Sunday, February 1, 2009

The Language of Language Learning

By Tamara Jones
EFL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium

The holidays can be a lonely time to be away from one’s family, so for our first Christmas in Belgium, my husband and I were delighted to host a small dinner party. The guests included a TESOL professional and friend on vacation from the USA, my French instructor, Sandy, and her English partner, Paul. As we finished up the ham, Paul initiated an interesting conversation about the language of language learning.

Voice? Tense? Adverb Phrase? Huh?

Paul had recently started studying in one of Sandy’s classes, and he said that he found her use of grammatical terms intimidating. In a previous blog, I mentioned that Sandy occasionally resorts to English to give precise definitions of vocabulary and for descriptions of complex grammatical concepts. However, for Paul, Sandy’s use of terms like infinitive, passive, and the past progressive actually clouds the issue more than it clarifies it.

I was surprised to learn that, in spite of all I had believed about the traditional nature of the British education system, Paul had never learned to diagram a sentence. In fact, as we went around the table, only Sandy, who had been educated in France, and my husband, a product of the public school system in South Dakota, USA, had ever been exposed in a meaningful way to the nitty gritty of English grammar.

Where IS my verb?

After our conversation, though, I wondered how many of my fellow French students felt the same way as Paul. More importantly, I wondered how many of my EFL students were mystified by my use of grammar terms. When I ask them, Where is your verb? do they wonder what I am talking about? Have we made things much more complicated for our students by forcing them to learn a separate set of vocabulary useful only when dissecting sentences?

Several language teachers believe that, indeed, we should avoid confusing metalanguage. On Debra Garcia’s blog, Teaching ESL to Adults, she cautions us against using metalanguage, suggesting that we “go directly to the target language.” (Garcia, 2008). In an intriguing strand on Dave Sperling’s forum for teachers, several language teachers agree that they prefer to steer clear of grammar terminology so as not to “burden [students] with unnecessary vocabulary and bamboozle them.” Furthermore, at a recent Maryland TESOL conference, a speaker referred to grammar metalanguage as “bombastic and misleading.” (Nelson, J. , Making Grammar a Tool, not a Topic, Presented at the Maryland TESOL Conference, 2007)

Use What Works

However, in my experience teaching both ESL and EFL, most students actually seem to appreciate a quick, metalanguage-heavy explanation to a longer, roundabout one. My students from Asia, South America, and Europe seem to have a much better background in grammar terminology than the average North American or Brit, so why not use what works for them? In fact, recently when working with an Italian couple during their private lesson, I kept referring to the -ing form. The students were totally confused until the wife said, “Oh, you mean the present participle!”

My conclusion, based on nothing more scientific than personal observation, is that most international students are much better equipped to deal with grammar terms than native English speakers. I will continue to do what appears to work best for my students and fling grammar metalangauge about in the classroom. Although I need to pay careful attention for the “deer-caught-in-headlights” stares of students who just aren’t getting it, I don’t want to underestimate my students either.

Having said all of that, I hardly consider myself an expert on this topic. I would be very interested to hear what others’ opinions are. Post a comment to agree, disagree or share your experience.


Comment from Ric Morris
February 18, 2009 at 11:20 am

I agree with much of what you say. We should always bear in mind that the purpose of teaching grammar is to clarify; if it confuses then we should avoid it. There is a similar issue with phonemic symbols – just another thing that gets between the learner and the language, or a short cut?

Comment from Betty Azar
February 20, 2009 at 5:05 pm

I found that my L2 university students were very receptive to and appreciative of direct explanations of grammar patterns. In other teaching situations, such as tutoring a man who was barely literate in his own language, I never touched grammar terms.

A big part of the art of teaching is figuring out what works best for our students — sometimes that means using a direct approach to grammar and sometimes an indirect approach. With a direct approach, terminology can and should be kept to a minimum. It should be simplified and adapted for pedagogical purposes.

I’ve always been a fan of the if-it-works-use-it approach. It just means the teacher is staying flexible and being responsive to students.

I very much enjoyed reading your post, Tamara.

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