Topic 12 – The concept of grammar: Reflection on language and learning.

Topic 12 – The concept of grammar: Reflection on language and learning.

Throughout this topic I am going to deal with grammar. I am going to divide my presentation into three different sections. In the first one, I will present a definition of grammar, and will establish a division between prescriptive and descriptive grammar. Then I will move on to give an historical overview of the studies associated with grammar, and will analyse the evolution from prescriptive to descriptive grammar. Finally, in my last section I will reflect on the importance of grammar in language teaching.

Let’s start with a definition of grammar. The term grammar comes from the Greek word grammatike, which meant “to write”, or from grammatike techne, meaning “the art of writing”. There has been, and still are, many definitions of the concept of grammar, depending on the perspective used. However, I will include a definition which is widely accepted. Grammar can be defined as the set of rules governing the sounds, words, sentences and other elements of the language, as well as their combination and interpretation. The word grammar also denotes the study of these abstract features or a book presenting the rules.

Contemporary linguists define grammar as the underlying structure of a language that any native speaker of the language knows intuitively. The systematic description of the features of a language is also known as grammar. These features are the phonology, morphology, syntax and semantics that all native speakers of a language control by about the age of six.

Let’s include another definition of grammar. Grammar may be roughly defined as the way a language manipulates and combines words or bits of words in order to form longer units of meaning. For example, the present form of the verb BE in the third person has two distinct forms, one being used with a singular subject and the other with a plural subject. If the plural ARE is combined with a singular subject, the result is usually unacceptable or ungrammatical. Thus, a sentence like This is a book is grammatical, whereas This are a book* is not.

Throughout history, there have been different approaches to the concept of grammar. Important differences can be established between the prescriptive and the descriptive approaches to grammar. Prescriptivism is the view that one variety of a language has an inherently higher value than others, and that this ought to be imposed on the whole of the speech community. It is an authoritarian view, propounded especially in relation to grammar and vocabulary, and often with reference to pronunciation. The favoured variety is usually a version of the standard written language, especially as encountered in literature, or in the formal spoken language which most closely reflects literary style, and it is presented in dictionaries, grammars and other official manuals. Those who speak and write in this variety are said to be using language “correctly”; those who do not, are said to be using it “incorrectly”.

The alternative to a prescriptive approach is the descriptive approach associated mainly with modern linguistics. As the name suggests, its main aim is to describe and explain the patterns of usage which are found in all varieties of the language, whether they are socially prestigious or not. The approach also recognizes the fact that language is always changing, and that there will accordingly always be variations in usage. Linguists do not deny the social importance of the standard language, but they do not condemn as “ugly”, “incorrect” or “illogical” other dialects which do not share the same rules.

After presenting a definition of grammar and establishing a difference between prescriptive and descriptive grammars, I am going to move on to my second section, in which I will deal with the evolution of grammar from the prescriptive to the descriptive approaches.

The study of grammatical theory has been of interest to philosophers, anthropologists, psychologists and literary critics over the centuries. Today, grammar exists as a field within linguistics, but still retains a relationship with these other disciplines. For the most part, however, the development of grammatical theory has had little impact on the content of the grammar taught in schools or on how it is taught. For most people, grammar still refers to the body of rules one must know in order to speak or write correctly. I have pointed out that grammar is a field of linguistics, so I am going to analyse the history and evolution of linguistics and grammar from its origin to the present day.

Linguistics is the study of a language as a system. It is called theoretical when it attempts to establish a theory of the underlying structure of language, and it is called applied when linguistic concepts are put to use for pedagogical purposes. Linguists may use either a synchronic approach to the language study, that is, describe a particular language at a particular time, or a diachronic approach, that is, trace the development of a particular language through its history. Theoretical linguistics tends to isolate the structure of a language from actual language production and therefore favours the synchronic approach when describing language. Theoretical linguists does not take into account language acquisition, usage or any other aspects of language that are studied by scholars in such specialised fields of linguistics as psycholinguistics, sociolinguistics and anthropological linguistics. Findings from these fields often become useful tools in the hands of applied linguists.

Greek linguists of the 5th c. were the first in the West to be concerned with linguistic theory. For the philosophers, controversial linguistic issues revolved around the origin of the human language and the grammatical structure of Greek. In the 1st c. BC, the first complete Greek grammar was written by Dionysus Thrax, an Alexandrian. It was so influential that it served as a model for Roman grammarians. To Greeks, grammar was a tool that could be used in the study of Greek literature; hence their focus on literary language.

The Romans adopted the grammatical system of the Greeks and applied it to Latin. Except for Varro, of the 1st c., who believed that grammarians should discover structures, not dictate them, most Latin grammarians did not attempt to alter the Greek system, and also sought to protect their language from decay. Whereas the model for the Greeks and the Alexandrians was the language of Homer, the works of Cicero and Virgil set the Latin standard. The works of Donatus (4th c.) and Priscian (6th c.), the most important Latin grammarians, were widely used to teach grammar during the Middle Ages.

