Tue, Mar 01, 2011 - Page 8 News List

Rethinking grammar in English learning

By Mo Reddad

Despite the many advances in English language teaching, spawned primarily by the Chomskyan theory of generative grammar, (prescriptive) grammar rules remain largely unchanged in Taiwanese schools. These rules, which are considered the gospel truth by teachers and learners alike, contain flaws that would make the people who pay allegiance to this system shudder if it [the system] was placed under a semantic microscope.

Many English-language teachers have readily available answers to the many troublesome questions regarding English grammar. This confidence about the credibility of the prescribed rules stems from the fact that these rules were engraved in stone by the language scholars of the late 19th century. The grammar textbook is akin to a holy book and therefore cannot and should not be challenged.

Prescribed grammar rules do have some merit, but they can be misleading and confusing, not because they are complex or complicated, but because they are structure-derived rather than semantic-generated. In fact, when we teach language, devising rules often puts us in a quagmire rather than on a straight path to language acquisition.

This allegiance to the grammar textbook and the flaws it harbors is further exacerbated by the fact that these rules are taught in the mother language, which detaches language from what is supposed to be.

Allowing formal schemata (linguistic knowledge) in general to dictate content schemata (semantic knowledge) can seriously hinder the learning of the target language and teaching grammar rules that are not generated by real-life situations is like providing a builder with so many bricks, but not enough cement and tools to put the bricks together. Of course, departing from a system that has been working and yielding” satisfactory” results for decades would be met by resistance.

Further, it would be inconceivable to try and reverse the tide of grammar textbooks that flood the market, but we should invest time to dissect them and rethink how we teach grammar to our students, whom we expect to understand and properly use the target language when they are faced with the real life situations.

The trend to turn language into a pure commodity is something nobody can stem, but if we rethink how grammar is taught, we can do that language and its learners a great favor by re-appraising the evaluation system, especially at the college level, where teachers have academic freedom. Helping students put archaic English grammar rules under a magnifying glass should be one of the tasks entrusted to us as educators.

Mo Reddad is a lecturer at I-Shou University’s department of applied English.

Comments will be moderated. Keep comments relevant to the article. Remarks containing abusive and obscene language, personal attacks of any kind or promotion will be removed and the user banned. Final decision will be at the discretion of the Taipei Times.

TOP top