Online People

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Death of Grammar

his paper traces how, in the nineties, the English were tampering with
educational methods in the teaching of foreign languages to English
school children. It criticises the trendy, often politically-motivated pseudoreasoning
of those who experiment with children for their own quasiintellectual
pleasure, while they bite their fingernails of ambition. The paper
stresses that grammar has always been, and always will be, the only certain
criterion in the teaching of foreign languages.
W i l l i a m M a l l i n s o n
William Mallinson
‘Nothing is, but thinking makes it so!’1
It is generally known that the English are as a rule somewhat averse to learning foreign
languages. One reason often put forward for this is that the imperial mentality has not yet
entirely disappeared. Another, connected to this, is that the English do not need to learn
foreign languages, simply because so many foreigners speak English. In fact, more people
speak English as a second language than as a first one, making it, in the words of the late
Jacques Derrida, a ‘substitute language.’ Be that as it may, one should also consider the
otiose penchant for fashion and trendiness, after disguised as ‘innovation’ or ‘progress’, as a
less well-known factor in England's linguistic deficit. It is this: the ‘communicative approach’
in the teaching of foreign languages in schools. By the time pupils have been through this
‘approach,’ they are likely to have forgotten much of what they have learnt, or be in too
weak a position to pursue language studies in higher education. In this context, then, this
essay might be of interest to university foreign language teachers. The ‘communicative’
approach, briefly, is a ‘method,’ pioneered in the Anglo-Saxon world, to teach language in a
‘natural’ way, by creating so-called ‘real life situations’ in the classroom and then feeding
language to pupils without using grammar as the starting point. In England, it has been
promoted particularly energetically at London University’s Institute of Education. Let us
now scrutinize the so- called communicative approach.
According to one modern languages expert:
The period of emphasis on free expression also saw a decline in the teaching of
formal grammar. Parsing of sentences was out, as was the use of grammatical
terminology […] it has certainly been disastrous as far as the teaching of modern
languages is concerned […] we have now reached the point in University language
departments where we are having to teach the basic grammar that used to be taught in
the “O” Level course […] it […] has to be recognized that an understanding of
sentence structure and the forms of words can only enhance clear and accurate
expression both in one’s native language and in foreign languages alike.2
This statement epitomizes the current, as well as recent, situation in the teaching of modern
languages in a large number of language departments in state schools in England.
Before we set out to analyse the causes of the drop in standards which has led to the
adoption of the “communicative approach” as a “pseudo-panacea,” let us quote another writer:
The linguistic training of Latin, emphasising as it does constant process of analysis and
synthesis, teaches clarity and precision of thought, lucidity of expression in English, and
in particular the ability to distinguish the thought and the form in which it is expressed.
The position of Latin is unique in this respect because, more than any other language
likely to be studied, it involves the translation not of single words but of ideas.3
E N O T H T A 2 : ° § o ™ ™ . , § . ° . Ä . A . ð . , ¶ . § ð Ä ð ™ . . ™
1 Epictetus.
2 Coggle, Paul, “The Culture Essay,” Sunday Times, 10 April 1994.
3 Kinchin, Smith, F., Teach Yourself Latin, English Universities Press Ltd., London, 1938, revised 1948, 1958
edition, pp. ix-x.
The same can of course be said for Ancient Greek.
Clearly, then, a basic understanding of grammar aids the language-learning process by
providing a solid base of understanding of structure which aids correctness – but not, thank
goodness, “political correctness” and “trendy,” half—baked, sycophantic ideas. “If language
is not correct,” says Confucius, “then what is said is not what is meant; if what is said is not
what is meant, then what ought to be done remains undone.”4
It may be true that the rote system of learning grammar in the teaching of foreign
languages, when not allied to the application of the language, has the drawback that it will
enhance reading and writing skills, but little else. Indeed, some of the stimulus for introducing
the “communicative approach” came as an extreme reaction to the “extreme” use of
grammar, an approach doubtless easy to justify in the curious climate of the mid-to late
sixties, when modish theories abounded, and when “free expression” (and free sex) was all the
rage. Intellectual rigour suffered as a result, particularly since many of the current slab of
language (and other) teachers were indoctrinated during that period, and are themselves weak
in their knowledge of grammar and, therefore, understanding of language. Thus, the
communicative approach suits teachers with an inadequate knowledge of grammar.
An unfortunate “sub-trend” of the move into the “communicative approach” has been the
move towards more visuals and less dense reading texts. This is reflected in school textbooks
(if they can be called that) which resemble badly produced comics and shy away from long
sentences or texts, mainly in the name of creating “real and relevant meaningful situations”
with which pupils can “identify.” It is however not only in foreign language education that
this trend has manifested itself: a comparison of the “Times” of twenty years ago and that of
today shows that content and quantity have been replaced by more visuals, headlines and less
quantity, to the point where the newspaper is little more than an “up-market” quasiintellectual
“Sun.” The newspaper contrasts vividly with “Le Monde” (less photographs) and
“Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.” Whatever the causes for the alteration in the way in which
English newspapers are set out, the causes for the facile and simplistic layout of many of our
school language books lie in the “communicative approach,” where rigour and complexity
are non-starters.
