A New Way to Teach Grammar: The Bilingual Option

by Wolfgang Butzkamm, Aachen University (RWTH), Germany

This is a how-to-do it article. The theory and research behind it can be read up in Butzkamm & Caldwell (2009, 120ff.). I have chosen the for +noun / pronoun+ infinitive construction. Though it is eminently useful and transparent to speakers of many languages, I believe it is not much used by German intermediate EFL learners, simply because German and other languages prefer other constructions to express the same idea.

Lift the construction from a text the students have read and ask them to translate the sentence, for instance:

  • For human rights to flourish, religious rights have to come second.
    For this to happen, we must act now.
    For this to work well, we need to know more.

Here, the for-construction is a means to express purpose. For this meaning German normally uses a subordinating conjunction, i.e. ‘damit’. In order for the students to associate the infinitive construction with the familiar dependent clause introduced by ‘damit’, we need to practice:

Step 2:
T: Damit dies passiert, …
S: For this to happen …

T: Damit dies funktioniert, …
S: For this to work …

T: Damit dies gut funktioniert, …
S: For this to work well …

T: Damit die Märkte gut funktionieren, …
S: For (the) markets to work well …

T: Damit die Schüler fleißig arbeiten, …
S: For the students to study/work hard …

The open contrast between German: dependent clause, and English: infinitive works as a kind of inoculation against unthinking transfer of mother tongue habits. If the students hesitate, for instance with the negated version, the teacher simply gives the English sentence himself and asks the students to repeat it.

Step 3:
Perhaps the above examples are enough. The teacher has set the class on the right track and hands the activity over to the students: “Now make your own sentences along the same lines.” Alternatively, the teacher can allow a few minutes of silence for the students to jot down their ideas. This step is a must. The students must get the chance to experiment with the new construction, and the activity becomes monolingual. The mother tongue drops away.

Since the construction does not only express purpose but is also widely used in slightly different forms and contexts, these should be practiced too:

T: Es ist schon okay, dass du das sagst.
S: It’s okay for you to say that.

T: Ist es okay, wenn ich das sage?
S: Is it okay for me to say that?

T: War es okay, dass ich das gesagt habe?
S: Was it okay for me to say that?

T: Es wäre falsch, wenn wir jetzt gingen.
S: It would be wrong for us to go now.

T: Ist es normal, dass das passiert?
S: Is it normal for this to happen?

The students will now find it easy to come up with their own meaningful ideas, using different adjectives and different pronouns: ‘easy for us to…’, ‘unusual for them to…’, ‘not uncommon for him to…’, ‘important for her to….’

This is easy for Germans:

  • My hope is to find a good friend.
    My dream is to be a singer in a band.

However, this needs getting used to:

German (T): Meine Hoffnung ist, dass Papa aufhört zu rauchen.
English (S): My hope is for dad to stop smoking.

German: Meine Hoffnung ist, dass die Armen Hilfe bekommen.
English: My hope is for the poor to get help.

German: Meine Hoffnung ist, dass ihr gute Zensuren bekommt.
English: My hope is for you to get good marks.

Repetition is habit-forming, and believe it or not, part of language learning is habit formation. For correct speech habits to be formed, we need plenty of language turn-over in comparatively little time. This is what the exercise provides. Count the number of sentences the students have heard and produced and compare with other exercises which take the same amount of time.

Bilingual drills will be new for most teachers, who will have to learn, through trial and error, how to use mother tongue cues effectively, what cues work best and what cues are likely to cause interference errors from the native tongue. Let me say it again: Should the students hesitate (searching for English equivalents), the teacher simply translates his own sentence and makes his pupils repeat it. This is a simple way of avoiding interference. Another way of making it easy for the students and allowing them to get into the habit of the foreign phrase is changing only little things as you go from one sentence to the next:

German: Es war richtig, dass sie weitermachten (bzw. weiter zu machen).
English: It was right for them to continue.

German: War es richtig, dass sie weitermachten?
English: Was it right for them to continue?

German: Es ist richtig, dass sie weiter macht.
English: It is right for her to continue.

This is a way of playing it safe. But it can easily become boring unless the pace is rapid. – Just one more example. Bilingual cues are so flexible we can construct drills that tell a story, sort of.  Years ago, I tried what follows with grammar school kids in their first year of English. The textbook introduced the past tense rather cautiously, restricting the new forms in a first step to was / were / had. Well, yes, this is grammar, but for the pupils was / were / had are simply new words with a clear meaning, just like bread or butter. The sentences are no longer unrelated, the pace was fast:

German: Die Party war wunderbar.
English: The party was fantastic.

German: Die Party war großartig.
English: The party was wonderful.

German: Betty war da.
English: Betty was there.

German: Tim and Tom waren da.
English: Tim and Tom were there.

German: Ja, sie waren da.
English: Yes, they were there.

German: Alle  meine Freunde waren da.
English: All my friends were there.

German: Ich war in der Küche mit Tom.
English: I was in the kitchen with Tom.

German: Ja, wir waren in der Küche.
English: Yes, we were in the kitchen.

German: Wir waren hungrig.
English: We were hungry.

German: Wir hatten Würstchen.
English: We had sausages.

German: Die Würstchen waren gut.
English: The sausages were good.

German: Die Getränke waren auch gut.
English: The drinks were good. too.

German: I hatte ‘ne Cola.
English: I had a Coke.

German: Einige waren im Garten.
English: Some were in the garden.

German: Betty was so nett / freundlich.
English: Betty was so nice.

German: Sie war nett zu Tom.
English: She was nice to Tom.

German: Aber Tom war nicht nett.
English: But Tom wasn’t nice.

German: Tom war schlimm/schrecklich.
English: Tom was awful.

German: Aber du warst da.
English: But you were there.

German: Ich war glücklich.
English: I was happy.

German: Weil ich mit dir war (weil ich war …).
English: Because I was with you.

German: .. und weil du mit mir warst.
English: .. and because you were with me.

German: Es war 11 Uhr.
English: It was 11 o-clock.

German: Die Party war vorbei.
English: The party was over.

German: Zu schnell.
English: Too soon.

Mother tongue stimuli here work better than anything else, because of their flexibility. Many emotional overtones and nuances of meaning can be conveyed by the voice alone. Both the L1 cue ‘zu schnell’ as well as its English equivalent carry the tones and the facial expressions of regret. Or notice the emphasis your voice can convey when saying fantastisch/fantastic. In other words, we pretend as if the stimulus sentences and the corresponding responses were serious utterances, and can thus enhance meaning.

Well, yes, this is pre-communicative practice, but see Butzkamm & Caldwell (2009) to show you how this kind of drill can lead a class right into message-oriented communication. Bilingual techniques such as the ones proposed here must become known, tried out and tested more widely than heretofore. Proponents of a monolingual approach, however, pull the rug out from under their learners’ feet. If you have tried this out with other languages, please give me some feedback: wbutzkamm@web.de

Butzkamm, Wolfgang & Caldwell, John A.W. (2009). The Bilingual Reform. A Paradigm Shift in Foreign Language Teaching. Tübingen: Narr.


One response to “A New Way to Teach Grammar: The Bilingual Option

  1. Pingback: A New Way to Teach Grammar: The Bilingual Option | CLERA blog

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