Grammar and Writing in Spoken Language Study:

Personal experience about Grammar and Writing:

I had the great advantage of growing up in a home in which grammatically correct English was spoken. As I progressed through grade school and on into high school, my language ability matured as a result of my home and school environments.

In retrospect, I believe that this is what happened: For the most part, I used proper sentence structure and pronunciation because that is what I heard in my home. However, when I went to school, I needed to learn grammar in school in order to reinforce my knowledge of my own language. I — like probably most of my classmates — did not learn to speak by studying grammar. Rather, I was able to learn how to do grammar exercises because I already knew how to speak.

Certainly, I learned many important things about my language through grammar study. But it was of importance to me only because I had already achieved basic English fluency. I did not learn to speak English as a result of English grammar lessons.

In contrast, I also took two years of Spanish in high school. We started with basic grammar. We wrote exercises almost every day. But we almost never heard spoken Spanish and had even less opportunity to try to speak it ourselves. (Language instruction in the United States has changed considerably since I was in high school.) After high school graduation, I could neither speak Spanish nor did I understand Spanish grammar.

In my mid-twenties, I spent a year in Paris studying French. I had the great fortune of enrolling in a French language school that emphasized spoken French to the complete exclusion of written exercises. Not only did I learn French grammar — meaning that I learned to use sentences that communicated what I intended to say to a French listener — but, interestingly enough, because verb construction is similar in both French and Spanish, I also began to understand the Spanish grammar which had made no sense to me in high school. Because I could read and write in English, I had no difficulty reading French. It was a simple transfer of knowledge from reading in English to reading in French.

Later, I studied another language in Africa. Because school-based language courses were almost non-existent in that country, all of my language training was done by way of recorded language drills that I adapted from local radio broadcasts. I also had a university student as my language helper. Yet I learned how to structure a sentence in that language — which is applied grammar — and how to write much more quickly than had I been studying grammar and writing independently of the spoken language.

Traditional language instruction:

Traditional language instruction has reversed the process with poor results. Most second language classes teach grammar as a foundation for spoken language.

The quickest way to teach students to read a new language is to teach them to speak it first. The fastest way to teach them sufficient grammar to pass college entrance exams is to build a foundation by teaching them to speak the language fluently. Then as they build on that foundation, they will understand the target language’s grammar. Finally, it is almost impossible to teach non-speaking students how to write well before they have mastered the basic spoken language. Whenever the process is reversed, it takes a needlessly long time to succeed in teaching grammar and writing skills, much less spoken language fluency.

Do not misunderstand. One cannot speak any language — fluently or otherwise — without using the grammar of that language. That is true because grammar consists of the rules used in that language to string words together as units to convey meaning. (In English we call these units sentences or paragraphs.) In English, we can use a given number of words to make a statement or ask a question by the way in which we order the words and use inflection. Simply stated, placing the words in the correct order is applied grammar.

The issue is not whether or not students learning a new language need to know grammar. Language is unintelligible without it. The question is, “How is grammar best taught?”

The best time to study grammar:

That effective spoken language instruction simultaneously trains all of the cognitive and sensory centers of speech. To again resort to an English example, when is the best time to introduce the grammar rule that the sentence, “That is a book,” is an English statement, and “Is that a book?” is an English question? The best time is when students simultaneously learn to speak these two sentences, inverting word order to change a statement to a question. That would take place while they are learning many other similar sentences so that they develop a cognitive sense reinforced by motor skill and auditory feedback that the order and inflection of the one sentence is a question, while the other is a statement. The sound of the sentence is as much an indicator of its meaning as its written form. Right? Right!

There is also a relationship between good pronunciation and good spelling. I am a poor speller. I understand that I misspell many words because I mispronounce them. At some point, everyone who expects to write a target language well must learn its spelling. Yet, it will probably be faster for a student to learn good spelling after learning good speech habits than it will be for the same student to learn good spelling without being able to speak. In practice, in a spoken language course, students should learn the spelling of new words as they are added to the vocabulary of each new lesson.

This is not to say that grammar and spelling are unnecessary for the new language learner. Rather, what is being said is that grammar can be taught more effectively — and in less time — by using audio language drills. Teaching grammar by means of spoken Learning to Speak a Second Language

language has the great advantage of reinforcing the cognitive learning of grammar while using two additional functions found in normal speech — motor skill feedback and auditory feedback. Teaching grammar as a written exercise does develop cognitive learning, but it reinforces it with visual feedback.

Though visual feedback through reading and writing has some merit, it is outside the context of spoken language. Reinforcement through visual feedback outside of the spoken language context is far less effective than motor skill feedback and auditory feedback that are both inside the spoken language context. The trade-off in gaining visual feedback at the loss of motor skill and auditory feedback is costly and retards progress. Far more is gained when the student identifies correct grammar, by the way, a sentence sounds, rather than by the way it looks. Though it would not typically be explained this way, it is also important on a subconscious level that the student learns how to correct grammar feels. As a function of the proprioceptive sense, a statement produces a certain sequence of sensory feedback from the mouth, tongue, and air passages that feel different than a question. A speech pathologist working with children’s speech problems will pay a great deal of attention to this part of speech during retraining.

It would take considerably longer to teach a language student how to manipulate the grammar of the new language and then speak that language correctly than it would teach the same student to first speak the language correctly and then introduce rules of grammar. This gain would be greatly augmented, however, if the rules of grammar were incorporated into the spoken language lessons themselves.

A year spent exclusively in spoken language study will produce a marked degree of fluency. With that language fluency, the student will gain a functional understanding of the grammar of the target language. The same amount of time spent in grammar study will produce limited fluency and little practical understanding of that language’s grammar.

Grammar study in your own language program:

How you approach grammar study in your target language will depend on the language program you are using.

If you are enrolled in an established school program with written grammar assignments, you will obviously need to complete them just like every other student in the class. However, as you will see in Making the Feedback Training Method Work, on your own time you can then use the completed (and corrected) written exercises as spoken language drills. If you focus more on using your grammar exercises as spoken language drills rather than simply as written assignments, you will find that your ability in your target language’s grammar will increase much more rapidly. Of course, this will add time to your study schedule, but it will undoubtedly result in considerably higher exam scores. You will also see an important caution regarding correct pronunciation when you are reading grammar assignments as spoken exercises.

As also explained in Making the Feedback Training Method Work, if you design your own language course with a language helper, you can have much greater freedom in the way you study grammar. In that case, you will try to incorporate your grammar lessons into your spoken drills.

Nonetheless, there will be times when you will ask your language helper for clarifications regarding grammar. For example, to again use an illustration from English, during the first week of lessons you would encounter the two articles “A” and “AN.” If your language helper explained that “A” is used before a word beginning with a consonant, and “an” is used before a word beginning with a vowel, it would certainly be a grammatical explanation. With that knowledge, however, you could then ask your language helper to record an exercise with both “A” and “AN” sentences. Your grammar study on “A” and “AN” would then be done with a spoken exercise rather than a written assignment.

International students struggling to learn English will often say that they want more grammar lessons. But that is not what they are really asking for. Many undoubtedly have a large vocabulary from studying written grammar for years. They do not need more grammar rules to memorize — they need spoken language exercises that will teach them to organize the vocabulary they already know into fluent, spoken English sentences.

Irrespective of the kind of language learning program you are in, the primary emphasis of this closing section is to encourage you to study grammar by using spoken exercises rather than written assignments.


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