Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Use of Terminology in Grammar Teaching, Part II

By Betty Azar
Author, Azar Grammar Series

It’s fascinating for me, as a language teacher, to compare the use of terminology in the teaching of music with the teaching of language. The goal in both types of teaching is a kind of automaticity, with labels extraneous to actual performance ability. And both can be “acquired” without a learner knowing any terminology at all.

I’m an adult student of the piano. So why does my piano teacher teach me that a certain configuration of notes is called a mordant? Knowing the term has no automatic effect on my ability to play those notes fluently and accurately. Yet it’s through shared terminology that my teacher and I are able to communicate easily as I develop my “intermusic” — the music I play before a Bach Invention would, theoretically, become second nature, become fluent, accurate, and unconsciously produced output. (I say “theoretically” because that’s still a goal, but I’m getting closer!)

So, again, using mordant as an example — now that I know the term, my teacher can say, “Let’s work on the timing of the mordant.” Our communication is quick and easy. She could, of course, just keep correcting me by showing me how to do it (no labels), or calling the mordant “those little notes there.” The labels are not requisite. But in my experience, they are very helpful to me as an adult student and efficient for my teacher to use. There are all sorts of terms that help the two of us pedagogically, from the basic terms (measure, key, quarter rest, staccato, etc.) to the more specialized, such as mordant.

It is, of course, obvious that knowing the terms does not ever, in and of itself, translate into usage ability. (Exactly the same is true of grammar terminology.) But the terms have value as a communication tool during my “pre-acquisition” (or “interlanguage”) phase of gaining “music usage ability” as I engage in repeated practice. It seems to me there is similar pedagogical value in being able to use grammar terms with adult students in their interlanguage phase — not simply for teacher-student communication, but value in students’ cognitive understanding of the concepts (represented by terminology) of singular, plural, subject, verb, sentence, modifier, agreement, clause, subordination, coordination, to name a few examples.

What do you think? Is there a valid analogy in the pedagogical use of terminology in the teaching of music and language?


Comment from Ela Newman
February 18, 2009 at 11:10 am


I love the comparison you make in the blog. In fact, whenever I mention the process of learning a foreign language (in an attempt to suggest that students have patience with their progress), I remind them that they are learning a skill. I ask them for examples of skills that they already have, and often hear about their ability to play a particular sport. When asked if they learned to play it well overnight, they shake their heads. It’s interesting to see students’ reactions when they notice similarities between these skills. Yes, they take practice, patience, and perserverance. I also think that an analogy can be drawn here when it comes to using terminology. When learning how to play baseball, how to knit, or how to write a document in Word, don’t we usually learn new terms, our new “language tools”? On top of practice, patience, and perserverance, while learning a skill, we seem to (quite naturally) need proper terms.

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