Thursday, July 30, 2009

It Just Sounds Right

By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium

“This is so hard.”

I am sure all L2 instructors are familiar with the frustration students feel when studying another language. I feel particular sympathy for ESL and EFL students (and their teachers) because English grammar is especially aggravating. English grammar is often illogical and native speaker use of it is fickle.

It must be so annoying for students to spend hours mastering a new grammar skill only to hear a native speaker using it incorrectly. For years, I diligently taught students that we did not use “love” in the progressive. Inevitably, the next day a student would point out that he or she heard “I’m loving it” on a Burger King commercial. Thank goodness many grammar books have since caught up with that one (I hated looking like a liar), but there are thousands of examples of grammatical choices that native speakers make that violate the “rules” in our texts.

Although the line that English as a “living” language that is always changing is comfortable for teachers to give, it doesn’t ease the burden our students carry. The bottom line is that English grammar is hard, and it just keeps getting harder as students learn more.

It just sounds right.

As a teacher, I often feel a bit helpless when I am faced with a student’s crinkled forehead and bewildered question, “But, why?” Even to my ears, the answer, “it just sounds right,” sounds like a bit of a cop out. However, often, we just say things in a certain way just because it sounds better. A word just collocates better with one word than another, although there is no real “rule” for students to learn. One verb tense is just a little more appropriate than another, although both are technically correct.

A (wonderful, inspirational) teacher I worked with in the US begins each semester with a lecture about how English grammar isn’t like math. Students can’t necessarily memorize grammatical “formulas” and expect them to work even most of the time. This is true, but don’t you wish it weren’t so?

Transition from learner to fine-tuner

When I reflect on my own experience as an English teacher, I find that students in the High Intermediate level tend to struggle with this frustration more than any others. Recently, one of my students from Poland admitted that she was finding the High Intermediate class frustrating because she felt as though she wasn’t learning anything. I have been her teacher for several semesters, so I knew that she wasn’t criticizing me. I understood that she just missed that learner’s rush that comes with “getting” a new grammatical concept.

Beginners and Low Intermediate students are usually happily caught up in a frenzy of learning new things; however, in my experience, the High Intermediate level is all about a move toward fine-tuning. This transition can be very wearisome for students, as it is time-consuming and lacks those “light bulb” moments. It seems, too, that High Intermediate is a hurdle some never get over; they have good enough English to be understood and that is enough for many of our students.

Familiarity breeds a good TOEFL score?

It seems to me that the students who do succeed and move on to an Advanced level tend to be the ones that can get beyond an obsession with memorizing grammar rules. They tend to have a more well-rounded approach to language learning that includes reading and listening to authentic input. They are the ones that have become so comfortable with English that they just know which words go best together and which tense to choose.

I used to teach a TOEFL Prep class in the US, and I help prepare students for the Cambridge Proficiency Exam here in Belgium. At that level, students need to have internalized most of the grammar “rules” (although explicit instruction and more fine-tuning is always helpful) and they should be choosing correct answers more by instinct. Unfortunately, it’s something I have not figured out how to “teach” in a few months of class, but for the students who get to that point, English grammar doesn’t seem so hard, after all.


Comment from Ismael Tohari
August 3, 2009 at 5:31 am

Very interesting and illuminating article. Thank you very much, Ms Jones!

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