This is a typical question that I receive from many new students and website visitors. My answer is clear and simple: “indeed.”
Grammar is the backbone of a language and without it any single thing you know may be flux, in a sort of jelly without much consistency. In a nutshell, grammar provides you with the structure you need in order to organize and put your messages and ideas across. It is the railway through which your messages will be transported. Without it, in the same way as a train cannot move without railways, you won’t be able to convey your ideas to their full extension without a good command of the underlying grammar patterns and structures of the language.
I understand that many students ask this question simply because in their own experience they have always been presented with two main scenarios, and nothing in between. They want to know where they are going to be standing as regards to their learning.
Which are those two scenarios? Well, in one extreme we have those language courses that teach grammar almost exclusively, as if preparing the students to be grammarians of the second language rather than users. In the other extreme we have those “communicative” courses in which the only thing that is done is to talk about something or to read an article and comment on it. In many cases, what is seen in one class has no resemblance to what is done in the next.
In my experience, both scenarios may seem good for very specific purposes but I personally feel both are inappropriate for most language learners. For starters, by itself, a good command of the grammar of a language does not imply that the person is able to communicate effectively, as we usually see with students who have only been exposed to an all-grammar-oriented approach sometimes for many years. Many could recite the grammar by heart but if asked to express basic information, they would hesitate too much and browse through all the grammar rules in their heads before making an utterance, or simply dry up.
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Secondly, just talking in class without anything else done in order to learn from the actual conversation is not good enough either. It may be helpful of course, but up to a certain point. This approach may be more useful for very advanced students who just need to brush up their second language, but for those in need of building up the foundations of a new language, it is certainly too vague and flux, without any consistency.
So then, when asked: “is grammar really important for a second language learner?” I always say “yes”, but, the real question, or issue here is not whether grammar is important or not but rather how we should present grammar to our students. You may be surprised to hear that most of my own students, even advanced ones, have very little awareness of grammar jargon and terminology, in spite of the fact that they can make a pretty good use of the second language. “How is that possible?” you may ask. First and foremost, teachers need to know precisely what they are trying to prepare their students for. I do know that what I want is to “create” users of a new language.
I want to prepare people to actually engage in communicative situations using appropriate language and patterns. I am definitely not interested in their explaining to me or making a mental list of all the grammar uses that a certain pattern has.
For example, think of your own native language. Name all the tenses that you can find in your own native tongue with their corresponding uses and structures. Unless you are a teacher, a translator or someone who needs to have a very good grasp of this meta-language, more likely than not you may feel at a loss to answer that question. And that does NOT mean in any sense that you are not a terrific user of that language. After all, you can understand and express whatever you want with ease. What is more, by being able to do so, you show an awesome command of the internal grammar of the language. If you knew no grammar patterns you would not be able to make a single sentence but you can. This means that although you may lack the conscious ability to describe how your language works (i.e. its grammar) you can use it perfectly. You are a user of the language. You make a perfect use of the grammar of your native language intuitively or unconsciously.
Again, our primary goal as second language teachers must be to create users or the language, not linguists! It escapes the aim of this article to describe how we can achieve this but basically we are going to name the main elements to consider to create “language users.”
To begin with, it should be noted that whatever we present our students with should follow a progression from the very general meaning to the very specific pattern or structure we want them to learn (or that they need to learn of course). I would like to highlight that all this takes place within the same class.
Before we start to use the material we have selected, it would be good to introduce the students to the topic you are going to work on. You can have them guess or infer what the material will say about it, they can make predictions and when they fail to use appropriate language, you may provide it. This is good to elicit vocabulary that may be necessary for them to know in order to understand the topic. After you have created curiosity in the topic and provided students with key terms on the topic, make sure you follow a progression such as the one that follows:
- Provide them with exposure to real language and real situations in context.
- Initial focus on gist, not form.
- Focus on more specific meaning.
- We can then focus on very specific meaning.
- Analysis and systematization: after we make sure the students have a good understanding of the whole material, you can have them focus on particular items or patterns that may be important for them to learn at their stage (i.e. grammar) You can systematize it more formally and teach them how it works. After all, they have already seen it in practice and they have also worked around meaning, now it is time for them to learn how to use it.
- Give them exercises for them to practice the new structure. Do not be afraid of using grammar drills and patterns. They could be VERY useful for them to fix the new structures in their brains.
- Give them homework to force them to revise this at a later time. The homework does not necessarily need to be communicative in nature. Profit from the time in class to communicate and interact. If possible, avoid drilling activities while you are with them in class. However, the time they are on their own could be very well used to do all the drilling and rote practice that may prove useful for them to gain a good command of the grammar form you are trying to teach them. Personally I feel that the time in class must be used for providing learners with as many communicative situations as possible, rather than making them focus on drills and patterns that they could easily practise on their own.
- Provide them with ample opportunities to practice what they have learned in REAL or REALISTIC communicative situations. Create situations so that they can make lots of mistakes and encourage them to improve on them by reminding them of what they have studied.
- Recycle and mention the topic again as many times as necessary, time and again.
This is essential for them to finally acquire the new structures in a natural way.
As you can see, I am not condemning grammar at all as some readers may feel when in my articles I complain about teachers working almost exclusively with a grammar-oriented approach. On the contrary, I feel it is essential in order to master a language. However, how grammar is presented to the students is what really matters. I utterly disagree with those teachers who come to class and tell the class: “Open your books. Today we will learn the “Simple Present Tense.”
In the suggested steps to follow in any class, you will have noticed that I have used a quite eclectic approach, starting from a communicative situation (steps 1-4) with the focus on understanding the message from the gist up to very detailed info and later, and only later, once meaning is clearly understood, we reach the grammar item we may need our students to learn at their stage. The obvious advantage of this approach is that while dealing with grammar, the students will have a clear idea of the context in which it was used and the communicative need it satisfied.