Thursday, December 29, 2011

1. Let's have something to talk about

Source: David Crystal's Cambridge Encyclopedia
Challenging Myths           

Simplicity of English is one of the most pervasive myths about a language – that grammar is needed for writing but not for speech (David Crystal, 2000). The reality can be seen in the three kilos of paper comprising A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language written by Quirk, Greenbaum, Leech and Svartvik (1985). "Flexible" is undoubtedly a better attribute for English than "simple" – though, of course, flexibility must be learnt and rules observed if one wants not only to make oneself understood, that is, to express ideas, feelings and emotions, but also to impress, in contexts in which all of the cultural connotations may at any one time endanger comprehension and make us question the validity of the resulting meaning.

Quite a few concepts have been mentioned above – grammar, flexibility, rules, express, impress – and all of them pivot, in various ways, around the ideas of form and meaning.

Language Schools all over the world assume disparity in students’ interactional competence as inherent. But there is more to it than learning styles, or the multiple intelligence theory: outstanding among various factors is the limited amount of time, which has, even in the case of a 120-hour course, a twofold impact on chances of success: on the one hand, it unavoidably conditions the choice of learning priorities; on the other hand, it is, from a psycholinguistic perspective, the only vehicle for long-term memory storage of input – always out of step with intake, and heralding every academic year as a challenge for students and teachers alike. 

Every course is seen as a fresh start, yet if the teacher’s clear aim is to help students extend their knowledge and skills within the 120 hours of an academic year, his or her first undertaking at the outset of the acquisition process must be how to make the correct predictions about what learners have available to them in terms of knowledge sources and learning procedures.

Source: Google Images
When it comes to considering what approach should form the basis of the language teaching curriculum, teachers need to be able to sort out the information at their disposal as they make pedagogical decisions. Contrastive analysis, so-called invariant word order of acquisition of morphemes, the theory that learners should just be exposed to, rather than be taught, the language – no matter what the finding, the question arises, “What does this mean for the classroom teacher?” Applying a theory to the classroom does not necessarily mean that earlier, now frowned upon theories are not applicable. Repetition, drills, memorization of dialogues, feedback translation – all have their potential usefulness and represent as many resources for the teacher in need to admit that what learners do naturally cannot necessarily be induced in a classroom context (Larsen Freeman, 2000).

The language classroom has been and should continue to be the social setting for fruitful interaction, an ever-novel, enriching event for both teachers and learners in which educational theory, linguistic principle and practical intuition can intersect not only for our hypotheses to be tested and accepted, rejected or modified, but also to provide the students with the most efficient means of improvement possible and so enable them to do what they cannot do on their own, or at least not so efficiently.

So it is altogether legitimate to ask how much the grammar the students tailor for themselves represents an account of the Grammar in the picture above, since expanding their language system requires building up a picture of the whole language while using it freely. Freedom of choice to say what they mean to say takes for granted that learners will find a way of encoding the meanings they need and so attain fluency, yet in their constant attempts to make the target language an effective instrument of communication, they use strategies which they employ in their own language and in so doing they adjust the language they are learning (Willis, 1990). In response to the demand placed upon them, they exploit the language learning resources in a way that distorts the formal code (Halliday, 1979), a situation which clashes systematically with the form-focused enterprise of the teacher in his or her endeavour to attain accuracy through presentation, practice, production and exposure.
Therefore, without that permanent urge to know more, learners' stagnation in interlanguage is likely to occur, and this would simply stifle any attempts on behalf of the teacher to contribute, by his or her initiatives, to their progress.

But progress also implies taking short-term input into long-term memory. A structure that has just been drilled is undoubtedly more liable to be assimilated as stable knowledge if it is followed within less than, say, ten to thirty minutes, by a feedback translation which would readily help the learner to come to terms with his or her own perception of that particular linguistic reality from a Spanish speaker’s perspective and so help him or her establish active connections between the two language stretches – thus aiming for bilingualism.

Let’s take for example the expression of past habit. The moment when the learner is introduced to the use of used to is necessarily one further to the acquisition of both Present Simple and Past Simple tenses. By then, the student will have practised the expression of present habits sufficiently for him or her to commonly use frequency adverbs (and, of course, observe Word Order with the simple forms of to be vs notional verbs) in order to produce such a sentence like I usually get up early in the morning. Appropriate practice in the learner's acquisition of its right equivalence in Spanish will result in Suelo madrugar, whereas a literal translation – usually preferred because it observes number and order of words – will produce [Yo] normalmente madrugo, or, more often than not, [Yo] normalmente me levanto temprano por la mañana. The absence of a bilingual matching will inevitably interfere in the learner's assimilation of other expressions of the same semantic area [i.e., the verb to use, its simple past form (used=did habitually, viz., the nearest to used to), and its adjectival past participle (used=accustomed)] in a way that will also affect the be/get used to doing structure. Once accepted as the natural – and correct – translation of solía, used to will then tend to occupy the place of usually when the learner needs to express a present habit and so result in the common expression *I used to drink coffee in the morning when the learner actually means I usually drink coffee in the morning.

Source: Google Images
Although interlanguage has been defined and described in social contexts of learning English as a second language, the phenomenon legitimately concerns EFL groups – even more so if we take into consideration the reduced amount of time devoted to contact with the target language in terms of skills improvement. Our present considerations, therefore, obligatorily regard translation practice as one of the most useful tools against interlanguage, provided that the learner is readily willing to undergo continued self-assessment and self-brainstorming sessions as a method of expanding his or her language system. Feedback translation has proved to be useful at any level; yet the stage where it is most needed seems to be exactly the one where the student reaches a relative degree of fluency. At that particular stage, the teacher's intervention apparently becomes superfluous and, surprisingly enough, dictionaries and grammars no longer represent a faithful companion. Extreme cases when the student fails to apply the Basic English structures, which have been duly assimilated and taken for granted, are far from being rare. What is more, there is a permanent tendency to translate literally from Spanish even when the speaker/writer is completely aware of the idiomatic characteristics of the stretch of language that he or she is about to render in English.

Until a more realistic approach gathers momentum in order to bridge the gap between fluency and accuracy, the teaching/learning process will continue to be mediated in its stages by materials as presented in existing textbooks, the vehicles for classroom interaction. Therefore, the teacher is called upon the permanent task to continuously revive not only the semantic areas but also the patterns worked upon, and constantly challenge the student to update his or her bilingual condition and so contribute to an essential, and altogether healthy, process of improvement.
Eugenia Duma Giuglea
Copyrighted material, 2009


  1. I congratulate you on your excellent work, your ideas and the way you reflect them with your writing style.Great!

  2. First of all, thank you for your initiative. It is very interesting to see the relationship you establish between the concept of grammar and the action of impressing.

    1. Thank you for your kind words! I do appreciate your taking time to think - alongside with me - about this fascinating adventure we are all embarked upon from childhood till old age: to say what we mean, or else to learn what to say.