In medieval Europe, education was conducted in Latin, and Latin grammar became the foundation of the liberal arts curriculum. Many grammars were composed for students during this time. Aelfric, who wrote the first Latin grammar in Anglo-Saxon in the 11th c., proposed that this work served as an introduction to English grammar as well. Thus began the tradition of devising English grammar according to a Latin model.

The “modistae”, grammarians of the mid-13th to mid-14th c. who viewed language as a reflection of reality, looked to philosophy for explanations of grammatical rules. They sought one “universal” grammar that would serve as a means of understanding the nature of being.

In the Middle Ages there were also some attempts of creating prescriptive grammars of vernacular languages in order to teach “correct” usage. After the Renaissance, however, interest in the grammar of the world’s languages started to grow. The fruits of that interest led to important discoveries that helped establish linguistics as a science in the 19th century.

In the 17th c., in France, a group of grammarians from Port-Royal were also interested in the idea of universal grammar. They claimed that common elements of thought could be discerned in grammatical categories of all languages. Unlike their Greek and Latin counterparts, the Port-Royal grammarians did not study literary language but claimed instead that usage should be dictated by the actual speech of living languages.

By 1700, grammars of 61 vernacular languages had been printed. These were written primarily for purposes of reforming, purifying or standardizing language and were put to pedagogical purposes. Rules of grammar usually accounted for formal, written, literary language only and did not apply to all the varieties of actual, spoken language. This prescriptive approach long dominated the schools, where the study of grammar came to be associated with “parsing” and sentence diagramming. The simplification of grammar for classroom contrasted sharply with the complex studies that scholars of linguistics were conducting about language.

The historical linguists of the 19th c. developed the comparative method of diachronic description, which consisted of comparing different languages in terms of their grammar, vocabulary and phonology in the hope of finding a common ancestral language. Historical linguists did not limit their inquiries to literary language but include dialects and contemporary spoken languages as well. They did not follow earlier prescriptive approaches but were interested, instead, in discovering where the language under study came from.

As a result of the work of historical grammarians, scholars came to see that the study of language can be either diachronic (its development through time) or synchronic (its state at a particular time). The Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure and other descriptive linguists began studying the spoken language. Saussure introduced a distinction between langue (language) and parole (speech). Langue referred to the unobservable underlying structure of language and parole was the outward manifestation of that structure. With the publication of his Cours the Linguistique Générale (1916), in which these distinctions were made public, a new era of linguistic study called structuralism began. Saussure redefined the goal for linguistics: to describe the nature of la langue. Although the Structuralists who followed Saussure, such as Sapir and Bloomfield, differed as to what linguistics should specifically study and for what reasons, there was a concerted effort among Structuralists to insist that language study should be based on empirical evidence. Structuralists also moved away from previous prescriptive approaches by looking at language the way it is, not the way someone thinks it should be.

By the 1950s, weaknesses in structuralism were being identifies by some linguists. They pointed out that because structural linguists had never fully accepted Saussure’s implied notion that the human language system is a mental property, they had to limit their subject matter to observable phenomena only. As a result, some of them tended to ignore those aspects of language that cannot be observed and to overlook those things that characterize all languages.

Noam Chomsky challenged the Structuralist approach by saying that universal patterns are present in all languages. Because he was interested in understanding how the mind works through studying language, Chomsky stressed the “mentalistic” theory of language that Structuralists had rejected. The goals of linguistics changed once again as a result of his work. He claimed that linguistics should study a native language speaker’s unconscious knowledge of his language (competence), not the speaker’s actual production of language (performance). Because Chomsky thought that a description of the rules that make up a native speaker’s competence could account for an infinite number of examples of performance, he wanted to write a grammar that would identify those unconscious rules. Unlike the Structuralists, who collected samples of language produced by native speakers and then classified them, Chomsky developed transformational grammar, a set of rules that could generate structural descriptions for all the grammatical sentences of a language, and he tested the results against actual language samples.

Transformational grammar has been continually evolving since Chomsky first introduced it in 1957. From the 1970s on, many transformationalists focussed their attention on the relation between syntax and semantics an issue that was largely ignored by Chomsky until 1965.

After introducing the concept of grammar and presenting the evolution of grammar from prescriptive to descriptive models, I am going to move on to the last section of my topic, in which I will present some reflections about the learning of grammar.

There is a set of rules which govern how units of meaning may be constructed in any language: we may say that a learner who “knows grammar” is one who has mastered and can apply these rules to express himself in what should be considered acceptable language forms. There is no doubt that a knowledge, implicit or explicit, of grammatical rules is essential for the mastery of a language: you cannot use words unless you know how they should be put together. But there has been some discussion in recent years if the question: do we have to have grammar exercises? Isn’t it better fir learners to absorb the rules intuitively through communicative activities than to be taught through special exercises explicitly aimed at teaching grammar?

The fact that a learning process is aiming for a certain target behaviour does not necessarily mean that the process itself should be composed entirely of imitations of that behaviour. In other words, ability to communicate effectively is probably not attained most quickly or efficiently through pure communication practice in the classroom –nor, at least, within the framework of a formal course of study.

