A: ¿El ‘present simple’, qué es el ‘present simple’? (The present simple – what’s the present simple?)
B: Es para las cosas que siempre vas a hacer. (It’s for the things that you’re always going to do).
A: Pues, el ‘present continuous’ – ¿de qué se trata? (Well, the present continuous – what’s that all about?)
C: Es para las cosas que tu haces una sola vez. Por ejemplo, ‘Yesterday I going shopping’. (It’s for the things you do only once. For example [in English], ‘Yesterday I going shopping’).
B: Y ¿’will’? (And ‘will’?)
A: Es para hablar del futuro, como ‘yo voy a ayudar a mis amigos’. (It’s to talk about the future, as in [in Spanish] ‘I’m going to help my friends’).
These girls were in ther mid-teens, I guessed, and had probably been doing three or four years of English already – three or four years learning, and attempting to apply (but with such conspicuous lack of success) some of the most basic rules of English grammar. Which led me to wonder, what earthly good had these rules done them? And, more radically, what earthly good are rules at all?
I’m not, of course, disputing the fact that language consists of certain patterns and regularities. I’m simply sceptical of the value of teaching these regularities in the form of explicit rules. Especially when the rules have so little obvious utility. As Chris Brumfit (2001) wrote, “it is common to believe that teaching the descriptive rules is to teach the means of generating the behaviour itself” ( p 29.) Clearly, this was not happening to the girls on the bus.
And it’s not just schoolgirls who find grammar rules hard to get their heads around. Some of the best minds in the business are ‘grammatically challenged’. Take, for instance, the eminent linguist Dick Schmidt, who recorded this classroom experience when learning Portuguese in Brazil:
The class started off with a discussion of the imperfect vs. perfect, with C [the teacher] eliciting rules from the class. She ended up with more than a dozen rules on the board — which I am never going to remember when I need them. I’m just going to think of it as background and foreground and hope that I can get a feel for the rest of it (Schmidt & Frota, 1986, p. 258).
Which he did – by heading out into the street and trying it on with the locals. The fact that some learners, at least, dispense with rules should give us pause. After all, if we take the view that, as Ellis (2007) puts it, “language is not a collection of rules and target forms to be acquired, but rather a by-product of communicative processes ” (p. 23), then surely communication is the name of the game.
But what about accuracy? The argument that – without knowledge of rules – accuracy will suffer doesn’t hold much water either. As J. Hulstijn (1995) remarks, “It is perfectly well possible to focus learners’ attention on grammatical correctness without explicitly teaching grammar” (p.383). That is, after all, the function of feedback and correction.
And yet part of me can’t entirely dismiss the value of rules – or of some rules, at least – if for no other reason than for their mnemonic value, like the mantra-like spelling rules we learn as children and still invoke as adults: “i before e, except after c“. In support of this view, cognitive scientists have studied the role that such memorised rules play in ‘self-scaffolding’ learned routines, the frequent practice of which “enables the agent to develop genuine expertise and to dispense with the rehearsal of the helpful mantra” (Clark, 2011, p. 48).
Moreover, taking a socio-cultural perspective, might not grammar rules serve as a kind of symbolic tool, providing learners the means to regulate their own performance – a form of ‘private speech’, as it were?
Indeed, Lantolf & Thorne (2006), acknowledging the importance that Vygotsky himself credited “to well-articulated explict knowledge as the object of instruction and learning” (p. 291), describe a number of studies of second language learners for whom self-verbalization of quite sophisticated grammatical concepts seemed to assist in their subsequent internalization.
If this is the case, my three schoolgirl companions – immersed in the process of jointly constructing knowledge out of explicit rules of grammar: were they on the right track, even if a long way from their desired destination?
Brumfit, C. (2001). Individual Freedom in Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Clark, A. (2011). Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Ellis, N. (2007). Dynamic systems and SLA: The wood and the trees. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 10/1.
Hulstijn, J. (1995). Not all grammar rules are equal: Giving grammar instruction its proper place in foreign language teaching. In Schmidt, R. (ed.) Attention and Awareness in Foreign Language Learning. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.
Lantolf, J., & Thorne, S. (2006). Sociocultural Theory and the Genesis of Second Language Development. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Schmidt. R., & Frota, S. (1986). Developing basic conversational ability in a second language: A case study of an adult learner. In R. Day (Ed.). Talking to learn: Conversation in a second language. Rowley, MA: Newbury House.
Illustrations from Carpentier-Fialip, P. & Carpentier-Fialip, M. (1931). L’Anglais Vivant: Classe de sixième. Paris: Hachette.