Another “sub-trend” of the “communicative approach” is the common assumption that
one should be taught a second language in the same way that one has learnt one’s native
language.5 This in turn leads to many assuming that the best way to learn a second language
in a classroom is to equate it with learning it in a natural environment (as one has learnt
one’s native tongue). This has, in some quarters, led to a curious assumption that one can
teach a foreign language to English pupils in the same way that one teaches English as a
second language to foreigners. This false logic expediently avoids the rather obvious fact that,
teaching or no teaching, all human beings will always learn to communicate in their native
language (with the possible exception of the “enfant sauvage”), and that learning a foreign
language is invariably going to involve a different learning process, one based more on
juxtaposition and translation; hence the role of grammar.
W i l l i a m M a l l i n s o n
4 Gowers, Sir Ernest. The Complete Plain Words, revised by Sir Bruce Fraser, HMSO, 1973, p. 111.
5 Tony Roberts discusses this in “Please, Miss, what’s the French for…?” in Languages Forum, Vol. 1, No. 1,
February 1993, Institute of Education, University of London, p. 24.
This near equating of one’s native and foreign language has led to the curious assumption
that pupils must be taught in terms of what they can “do” in the language. A typical
“communicative” syllabus will, for example, list “getting things done,” which in turn will
subdivide into “suggesting a course of action, offering to do something, saying that something
is/is not obligatory and expressing want or desire, and so on.”6 Wringe questionably states
that “most pupils will best learn to communicate in the foreign language if they spend a good
part of their learning time in activities which as closely as possible resemble the act of
communicating in a situation they are likely to encounter.”7 At the same time he admits to
“raging controversy” among modern linguists. He does not choose to provide us with textual
references or research to back up his claim about “situations,” a reflection, perhaps, of
modern language teaching’s lack of its own research base.8
At best, the intellectual justification of the “communicative approach” is confused, and at
worst, chaotic: Mitchell, for example, writes:
Taken together, the sum of teachers’ remarks on this subject [grammar explanations]
may be given a rather worrying interpretation. If, as the evidence suggests, substantial
numbers of teachers do believe, on the one hand, that it is necessary to provide
grammar explanations for pupils to develop an advanced generative foreign language
competence under classroom conditions, and on the other hand, that substantial
numbers of pupils cannot benefit from such explanations, it seems that some confusion
persists in terms of the outcomes which may be expected in […] teaching.9
Curiously, he devotes very little space to grammatical explanation in his book on
“communicative language teaching.”
Given the almost pathological hatred of grammar on the part of some exponents of the
“communicative approach,” it is hardly surprising that comic books, flash cards, games and
the attempt to create “meaningful situations” have taken over in many language
departments, and no less surprising that many undergraduates are unable to write, or speak,
On one occasion, a language teacher was told not to answer a pupil’s question as to the
meaning of “auch.” Perhaps it is possible to mime the meaning of “laufen” (to run), but not
“auch.” Worse still, because translation is often frowned upon, so are dictionaries, so the
teacher was unable even to suggest consulting a dictionary. Generally, explanation is forbidden,
particularly if it touches on grammar. It is sufficient, claim the “teachers,” to help the pupils to
use “phrases” (often under the inaccurate, expedient and respectable-sounding label
“structures”). Show them some attractive pictures, throw in a few tape recordings and various
“teaching materials” and –Bob’s your uncle – they will “learn.” This is merely pseudo-reality.
Yet from this writer’s experience, they do not learn; they merely absorb for a short
while, and then forget. It is the worst kind of parrot teaching. Often, when asked a question,
E N O T H T A 2 : ° § o ™ ™ . , § . ° . Ä . A . ð . , ¶ . § ð Ä ð ™ . . ™
6 Wringe, Colin, The Effective Teaching of Modern Languages, Longman Group UK Limited, Harlow, 1989, p. 4.
7 Ibid. p. 3.
8 Roberts, op. cit., p. 24.
9 Mitchell, Rosemund, Communicative Language Teaching in Practice, Centre for Information on Language
Teaching and Research, London, 1988, p. 37.
the pupils will come out with such answers as “J’ ai content,” “Ich habe dix ans” (if they learn
a third language) and “Ich hei.e elf Jahre.” It is hardly surprising that constant revision
–under the expedient heading “reinforcement”– is required. A typical “communicative” class
is meant to be so brisk as to defy any semblance of thought on the part of the pupil. Phrases
are merely fed in pseudo-subliminally, without explanation; tape recordings are over-used,
despite the fact that they are unnatural. The pupils are turned into robots.
In short, pupils are not encouraged to think. This is the crux of the matter: to understand,
and therefore retain, one needs to think. Without the ingredients, thought is rendered
difficult. Some species of parrot could probably be taught to retain some of the phrases in the
same way as our pupils are, with the difference that they might retain them for longer,
through constant repetition (they have little else to do in their caged lives). Dogs, too, can be
trained through repetition and constant use of signs and sounds: they, too, have their cage of
captivity. The pupils, like the parrots and dogs, have their communicative cage, created by
the blind allegiance to believing that a second language should be taught in the way one learns
a first language. Thus we have the blind leading the blind, as standards continue to plummet:
parrots do not ask questions. In none of the classes this writer has observed, has a pupil ever
asked a question relating to why a word, phrase or sentence is placed or structured as it is.
