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Category Archives: MA Linguistics & TESOL

David Crystal’s Analogy for Grammar

Professor David Crystal (Photo from University of Salford on Flickr)

I recently attended a talk by David Crystal in Chichester – ‘Grammar Rules’.  I’d only had the pleasure of seeing Professor Crystal once before and that was online in a very engaging talk he gave a few months ago on the influence of the King James Bible on the English Language (follow this link for that talk).  So this was actually the first time I had seen him in person and the topic was grammar.

The purpose of this post isn’t to regurgitate the talk but to give voice to a somewhat random thought I had relating to an analogy Professor Crystal made.  It went more or less like this;

On the topic of grammar we should think about a car mechanic.  A good car mechanic can take a whole car apart and put it back together again.  However, this has little bearing on the mechanic’s ability to drive a car.

I thought this rather apt as it certainly fits with my current view* that covert grammar is a better pedagogic option to go for over explicit grammar in most cases.  In fact, I might go even further and say that this analogy perhaps helps us to understand many of our learners who are obsessed with grammar rules (just as much as some of us might be with teaching them) but at the end of the day are very poor producers of the language.  This is especially in the case of the spoken medium but sometimes in the written one as well: they are training to become car mechanics when they should be focusing on becoming drivers!

However, later in the talk it became very apparent that the audience was quite a mix of professions and academic interests and that lead me to consider how much this analogy could really be applied to ELT.

So I asked myself the question, ‘How does ELT work in this car analogy of Professor Crystal’s?

What assumptions are we making here?  Are we saying that native speakers are given a car whereas non-native learners have to build their own car first?  Surely a non-native learner’s L1 is a car as well… doesn’t that count for something?  Obviously, learners have to learn how to ‘drive’ their new ‘car’ in a different country and clearly language learning is a completely different monster to adapting your driving to the rules of the road of a different country.  The question really becomes, where does the car come from?  In what state is the car presented to the learner; in parts, half assembled, fully assembled?  How necessary is it for a learner to know what is ‘under the hood’?

I suppose in a way, these questions have different answers for each and every learner but where we run into a problem is when we have students who come to us wanting to know how to drive and then insist that we teach them how to become car mechanics.

I’ve already heard disagreement from one of my colleagues about how applicable this analogy is and, as one of my other colleagues in attendance pointed out, the analogy isn’t perfect and perhaps I’ve exhausted this one far beyond its usefulness.

Thoughts?

* I say “my current view” as, having just started a Masters, I’m sure that my opinions and views are going to be thrown this way and that, turned upside down and many of them simply thrown out the window… just as it should be. 🙂

ADDITIONAL: I’ve just come upon Professor Crystal’s blog and now I know I’m going to get less sleep because he’s been blogging regularly since 2006!

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Posted by on October 20, 2011 in MA Linguistics & TESOL, Reflections

 

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How do my learning experiences colour my teaching?

I’ve just started an MA in Applied Linguistics and TESOL.  I’m doing it part-time and I’ve got to say my decision to get on this course (late) was a rather hasty one but nevertheless one that feels right.  I had my first lecture on Friday (a bit weird being on the student side of the classroom again) and the following questions were asked,

1.  How were you taught?

2.  How has this affected your own teaching?

3.  Is there anything you do that you feel you ought not?  Basically, do you have any guilty secrets?

What astounded me was how difficult I found it to answer the first question and, by extension, the second.

I suppose I had probably repressed it in some cases and had been oblivious in others.  I had to turn to my partner and say, “I have no idea how I was taught at secondary school.”  This is not due to it being so very long ago – 12 years in all honesty – but I guess it comes from distinctly negative experiences.  I took French and German at school and continued them up to Standard Grade (the Scottish equivalent of GCSEs).  I passed relatively well but I couldn’t put a sentence of French or German together now if my life depended on it.*  I do remember one thing though – I remember not liking my classes one little bit.

What was also fascinating during these groups discussion on Friday was the shared experience that many of us on the course had of absolutely dreadful French classes in Britain growing up.

It was only after talking with my classmates for a little while that I started to remember a little more about classes.  I came to a few conclusions.

Image from comedy_nose on Flickr

Audio Resources

I don’t use tapes/CDs/mp3s of conversations that much.  This is due to all those awful tapes of poor quality that I had to listen to in French and German classes.  I think it demotivated me more than anything else, listening and listening and listening and not having a clue what was being said, not really even getting the gist and just generally feeling hopeless about the whole thing.   Even on my worst days, I don’t really want to inflict that on my students so I tend to shy away from using audio resources in the class.  I do recognize their usefulness and I am making myself use them more but I’m still not hugely comfortable with CDs or mp3s and I know that I’m not using them particularly effectively yet.

Photo from florriebassingbourn on Flickr

Dictionaries

I don’t do a lot of dictionary work in class.  Another memory that resurfaced was the supremely boring task of translating a text word by word using a dictionary.  I never asked for help because I always felt that my need to use the dictionary all the time was based on that fact that I was a lazy student and that, had I gone home and properly learned my vocabulary, I wouldn’t have needed the dictionary even half as much.  Of course, my completed translation usually ended up making absolutely NO sense whatsoever and this was for a couple of reasons.

  1. Nobody ever really made it known to me that language doesn’t work in words, it works in chunks.  In trying to translate word by word, I completely missed the important chunks of language which, had I been more aware of them, I wouldn’t have completely obliterated them by dissecting and translating them word by word.  This lack of understanding made my dictionary work slow, inefficient and most of all, absolutely fruitless.
  2. I don’t think enough work was done to show us how a dictionary should be used, how the phrases or phrasal verbs might be listed and where to find what you really wanted.  This basically connects with my lack of awareness with regard to set phrases and expressions (or what Michael Lewis would call polywords) – I didn’t know where the phrases began and ended therefore I didn’t know what to look up.

So at this point I feel the need to admit a guilty pleasure of mine, or not so guilty if you’ve read some of my previous posts.  As a teacher, I like translation (yes, the teacher and student inside of me are in a little bit of conflict here).  I think shying away from translation or saying that we should be trying to get students to think in L2 is just a bit ridiculous.  We all use our L1 to give us hooks to hang our L2 knowledge on.  I tend to feel there is a certain conceptual framework established when we learn our first language that, for most of our L2 learning, we are far better using and adapting that framework instead of throwing it away and starting again.  Apart from this, I think trying to get learners not to translate is an impossible task anyway.

Therefore, I think there is a lot of benefit for learners to translate in both directions.  L1 to L2 is much easier to manage when you are working in a TEFL environment, abroad and with monolingual classes; bringing a local newspaper into your classroom in Spain, for example.  However, L2 to L1, if you have a multi-lingual class is quite possible as well.  If you have a few different language groups; some Arabic speakers, Mandarin, Portuguese, etc, then this is the opportunity to band them together and get some meaningful analytical discussion (in both L1 and L2) that might just enhance some learners’ understanding of a few grammar points.

Well, now that I’m starting a Masters I’m wondering if I should change the name of my blog.  I mean “So Where Did It Go Wrong?” seems a bit defeatist now, almost pessimistic in the face of all this research and assessed essays.  Need to give that some thought.  Wish me luck!

* Actually, I do have one sentence in French which I still remember – a testament to the drilling method I suppose – “J’habite a Dumbarton en Ecosse.

 

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