisition device." This LAD seems (so goes an admittedly much-contested hypothesis) to function at its fullest at a young age...

And young is what they are, these classroom-ful of tiny uncanny beings equipped with a treasure-chest of a device that has already mastered at least one language (and with what? three years of haphazard input) and can process possibly every other language thrown its way... and what do we teachers do? Order them to stick to one. Attaining L2 fluency, do not necessitate a boycott of the mother tongue. The first language won't be an interference but a support system! Welcome it into the class and it will be any language teacher's best friend.

Picture this, you find a child whispering to his friend not in English. Do you tell him to shush or find out the topic of conversation and turn that into a learning opportunity? In a language classroom, pretty much anything can be converted into classroom material, and sadly I don't see many teachers capitalizing on this.

Every child in the my whole world has problems learning tenses. I don't mean learning the names of tenses, erm progressive simple past what? but the concepts. How often do you ask a learner, how would you say it in your mother tongue? Chances are, not many actually use tenses wrongly in their own language. Surely very few answer "Which school do you go to?" with "I am going to XYZ school," in the first language? (No one has in my tiny two-year experience.) And there it is, if the tense has been processed once, but still not in English, the problem lies in your teaching, not in the child's capacity nor his choice of language of communication.

(^I received due criticism for my tendency to embellish and leave out pesky crucial examples. Hence this little edit, to whomsoever may actually read this.)