89. Grammar

I teach English someday. In other country. Like yours, maybe. We will learned to write good. Have fun, grammar always, yes. Good grammar makes good student happy grade. I teach English at classroom for the making of great. Students ears fill over from learning so much things.

Okay, enough of that. It’s more difficult to write a grammatically incorrect sentence than I imagined, with some knee-jerk reaction always reaching for that DELETE key when I mix tenses or forget an apostrophe. Grammar affects every little part of a sentence. You can’t write without grammar. It astonishes me, then, when people say we ought to avoid teaching it.

Now, that doesn’t mean they want absolute chaos.

The best part about English being the lingua franca is that people from all countries can use it as a tool for communication across borders. I can go to Turkey and have a conversation with a simit vendor about the weather, if I wanted, because we share a common language. A business woman from India can vacation in South Africa and have a long conversation about digital cameras with a French photo-blogger. If they want.

So when a teacher or researcher advocates steering clear of explicit grammar instruction, it’s not because they want to dismantle the English language. They’re simply leaning more toward the function of English as a tool, as a means of communication. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It only has to make enough sense to convey meaning. You can mispronounce things. You can forget your plural markers. You can mix verb tenses. It’s all gravy so long as you’ve expressed what you meant to express and, perhaps with a bit of negotiation, your listener has understood.

But I like grammar.

I think we let grammar frighten ourselves at an early age, like some kind of monster under the bed. We get through present, past, and future tense and then someone mentions the perfect tense and we freak out. Don’t get me started on the panic sweat that erupts on most of our foreheads when we’re asked if we should use “who” or “whom.”

And who the F came up with gerunds?

I think we need to make grammar explicit. I think we need students to know, early, that grammar is like the earth. The mountains are like nouns. People are like verbs. Animals are prepositions. Oceans are conjunctions. Trees can be demonstrative pronouns. Teach them that without grammar, there would be no language. Without the ingredients of the earth, we’d have no life.

Now, I’m still new at this ESL teaching thing, but I’m pretty sure if you start the kids at a young age without a fear of grammar, then laying out the foundation for them will be the most beneficial.

Arguments can be made, by the innatists like Chomsky, that all you need to do is use English around language learners and they’ll acquire the rules deductively. Imagine a student like a sponge, only instead of soaking up water they’re soaking up articles and relative clauses.

And maybe that really works. Who knows? The point is, you probably know less about your language than a ten-year-old kid in South Korea.

I find it amazing that we develop our language ability at such a young age that we don’t even remember acquiring it. This magical, wonderful tool, given to us, free of charge, with hardly any effort at all. So when we grow up and some of us decide to teach English as a career, we realize that we know jack-squat about the development process we undertook, as if Dumbledore came to our crib and uttered, “Englishium Speakiorus!” and so it was.

Next time you write a sentence, ask yourself, “How do I know this?”

You’d be surprised how many things you know, but hardly understand.

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