Yet stimulating questions should be one of the prime objectives of a teacher of languages. Of
course, in the “communicative approach,” they are not, as a “sample lesson plan” given to
post-graduate students at the Institute of Education, shows. It is based on an obsession with
“structuring” a lesson around a “situation,” to the detriment of analysis and, therefore,
This is where we turn back to grammar: without a recognition that it provides the basis of
a language, there will be little thinking, let alone the independence of thought so vital to
understanding and, therefore, learning. Yet, perhaps for ideological reasons, grammar, or,
rather the teaching of it, is anathema to the so-called “communicative teachers.” One does
not need to know all about Dionysus Thrax10 or Aristarchus to understand this obvious fact,
but merely the importance of common sense: one can learn well a few pieces of the classical
guitar through imitation and constant repetition, but cannot progress further, and be creative,
without knowledge of the grammar of music – notes, arpeggios, keys and the rest.
The charlatans, and I call them so without malintent, do not realize that language itself is
artificial, that words, once they leave the mouth, are the subject of many interpretations,11 and
that it has developed only through grammar, and always shall. When it does not, you meet the
Dark Ages, where language is preserved in such places as monasteries (those that survive).
In other words, language is but a part of communication, artificial because it has to be
created by people, constantly sculpted and preserved. Grammar is the backbone, even the
skeleton, without which you have collapse. Grammar, then, is tradition, in the sense that it is
the living continuity of language, so vital to communication.
W i l l i a m M a l l i n s o n
10 One of the earlier exponents of grammar (c. 100 B.C.); lived in Rhodes for a fair chunk of his intellectual life; his
“Techne Grammatike” forms the basis of all European teaching on grammar, via the partial filter of the Latin language.
See also Lallot, La Grammaire de Dionyse de Thrace, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Paris, 1989.
11 See Eco, Umberto, A Theory of Semiotics, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1979, and The Limits of
Interpretation, Indiana University Press, 1990.
The manic quest for process alone, as if the basics do not exist, is false: “The quest for
natural language processes may be exciting but it is ineffective, often bewildering for the
learner and occasionally perverse,”12 according to Roberts, who also writes:
[…] in recent years, the role of grammar in modern languages has been marginalized,
as communicative aims become the norm. Ironically enough, perhaps, it is precisely
those writers who were to the forefront in promoting such aims who are beginning to
recant and, as in the case of Ellis (1993), to advocate a return to structure (under the
guise of ‘grammar awareness’ programmes.13
The sheepish backpeddling has begun, in the effort to preserve “academic reputations;” but
the damage has been done; the adults have had their ideological, sub-intellectual orgasm, and
have experimented on the children. To reverse the damage, rigorous grammar training should
from part of any serious teacher-training course.
Grammar is old, hence its continued existence, older than the barely baked theories of the
There is nothing wrong with communication, indeed, speaking the language should be
encouraged; but only if it is understood that grammar is the vehicle of effective spoken (and
written) communication. Only in this way will children think and, therefore, understand what
they are saying, thereby committing it to memory, to be activated some day in France,
Germany, Italy or wherever. They will also be able to understand other people.
In much the same way as the confectioner would please customers’ palates by a clever
combination of flavours, so the Sophist would tickle the ears of an audience by attractive
combinations of words and phrases (Taylor, 1978, p. 110). The physician, on the other hand,
unlike the confectioner, would prescribe a wholesome diet. In short, the Sophist pretended to
teach knowledge without possessing it, thus neglecting the highest values. They were seen as
the ‘blind leading the blind’.14
After, all, if a child is fed with the sounds “Ichwerdemorgenindieschulegehen,” and is not
helped to use the vehicle, indeed the gift, of grammar, to understand this sound, the result can,
frankly, be damaging. In other words, the “communicative approach” detracts from
communication. Long live communication; but tempus fugit.
PS The comic book publishers must be laughing all the way to the bank.
William Mallinson
Department of Foreign Languages, Translation and Interpretating
Ionian University
E N O T H T A 2 : ° § o ™ ™ . , § . ° . Ä . A . ð . , ¶ . § ð Ä ð ™ . . ™
12 Roberts, op. cit., p. 26.
13 Roberts, Tony, “Grammar: old wine in new bottles?” in Languages Forum, Vol. 1, Nos. 2/3, February 1994,
Institute of Education, University of London, p. 5.
14 Mallinson, Bill, “A Clash of Culture: Anglo-Saxon and European Public Relations. New versus Old, or just Dynamic
Interaction?” in International Public Relations Review, Vol. 14, No. 3, 1991, and Mallinson, Bill, Public Lies and
Private Truths, An Anatomy of Public Relations, Cassell, London, 1996 and Leader Books, Athens 2000, pp. 74-75.

No comments:

Post a Comment