03 August 2012

Everyone understands grammar.

I've often heard it said that grammar is difficult or that normal people don't understand grammar.  Some teachers believe that grammar would be useful in the language classroom, but only if the students came in understanding grammar in the first place -- they don't want to waste time teaching theoretical grammar before they can start teaching the target language.
And these are good arguments but for one small detail:
everyone understands grammar.
It has been observed that in cloze tests (passages of texts with blanked out words) native speakers will have a notion of the word-class of the correct answer before they know what the specific word is.
Take these three simple examples:
  1. I like ____.
  2. I want a ____ one.
  3. Don't ____ me.
It's impossible to know what the original word was that the author intended, but at the same time, it's pretty obvious that number 1 is a noun, number 2 an adjective and 3 a verb.  If you were to put these sentences in front of any literate English speaker, they could give you any number of possible words for each example that fit the categories.

So they have an internal concept of word-classes, even if they don't have an explicit awareness of it.  This means that there's very little work for the teacher to do -- all you've got to do is point out what they already know.
Michel Thomas tried to do this a different way, and it's a way that tends to draw a lot of flak.  On his recorded courses, you can hear him say that he doesn't like the traditional definition of "person, place or thing", and then he gives a couple of examples of abstract nouns, which he says aren't really things.  He then goes on to introduce his prefered rule -- a noun is anything you can use "the" before -- and a couple of examples, using both abstract and concrete nouns.

It is quite trivial to prove that his rule is wrong -- "the white house"; adjective after "the"; wrong.  "John"; most proper nouns don't take "the"; wrong.  And yet for all it's inaccuracy, this "rule" seems to work better than most.  Why?  Because Thomas isn't trying to teach a new concept -- he is merely trying to evoke the concept that the learner already has.  In fact, he is doing exactly the opposite of defining, and I would argue that he is doing so on purpose -- if you already know about the concept, thinking too much will override your instinctual understanding, so thinking should be avoided.

What Thomas did was quite subtle.  He took the traditional (correct) rule, but said he didn't like it, freeing the student from feeling inadequate for not understanding it.  He then presented the case that causes consistent real problems for students, the abstract noun.  All he basically said in informational terms was "these are nouns too", but he worded it in such a way as to say "it's not your fault if these don't make sense in the old rule", swatting away any confusion and guilt or inadequacy.  His final comment, about "the", is valueless out of context -- it is factually incorrect, but he uses it to reinforce the concepts already clarified by the old rule and the abstract examples.  He ties them into one bundle.  The student never writes down the rule, the student never memorises the rule, in fact, regardless of what he says, he has not given a rule.  All he does is evoke the learner's internal concept of nouns and label it with the word noun.  I'm pretty confident that the average student coming out of a face-to-face class with Thomas would have forgotten he'd even said it, but they'd be able to label nouns pretty acccurately if asked to.

It took Thomas a few minutes to teach "noun", "verb" and "adjective" that way, less time than it takes me to explain what he did.

Any concept that exists in the student's native language has the potential to be taught in a similar way.

The secret is not to take too long, and not to get hung up on the technicalities.  All you need to do is evoke the concept and stick a label on it.

And if you think about it, that's what we do as teachers every day -- it's called "vocabulary".


random review said...

Nice article, but I would like to add that I have read at least one linguist (Steven Pinker in a popular work) claim that the traditional rule is not correct, so it might be no more correct (or incorrect) than what Thomas said. Also, I thought modern linguistics actually defined word classes to a large extent based on what slots they can occupy in a sentence, which is more or less what Thomas was doing. At any rate, I think your spot on that he was only evoking concepts we already have and did it in a very economical and effective way.

random review said...

Er, I meant you're not your. How embarrassing.

Nìall Beag said...

Well, you may have noticed that I'm not exactly a fan of Pinker...

I think Pinker is overstating by saying that they're wrong -- rather I'd say that they're a really clumsy and horrendously unclear.

While a word class is best identified by studying it in reference to slots, that doesn't mean it's best taught that way. How long would the definition of the English adjective be? Would it be of any practical use?

Nìall Beag said...

No, actually, you're right - they're wrong. Because they're utterly incomplete.

I think the definitions we're given are an attempt to formulate in English the sort of label other languages take for granted, seeing as we have stuck with (mostly) latinate terms that mean nothing to an English speaker. You could encapsulate the meaning of the common descriptions in one word each: namer, doer, describer.

At that level, I think we'd be more likely to accept the ambiguity, but when you formalise it as a rule, people expect a greater degree of precision.

Thank you for making me stop and think. Be assured that even when it looks like I've dismissed something out of hand, it does tend to churn away at the back of my mind for a while....