In natural learning, such as the learning of a first language, the amount of time and motivation devoted to learning is so great that there is no need for conscious planning of the learning process: sooner or later the material is absorbed. However, in a formal course of study, there is very much less time available, and often less motivation, which means that learning time has to be organized for optimum efficiency. This means preparing a program of study – a syllabus- so that bits of the total corpus of knowledge are presented one after the other for gradual, systematic acquisition, rather than all at once. It also means preparing an organized, balanced plan of classroom teaching / learning procedures through which the learners will be enabled to spend some of their time concentrating on mastering one or more of the components of the target language on their way to acquiring it as a whole. These components may be things like spelling, pronunciation, vocabulary…

Grammar, then, may furnish the basis for a set of classroom activities during which it becomes temporarily the main learning objective. The key word is TEMPORARILY. The learning of grammar should be seen in the long term as one of the means of acquiring a thorough mastery of the language as a whole, not as an end in itself. Thus, although at an early stage we may ask our students to learn a certain structure through exercises that concentrate on virtually meaningless manipulations of language, we should quickly progress to activities that use it meaningfully. And even these activities will be superseded eventually by general fluency practice, where the emphasis is on successful communication, and any learning of grammar takes place only as incidental to this main objective.

Before planning the organization of our teaching we need to have clear in our minds exactly what our subject-matter is: What sorts of things are included under the heading Grammar, and what is involved in “knowing” a structure?

The sheer variety of all the different structures that may be labelled “grammatical” is enormous. Some have exact parallel in the native language and are easily mastered; others have no such parallels but are fairly simple in themselves; while yet others are totally alien and very difficult to grasp. When we teach any structure, we should get our students to learn quite a large number of different, though related, bits of knowledge and skills: how to recognize the examples of the structure when spoken, how to identify its written form; how to produce both its spoken and written form; how to understand its meaning in context and produce meaningful sentences using it themselves, and so on. Some people, and even some course books, have a tendency to concentrate only on some of these aspects and neglect the others. It is important to keep a balance, taking into account, of course, the needs of the particular class being taught.

It is very difficult to make generalizations about the best way of teaching grammar, as there are many different methods and approaches. Any generalization about the “best” way to teach grammar will have to take into account both the wide range of knowledge and skills that need to be taught, and the variety of different kinds of structures subsumed under the heading “grammar”. Thus, the organization I am going to suggest represents only a general framework into which a very wide variety of teaching techniques will fit. I suggest four stages:

  1. Presentation: we usually begin by presenting the class with a text in which the grammatical structure to be taught appears. The aim of the presentation is to get the learners to perceive the structure, its form and meaning, in both speech and writing, and to take it into short-term memory. Often a story or short dialogue is used which appears in the written form and is often also read aloud. As a follow-up, students may be asked to repeat, reproduce or copy out instances of the use of the structure within the text.
  2. Isolation and explanation: in this stage we move away from the context and focus, temporarily, on the grammatical items themselves: what they sound and look like, what they mean, how they function… The objective is that the learners should understand these various aspects of the structure.
  3. Practice: the practice stage consists of a series of exercises whose aim is to cause the learners to absorb the structure, or to transfer what they know form short-term memory to long-term memory. We need to use a series of varied exercises which will complement each other and together provide thorough coverage of all aspects of the structure.

We might start by devoting some time to manipulation of the structure, without relating particularly to meaning. Common exercises of this type are slot-fillers (e.g: He is ___ boy. We have ___ umbrella (A / AN)) and transformation exercises, in which the learner changes the structure in some prescribed manner. These exercises help make the rules clearer.

We should move on to meaning-based activities as soon as we feel our learners have a fundamental grasp of the rules of form and their application. Another category of practice procedures still stresses the production or perception of correct forms, but involves meaning as well, though yet unlinked to any general situation framework, and cannot be done without comprehension. Some examples of these exercises are translations, slot-fillling or multiple choice based on meaning (e.g. He works / is working at the moment), filling the gaps, and so on.

The third type of exercise is that in which the stress is on the production or comprehension of meanings for some non-linguistic purpose, while keeping an eye on the way structures are being manipulated in the process. Such practice may be obtained through information or opinion-gap communication techniques or through activities based on the production of entertaining ideas. (e.g. Make up a story to practice past tenses). We may in the course of the communicative activity find that the students are making consistent mistakes in a certain structure and decide to return temporarily to an exercise that focuses on correct forms.

  1. Test: learners do tests in order to demonstrate to themselves and to the teacher how well they have mastered the material they have been learning. The main objective of tests within a taught course is to provide feedback, without which neither teacher nor learner would be able to progress. Normal examinations are only a kind of testing. Most testing, however, is done automatically and almost unconsciously by teacher and learners as the course proceeds, the most valuable feedback on learning being supplied by the learners’ current performance in class and in home assignments. Often practice exercises are used to supply such informal feedback, in which cases they may function virtually as tests.

To sum up, within this topic I have dealt with the concept and definition of grammar. I have presented the evolution of theories on grammar from prescriptive to descriptive models, and finally have presented some considerations on the teaching of grammar. I would like to point out that the grammar is a complex subject with many different views attached, so when teaching, it is necessary to find the methods that best suit our aims and our learners’ needs.