Importance of Grammar in the Second Language Teaching

Grammar is one of the inbuilt dimensions of our language usage, however, we are usually not conscious of grammar use in our daily speech. In the language teaching process, grammar is a major factor of syllabus design however, in modern language teaching approaches and methods, it is not supposedly supported. In spite of that, asking about the rule of the subject is still a quite popular habit among the learners after classroom exercises were done. On this point, grammar is the best helper of the instructors to show the rules in a systematic way. How could be the language without grammar? It is obvious that we cannot combine words without grammar. Vocabulary is not enough for language usage. When we have all the stuffing, it does not mean we can cook the food properly. Analogically, putting words together refers to syntax in language usage which is also part of grammar. Besides syntax, the words are also modified to become appropriate with some dimensions such as time, number and gender. These modifications make the meaning clearer through additions and alterations which refers to morphology. As Batstone (1994) mentioned, in that case, we can say grammar consists of two fundamental ingredients – syntax and morphology- and together they help us to identify grammatical forms that serve to enhance and sharpen the expression of meaning. He also adds:

“Language without grammar would be chaotic: countless words without the indispensable guidelines for how they can be ordered and modified. A study of grammar (syntax and morphology) reveals a structure and regularity which lies at the basis of language and enables us to talk of the ‘language system’.”

As Batstone (1994) said we can consider grammar as a framework for the learners in language teaching settings. Therefore, it would not be surprising for the learners to come across with the grammar of language teaching. The rules would open new doors to create new sentences. Learners can have limitless ways to express their selves by the limited rules of the target language. In this respect, Thornbury (1999) describes grammar as a “sentence-making machine” and, he adds:

“… Grammar, after all, is a description of the regularities in a language, and knowledge of these regularities provides the learner with the means to generate a potentially enormous number of original sentences. The number of possible new sentences is constrained only by the vocabulary at the learner’s command and his or her creativity.”

Another point of view that Thornbury (1999) draws attention to is the fossilization issue and the positive effect of grammar on it. Fossilization means halting of acquisition (not learning) in the literature of second language studies (Krashen, 1985). To make this phenomenon clearer, we can point Selinker and Lamendella’s (1978, as cited in Ellis, 2008) definition:

“… a permanent cessation in learning before the learner has attained target language norms at all levels of linguistic structure and in all discourse domains in spite of the learner’s positive ability, opportunity, and motivation to learn and acculturate into target society. (p.187)”

There are many reasons to had been said that caused fossilization in the target language such as the insufficient and inappropriate quantity of input, the affective filter, the output filter and acquisition of the deviant forms (Krashen, 1985), however, despite this, the solutions are not much as we thought. Whether independent or formal, grammar studies might be helpful for this problem. The right amount of grammar input can make alive the learners’ attention on the language and obviate fossilization. The possibilities of creating new discourse manners in the target language would be vivacious through grammar. In other respects, grammar as a system of learnable rules can help the instructors for changing the dynamics of the language classrooms. For instance, the need for rules and synthesized information can be essential for large classrooms. Thereby, grammar offers a structured system of the target language.

If we review the metaphor that I mentioned at the beginning of this essay, as we can have all the stuffing, we can the recipe as well but again it does not mean to say that we can cook. When we applied the same analogy to language learning, we can say that knowledge of grammar and vocabulary cannot work without implementation. The learner must experience the target language. In this sense, in the 1970s, theorists developed a language teaching approach that focused on communication of what is called the Communicative Language Teaching Approach. The communicative approach prioritizes using grammar and vocabulary to reach the communicative competences. In this approach, grammar is acquiring unconsciously through the activities by communicating. When it comes to “acquiring” the second language, it reminds that people acquiring their first language without being taught grammar rules as well. The first distinction between learning and acquiring is made by the applied linguist Stephen Krashen in the 1970s. He identified that pick up the language subconsciously is much powerful than learning. However, grammar as a system of the rules is part of the learning process rather than acquisition. In this respect, if the person or the instructor cannot balance the right amount of grammar input, it may cause to make the input incomprehensible which is essential for acquisition (Krashen, 1985). How can grammar input balance? It must be organized according to the dynamics of the learning process. Krashen’s (1985)’s theory says we acquire (not learn) the rules of language in a predictable order which he called Natural Order.  This point of view inspires from Universal Grammar theory of the linguist Noam Chomsky. It shows us whether a first or second language learner, all human being follows a statically significant average order. For this reason, it is not easy to say a book grammar becomes a mental organ’s grammar.

In that case, how much is necessary to teach grammar? If it is necessary, what is the best way to teach it? Clearly, these questions are quite important however, there is no clear-cut answer to these questions. Because, as we all know, language is a living thing and therefore language learning changes according to its settings. Even so, there are some pedagogical options in grammar teaching. Borg (2004) puts these options in order as follows:

  1. Implicit – Explicit
  2. Inductive – Deductive
  3. Sentence Level – Text Level
  4. Controlled – Free
  5. Accuracy – Fluency
  6. Discrete – Integrated

In the first options, the instructor can raise awareness on the learners that they are learning grammar or not make the learning explicit or implicit. Grammar can be learned by giving examples that are inductive or through a formal presentation which is deductive. Also, these presentations or examples can be applying at sentence level or these can be studied at text level which includes a context of larger chunks of discourse. These practices can be controlled by the instructor or learners to contribute their learning process freely. As Borg (2004) stated, the focusing grammar can range from one where getting it right is what matters most (accuracy) or to where the spontaneous deployment of grammar (fluency) is the priority. It also can be considered discretely through specifically labeled lessons (for instance academic English) or integrated into general courses. The instructor’s choice always affected by some factors of the language learning process such as the learners, the subject matter, the instruction or educational policies… Therefore, it possible to say they must continue to analyze, understand dynamics and be aware of the alternatives to choose the best way of teaching grammar.

In conclusion, grammar is a great part of language which allows us to create endless settings through systematized resources. As Batstone (1994) specifies, grammar takes its place in the learner’s mind like a map, however, if it is too detailed will confuse the learner and thus fail its primary purpose: to be guided. Therefore, instructors need to compare the map with other maps that the learner already knows. They can do that through the knowledge of the language universals which called typology. In this way, they can make the map a directory for the learners rather than an obstacle.  

References:

Batstone, Rob (1994), Grammar, Oxford University Press.

Borg, Simon (2004), The Best Way to Teach Grammar. Proceedings of The International INGED-ANADOLU ELT Conference, Anadolu University School of Foreign Languages Eskisehir (November 15-17 2001). Turkey.

Ellis, Rod (2008), The Study of Second Language Acquisition (2. edition), Oxford University Press.

Krashen, Stephen D. 1985, The Input Hypothesis: Issues and Implications, Longman.

Thornbury, Scott (1999), How to Teach Grammar, Longman.

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