Stephen Krashen once said (only half-jokingly, I suspect) that, more important than having new ideas is giving old ideas new names. With that in mind, I was reminded recently that it was 10 years ago that I coined the term “grammar McNuggets” (in a talk at IATEFL Dublin in 2000). Essentially, there is nothing new in the view that grammar is artificially packaged into bite-sized chunks for the purposes of teaching: William Rutherford had used the term “accumulated entities” in a book in 1987, and who knows how long the term “discrete items” has been around? So, why “grammar McNuggets”?
What I wanted to capture was not just the discrete-item nature of the grammar syllabus, but the way that this is exploited, particularly by publishers, for the purposes of the global marketing of EFL. To do this, I drew on a construct, familiar to students of cultural studies, and first developed by Stuart Hall, called “the circuit of culture”. The circuit of culture is a construct for the analysis of cultural artefacts that has been applied to a range of objects, including the Sony Walkman. Du Gay (1997), for example, argues that
to study the Walkman culturally one should at least explore how it is represented, what social identities are associated with it, how it is produced and consumed, and what mechanisms regulate its distribution and use. (p. 3)
Applying this model to pedagogical grammar, I was curious to see how grammar is represented (e.g. in publishers’ catalogues), how it is produced — or better — reproduced, how it is consumed in the classroom, how it is regulated (e.g. by exam boards), and who identifies with it (e.g. what ideas and values are associated with an allegiance to grammar teaching).
With regard to its (re-)production, I was drawn to this text on ‘McDonaldization’:
A perfect example of a simulated product is McDonald’s Chicken McNugget. The executives at McDonald’s have determined that the authentic chicken, with its skin, gristle and bones, is simply not the kind of product that McDonald’s ought to be selling; hence the creation of the Chicken McNugget which can be seen as inauthentic, as a simulacrum. There is no “real” or even “original” Chicken McNugget; they are, and can only be, simulacra. (p. 10)
To quote from the text of my talk: “Much of what is taught as pedagogic grammar is of equally doubtful authenticity. The skin, gristle and bones of language have been removed such that “grammar exists independently of other aspects of language such as vocabulary and phonology” (Kerr, 1996: 95). Moreover, the findings of corpus linguistics in particular suggest that pedagogic grammars only loosely reflect authentic language use and that “some relatively common linguistic constructions are overlooked, while some relatively rare constructions receive considerable attention” (Biber, et al. 1994, p. 171). An enthusiasm for compartmentalization, inherited from grammars of classical languages, has given rise to the elaborate architecture of the so-called tense system – including such grammar McNuggets as the future-in-the-past, and the past perfect continuous, not to mention the conditionals, first, second and third – features of the language that have little or no linguistic, let alone psychological, reality. While attempts have been made to restore authenticity to grammar, such attempts have generally fallen on deaf ears. If some more recent coursebooks are anything to go by, grammar syllabuses are becoming less innovative and even more derivative”.
That was ten years ago. Is it still true?
Biber, D., S. Conrad, and R. Reppen, 1994. Corpus-based approaches to issues in applied linguistics. Applied Linguistics 15/2, 169-89.
du Gay, P., Hall, S., Janes, L., MacKay, H. and Negus, K. (1997). Doing cultural studies: The story of the Sony Walkman. Milton Keynes: The Open University.
Kerr, P. 1993 `The role of language analysis on CTEFLA courses’ in Future Directions in Teacher Training: Conference Report International House, London.
Ritzer, G. (1998). The McDonaldization Thesis: Explorations and extensions. London: Sage Publications.
Rutherford, W.E. 1987 Second Language Grammar: Learning and Teaching. Harlow: Longman.