Teaching foreign languages: grammar training ineffective and harmful
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The standard way foreign languages are taught still involves very little
speaking practice, rather a lot of translations from one's native to the
target language and lots of grammar drill, outdated methods that do more
harm than good.
The problem with this: it is not only about the most inefficient way of
learning a language, some of these elements such as making learners translate
and grammar drill are outright harmful.
Before we get into the details, please consider this: how did you learn
to walk? All by yourself I believe and further you might agree that nowhere
in the world there is a pediatrician or pedagogue who would advocate special
walking instructions and drills for babies and toddlers (unless they were
disabled). Likewise we all know that children learn their native language
automatically just by listening and gradually communicating with people
who are more advanced than they. By the age of six a normally developped
child knows about 100,000 words in their native language if you count
all word forms, e.g. go -> went, brother -> brethren, may -> might etc.
Even a professor who later teaches that language as his best foreign language
will hardly ever surpass such a six year old which you can easily check
by asking him or her for e.g. a list of thirty trees or thirty types of
bird, or if he knows all the games and toys such child usually plays with
and is accustomed to name.
So we may safely say that nature's normal way of acquiring a language
is the best, simply the most effective way and that all other methods
lag miles behind. While there are a many fun ways to learn a language,
they're still not as effective as the simple way babies acquire their
first. But there are certain widely employed methods that are outrright
harmful and one of them is grammar training.
Did you ever reflect on grammar when acquiring or using your native language
until the age of six? Not really, most people whose parents are accomplished
speakers just pick up their parents style and vocabulary. The most important
thing though is that we have certain areas in our brains that are trained
to distill rules from repeating patterns, such as past tense or the plural
"s" as in manner -> manners, fan -> fans, can - cans etc. This process
is automatical and the correct "grammatical" rule becomes woven into the
language usage pattern and then works without thinking.
But if you force anyone, esp. children, to reflect upon those rules, worse
even to learn them up front, you will destroy that rule building process
with the end result that your child may never learn that second language
fluently but may always behave like a self-conscious and slow speaker
who tries to first access his/her grammatical "rule book" that is by now
saved in a completely different part of their brain.
This is known since decades, however, modern school curricula and teacher
training does not reflect that knowledge. Rather children are given assignments
in their native language and challenged to translate into the target foreign
language, whereby they are asked to apply those cherished rules. This
is part of a series of articles where we will also cover the harm that's
done by forcing children to translate early between languages. Let's just
quote a few sources on grammar drill and its effects:
"Why Doesn't Grammar Correction Work? The first reason why writing class
grammar feedback doesn't work is that it treats only the surface appearance
of grammar and not with the way language develops ... Secondly, learning
grammar in a second language is a complex and gradual process which occurs
both developmentally and hierarchically (some items are acquired before
others). Compounding this is the fact that the learning of linguistic
items does not occur in a linear fashion, that the learning curve for
an item is full of valleys and peaks, progress and regressions." (Grammar
Correction in ESL/EFL Writing Classes May Not Be Effective, Ronald Gray,
Beijing Language and Culture University (Beijing, China)) http://iteslj.org/Techniques/Gray-WritingCorrection.html
The author then continues: "So what should a L2 writing teacher do? The
quickest and most effective solution would be for writing instructors
to simply stop making grammar corrections." And take note: "In short,
teachers need to train themselves to set aside their red pens and examine
ideas and see what students are trying to say instead of simply looking
for grammatical errors."
"When you are just learning to speak a new language, learning grammar
rules is not only senseless, but harmful as far as developing your ability
to fluently express yourself. ... In most cases, our speech is formed
by communication, the quantity and quality of studied literature, education,
or simply our surrounding environment. During systematic simultaneous
repetition, one develops an inner sense of the language, and the ability
to imitate correct pronunciation of words and phrases." (Language Bridge
Method website http://www.language-bridge.com)
"Teachers and students who take correction seriously face overwhelming
problems, both in making the corrections effective and in dealing with
the harmful side effects of the practice. Research evidence points to
the conclusion that oral correction does not improve learners' ability
to speak grammatically. No good reasons have been advanced for maintaining
the practice. For these reasons, language teachers should seriously consider
the option of abandoning oral grammar correction altogether." (John Truscott:
"What's Wrong with Oral Grammar Correction", http://www.hss.nthu.edu.tw/...201999.htm
summed up here also: The Case Against Grammar Correction in L2 Writing
Classes, Language Learning 46:2, June 1996, pp. 327-369 http://www.hss.nthu.edu.tw/...Class.pdf
"... comprehensive treatment and overt [grammar] corrections are probably
not worth the trouble for teachers to make. ... neither use ... of techniques
in correcting student errors has an influence on writing ability results.
... [Also] no evidence of an effect which later shows up. Semke Kepner
study reveals that grammar correction to second language writing students
is actually discouraging to many students, and even harmful to their writing
ability. Generally those who do not receive grammar corrections have a
more positive feeling about writing than those who did, wrote more, and
with more complexity [!], than those who did receive grammar corrections."
(Grammar Correction, ESL Flash File http://www.anenglishoasis.com/GrammarCorrectioninESL.swf)
See also: "Theoretical Basis for the Natural Approach, Jill Kerper Mora,
San Diego State University". http://coe.sdsu.edu/people/jmora/NatApprTheory-Eng/Default.htm
How to emulate the native language/first language acquisition and use it in second language education is currently piloted in a project at Arete schools http://www.fsa-ev.de/ , a small progressive school in Germany,
Published - August 2009
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