In Defense of Grammar


posted by Wolfgang Butzkamm, Aachen University (RWTH), Germany

“All you need is communication? No, because all you get is fossilisation.” (see Butzkamm (2009: 83-91): “The Language Acquisition Mystique: Tried and Found Wanting.”)

In the best known methodology handbooks, foreign language teaching is viewed through the lens of a few closely related European languages. Their grammars are often transparent for each other. This explains to some extent the severe doubts cast upon grammar teaching in general, rather than only against its misuse.

But a focus on grammar is not only indispensable for remote languages. It can really help the learner by making “odd” constructions meaningful and transparent, for instance through idiomatic and literal translation (“mirroring”) combined. That is why grammar should not be dealt with in a cavalier fashion. However, at all times the teacher must discipline himself to be brief, to confine the focus on form – in whatever way it is done – to matters of immediate practical relevance, and above all, to be clear. That is no easy matter for any language. On the other hand, for many foreign languages taught in schools excellent grammars have been made available, which represent a great advance on the grammars of earlier centuries.

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One response to “In Defense of Grammar

  1. Correct oral communication in English is based on knowledge of English phonetics, grammar, vocabulary, and on practice and experience in communicating with native English speakers in real life. In my opinion learners can learn grammar and practice it in communicative grammar exercises with real life content (with sentences that most likely can be used in real life situations). Learners of English for example should be encouraged to make up their own sentences on each grammar point taking into consideration their personal daily life activities (thus using English grammar for their potential relevant needs in realistic situations). Imagination and creativity play a major role in this practice as learners prepare for potential use of English grammar for their needs.

    It’s very helpful for learners to have a key to exercises for self-check. Grammar exercises that contain dialogues, interrogative and statement (or narrative) sentences on everyday topics, thematic texts and narrative stories are especially effective for mastering grammatical structures. Grammar practice should include exercises in listening comprehension, speaking, reading and writing.
    I think grammar learning ought to be combined with conversational practice and vocabulary learning (first fixed thematic conversational phrases, and then free conversational practice on each topic with sentences based on known grammar (to reduce grammar mistakes) alongside learning grammar).

    In the process of learning English grammar learners can devote a portion of time at each lesson for learning first fixed thematic conversational phrases that don’t require grammar knowledge. Later based on known grammar learners can concentrate more productively on listening, speaking, reading and writing practice on each daily life topic and on thematic vocabulary expansion.
    Knowledge of grammar rules reduces making grammatical mistakes by learners. Without adequate knowledge of English grammar rules learners often cannot create their own grammatically correct sentences and often cannot understand what they read or hear in English exactly.

    I believe what especially matters in effective teaching and learning of English grammar is how clearly and easily understandable all grammar rules are explained and whether adequate supportive exercises with real life content are practised to master that material. It would take foreign learners much less time to learn grammar rules that are explained to learners than to figure out grammar rules on their own intuitively from texts because grammar rules may have exceptions and other peculiarities.
    Grammar books with explanations and exercises have been published by knowledgeable language specialists to make learning grammar easier so that learners don’t have to discover grammar rules anew the hard long way.

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