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.

Language Use and Its Effects on Comprehensible Input in EFL Classrooms

This essay is an abridged and translated version of my another essay called "İkinci Dil Öğretiminde Hedef Dil, Ana Dili ve Araç Dil Kullanımı".

According to the dynamics of the language classrooms, we have two types of interaction: Classroom Language and Instruction Language. Although nevertheless, these concepts look similar, they differ depending upon the instructor, learner, materials, course designers or curriculum and institutional conditions or authorities, etc.

Classroom Language means the language that speaks by the individuals of the classroom inside or outside of the institution. Instruction Language, on the other hand, comprises the language that speaks by the instructor to provide the input of the target language. For instance, even the instructor uses the target language while the language teaching process, it is quite possible to see the usage of another common language between the learners in reality. In this sense, we can classify the language choices in three main sets of factors: Target Language, Medium Language, and First Language.

  1. Target Language Usage:

Using the target language as a classroom language or an instruction language might have an important role on creating a real communication environment and supporting productiveness of the learners, especially given the fact that there may be few opportunities for learners to encounter aforesaid atmosphere outside of class settings (Hall, 2001; Halliwell and Jones, 1991; Macoro, 2000; Macdonald, 1993 as cited in DiFrancesco, 2013).  However, when it comes to applying this when and how the main determiners consist of the strategies selected in reference to the classroom dynamics. Concordantly, we can specify the implementations for the target language use as follows:

  • The instructor can use the techniques of Total Physical Response by concreting objects, visuals, gestures, facial expressions, and body language.
  • The instructor can fill the silent moments with talking in a target language environment. For instance, technical issues can be verbalized in the target language to show the actions that can possibly occur in the natural and real world’s situation of the target language.
  • To check comprehension, instructors and learners can develop specific gestures or codes between them. For example, they can try to understand each other by acting out or drawing.
  • The instructor can also teach grammar in the target language by making form-meaning connections. Usage of visual material such as animations or presentational softwares might be helpful on this.
  • Leaners should be thought simple language phrases or questions to interact in the target language during class sessions. The instructor can provide these expressions in posters or colored cards as an easy reference for learners during the activities.
  • Learners should be aware that they do not have to understand every word they heard, instead of that, they can try to catch the keywords and form a guess as to the overall meaning (DiFrancesco, 2013).

2.First Language Usage:

Using the first language in the foreign language teaching process has many different reasons for instructors and learners. While instructors are using the first language to explaining grammatical or complex structures, learners choose to use the first language for communicating and enlightening the meaning. However, besides all, first language usage comes to easier than other options for both of them. The first language is actually can be helpful for second language acquisition as long as it is using fairly balanced.

In the US, researches have shown that instructors utilize English for discipline and classroom management, grammar explanations, clarification, saving time and avoiding ambiguity (Duff and Polio,1990; Kraemer, 2006; Wing, 1980 as cited in DiFrancesco, 2013). According to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, the first language can be used for classroom management and explanations, however when it comes to implementing activities, presentations and exercises, target language should be used. Nevertheless, first language usage should be gradually decreased and the ways that would increase self-studying must be augmented by adding verbal and written authentic materials to the curriculum (MEB, 2002). The factors that would provide an effective way for first language use can be explained as follows:

  • Instructors can use the first language to arouse a sense of security in learners.
  • They can build background prior to reading, listening, speaking and writing tasks and activities by using the first language.
  • They can give some comparative and typological examples between the grammatical features of first and target languages.
  • Instructors can maximize intake by using L1 to make the input comprehensible.
  • They can use the mother tongue to avoid giving learners the feeling of identity-threatened by the total rejection of their mother tongue.
  • They can help the students with comprehension problems when L2 fails or is not effective enough (Ostovar – Namaghi and Norouzi, 2015).

3.Medium Language Usage:

We can describe the medium language as the common language between learners and the instructor inside or outside of the classroom. Medium language helps to explain oneself and easies comprehension.

According to Brufit (2001), wherever there are social differences, it reflects the language (as cited in Futurelearn, 2017). For this reason, if the classroom has students from different cultural backgrounds, medium language usage might have an important role. We can assume intercultural communication skills significant as much as the four main language skills for multicultural classrooms. Because language teaching should be more than teaching grammar and vocabulary and consequently the acquisition of the target language’s culture is part of the learning process.

Teaching cultural dimensions have been always problematic for foreign language teaching. In that case, what is the point that makes culture essential for EFL settings? In second language teaching, it progresses naturally. Even a special effort, the learner can discover the target society’s cultural believes, values and behaviors. Beside of this, second language teaching classes has a broad range of cultures in case of international classroom profiles. Therefore, the learner’s international communication skills are not limited by only the target culture. For this reason, provide an intercultural awareness in the classroom needs the effort of the instructor in EFL settings.

If the foreign language teacher uses a common language as a medium of the instruction, she/he must be considered the factors as follows:

  • Every learner has a different learning style.
  • Cultural patterns might be identical for the groups, in this case, interruptions can be tolerated, and some of the students can be shy to ask questions.
  •  The instructor should have some typological information about the target language and the medium language to compare.
  • The medium language can increase the metacognitive skills between the learners, it also can make easier to discover the target language.

According to Krashen (1985) understanding messages is the only way to learn a language which means receiving comprehensible input. From this point of view, we can talk about different interactions that are possible to see occurring the target language usage, first language usage, and medium language usage. For instance, when we think of an EFL classroom in Turkey, target language usage must contain some syntactic dimensions. On this point, it is quite possible to come across a complaint from the learners such as “I can understand but cannot speak!”. Understanding without speaking shows us the level of comprehension stuck on the semantic state. Therefore, the instructor would be careful about not just the comprehension of the input, also the output. If we take on the hand the same classroom again if the instructor chooses to use the first language in a fair amount. This might help to compare Turkish linguistic features with English which also called inter-language grammar (Gass,1997). The acquisition of inter-language grammar helps the learners to evaluate the input to output.  Besides of all, there is also another point which possible to come across in EFL settings is miscommunication. It can be seen as “misunderstanding” or “half understanding”. These kinds of situations are another important reason to identify language usage in EFL classrooms.

When we considered all these together, it is obvious to take separately Classroom Language and Instruction Language, when it comes to choosing the language in use. However, a “fair amount of usage” can confuse methodologically the instructions and also it gives them a free space to designing their lessons by considering classroom’s dynamics. When these dimensions absorbed properly, the appropriate language use must be chosen for comprehensible input and consequently output.

References:

CEFR (2002), Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (Avrupa Ortak Başvuru Metni), Ankara: MEB, Turkey.

Difrancesco, D. (2013), Instructor Target Language Use in Today’s World Language Classrooms, MultiTask, MultiSkills, MultiConnections (Editör: Stephanie Dhoanu), Central State Conference on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.

Futurelearn (2017), English as a Medium of Instruction for Academics Online Course, Southampton University, https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/emi-academics

Gass, S. (1997), Input, Interaction, and the Second Language Learner, Lawrance Erlbaum Associates Publishers.

Krashen, S. (1985), The Input Hypothesis, Longman.

Ostovar-Namaghi, S.A. (2015), Namaghi, S., First Language Use in Teaching a Foreign Language: Theoretical Perspectives and Empirical Findings, US-China Foreingn Language, Eylül, S: 13.