“Expressing” Grammar

Drawing is one of my favorite hobbies. It is very personal and expressive. I had a few opportunities to attend drawing classes as electives in my undergraduate college life and the thing that I remember vividly the most is frustration. The professors were keen on establishing and enforcing the rules as we exercised drawing, which only served as an obstacle more than anything else. Their common belief was creating a foundation onto which the student could built upon but I did not share the same belief. Rules do not build foundations, they only serve as overall guidelines to form a standard. If one wants to express complex thoughts or feelings, sometimes the rules that may hinder their depth need to be broken. Drawing is an art form of emotional exercise and study of expression. So is the language.

I have always viewed grammar as the rules that dictated the structure of a language. Although their importance is undoubtful, the degree of restriction that they impose is exigent. The article, Grammar, Grammars, and the Teaching of Grammar by Patrick Hartwell, presents the clash of ideals about how to implement grammar in language pedagogy. The two sides of the spectrum are identified as proponents and opponents, or more preferably as grammarians and anti-grammarians, respectively. I tend to fall into the camp of opponents but I believe it is important to note that my position is based on my own personal experience. In the article, it is suggested that “teaching grammar does no harm” by the proponents but I would disagree. Making someone aware of the rules beforehand makes them aware of their own errors and “degrades their performance”. More often than not, I have observed students who fail to express their thoughts because they make an unintended stop over an error and attempt to correct it. This is something I have also struggled with during my own language acquisition.

Throughout my high school life, learning grammar was always the top priority in my ESL and ENG courses. Present perfect tense was the most complicated. I was perfectly (no pun intended) fine doing exercises on paper but I could never actively use that tense in speech. Looking back, I believe the major reason of difficulty in transition was too much emphasis being placed on the form rather than implementation in discourse. I have seen many of my own students struggle with the same transitional problems. Exercises such as fill-in-the-blank or error correcting do not necessarily help someone to develop the grammatical skill to utilize it in language but for whatever reason every grammar book, regardless of proficiency level, seem to include variations of these activities and do not offer much else. As the article suggests, the best approach would be. I managed to learn how to actively use the present perfect tense after writing essays in my senior year at high school. Although there was grammar correcting, it was not the priority of the essays. My focus was to organize my thoughts and present them to an audience.

Grammar can be considered “the internalized system that native speakers of a language share”, as suggested in the article. The key term in this particular definition is “internalized” as it hints at how grammar often exercised by native speakers; unconsciously. Children began using their native language by simple repetitions. They obtain phrases or short sentences used on daily basis from those around them, particularly their parents, by listening. Then, they recite those phrases or short sentences themselves until they develop an aptitude to mold their own language. The exposure to the rules of the language comes later down the road; most likely at elementary school. Some instructors believe that this particular approach is much more efficient in implementing grammar in comparison to a much traditional one. I would often give the example of “what time is it?” to my students in class. The idea was to examine the possibility of learning through repetition. The question “what time is it?” is not something that they would create from ground-up using grammar. I would suggest that the same method could be applied to longer sentences or even daily conversations. Practice of communication could improve their grammar better than constructing sentences by following rules listed in front of them because they would not only repeat the sentences but the grammar as well. It would be a recreation of the method of how children tend to learn grammar as mentioned.

One of the misconceptions that many instructors have is “all the rules taught will be learned” and it is simply not true. The overwhelming amount of rules, especially when enough time of exercising is not given, run the potential of negating each other. Delving into the complexities of language is more challenging for students than most instructors seem to realize; “mental baggage” of a student is a real issue. Each proficiency level has set of grammatical items that the language learner is expected to utilize but not necessarily be able to offer reasoning for their usage. Hence, overwhelming a learner by introducing every single rule is not necessary. In my experience, offering the most basics and allowing the students to apply them correctly had the potential to encourage students to broaden their ambitions. They had the illusion that they were already using correct grammar and thus they could easily shift their focus more on other skills, such as speaking or writing. More complex grammar could be taught by repeated exposure through these skills and acquired unconsciously. Sometimes, it is easier to haul if you do not see the size.

There is an unfortunate disadvantage to that natural method however. It is something that I was reminded of after doing the adjective exercise offered in the article. The exercise was simply to place the listed words in proper order. I was able to form the correct sentence of “the four young French girls” as expected, but I was not able to express the reasoning. It was simply natural. As most native speakers would agree, sometimes it is impossible to explain why certain things need to be in a certain way. When an error is detected, the vague explanation tends to be “it just does not sound right”. This is a problem that I often deal with and I believe it is due to how I acquired grammar. The unconscious utilization of it creates a challenge to present it. There are many grammatical rules that I am unconsciously aware of but offering elaborate explanation instead of “it is just the way it is” proves to be more laborious than I would like; especially as a language instructor.

I always had difficulty with grammar trees. Other instructors, the ones who learned grammar traditionally and utilize it consciously, are incredibly fast with constructing grammar trees for complex sentences. It is like puzzle-solving on advance level. I think the suggested correlation between “the study of grammar and the ability to think logically” comes from this particular aspect but I would argue that logical thinking does not necessarily need to be a conscious effort. Inability to explain something is often confused with lesser cognition. I tend to compare this difference to people who utilize one side of their brain more than the other. Some people, the left-side dominant ones, excel in mathematical skills and memorization. This probably makes it easier for them to exercise grammar in more detail. Other people, the right-side dominant ones, excel in artistic merits and emphasize the bigger picture more than its details. Obviously, this is not a conclusive notion but more of a suggestion of possibility. The instructors who could ace grammar trees were much better at presenting the rules of the language but not so well at actually using it in real life. I guess the satisfactory lies on the position of the individual.

Teaching grammar is and probably always will be a controversial topic among language instructors. I can only offer my perspective based on my own experience to the conversation. The best way to state how to approach this issue would be by the statement in the article, and I strongly agree, that we should “see it not as a cognitive or linguistic problem but rather as a problem of metacognition and metalinguistic awareness, a matter of accessing knowledges that learners must have already internalized by means of exposure to the code.” I believe the students of language are more than capable of attaining this metalinguistic awareness and develop a “syntactic sophistication”, as long as they have freedom to practice their voice and attain it by natural means as opposed to methodically.

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