What to do when you must teach explicit grammar

So, you’ve become convinced (probably by someone else) that communicative/comprehensible input based approaches to language acquisition are the way to go. But you still need to produce students who have an explicit, and often advanced, knowledge of grammar. That is, you want students to acquire language but you still need them to learn about the language.

This is particularly acute in biblical languages. Students in both Old Testament and New Testament studies are going to go on to courses that demand an explicit ability to comment on and analyse the language of texts at a very atomised level. And they’re going to engage with commentaries, articles, and write materials that similarly require a fairly precise grammatical knowledge. Indeed, this is part of the academic socialisation of these disciplines – you learn the jargon so you can play the game.

The first step, I would suggest, is to recognise exactly what is going on here – students are being asked to learn to comment on fairly advanced literary and linguistic analysis. That’s not something we ‘naturally’ learn to do in our L1s, unless we explicitly do courses in linguistics and/or literary analysis. It’s not something most learners of L2 ever do, unless they take a course of study that likewise demands it. And, to analyse and understand these issues in an L2 through the medium of the L2 really demands a very high level of linguistic competence, both acquisition and learning.

Secondly, I think there are practical ways to resolve this issue, and I think these also complement each other.

Strategy 1: teach grammatical language in the L2.

This strikes some people as a bit odd: not only must my students deal with such non-New Testament words as τηλέφωνον and Αὐστραλιανός, but now I want to teach them grammar terms like ἀπαρέμφατος? To that initial objection, I have three responses:

  1. grammar jargon is for many contemporary students a whole new set of English vocabulary anyway. Teaching them Greek terms is a different burden, not an additional one.
  2. Most grammatical terms are Latinate anyway, so if you are working in Latin, ‘nominative’ and nominativus aren’t really going to cause much of an additional learning burden. Greek terms are mostly cognate to the Latin. I’ve never done Hebrew grammar in Hebrew, ignosce mihi.
  3. The payoff of doing grammar in the L2 is that you can then talk about texts at a meta-level in the L2. τίς ἐστιν τὸ ὑποκείμενον is now one of my stock phrases. This lets you circle a text both at a simple level, and at a meta-level. Which equals more and more CI.

There are some other issues though. Ancient grammarians supply us with a grammatical vocabulary, but it is not always fit for purpose, or modern discussions may have moved on. In Greek we might want to distinguish tense-form from tense/time, and aspect, and perfective, imperfective and perfect. These will require some creativity perhaps (ὁ χρόνος τοῦ ῥήματος v. ὁ χρόνος τοῦ γενομένου ?)

Strategy 2: teach grammar in the L1, but separately.

So, while strategy 1 keeps you in the language while you’re working with the language, strategy 2 means spending a separate period of time tackling L2 grammar described in L1 material (either within your teaching blocks, or a whole separate teaching period, or independent reading material for students). In the early stages, this will look a lot like traditional instruction – a descriptive set of instruction that talks about what’s going on in the language. But it ought to be mapped to what’s going on in the acquisition sessions. I’d also want to appropriately set this distinction up in the students’ understanding of the course structure and goals, e.g. “In these sessions we’ll be learning Syriac, but in those lessons we’ll be analysing how Syriac works.”

Strategy 3: teach advanced grammar in the L1, as a separate subject altogether.

Especially if you’re teaching biblical languages and training students for this kind of study, I think a 2nd year course can be given over explicitly to teaching ‘advanced’ grammar. In a sense this is not really advanced, but it does mean moving beyond the basic categories, to a more in-depth analysis of what’s going on in the language.

This might look like what goes on in a lot of 2nd year NT Greek classes: Wallace or Köstenberger et al, or Zerwick, or whoever. But a few modifications ought to be made:

  1. Again, making clear to students that this isn’t learning Greek, or learning Greek better, or even necessarily going to help their Greek. It’s learning to talk about Greek in the way ‘everyone else does’.
  2. These courses could generally do with a healthy dose of even basic general linguistics. The insular world of biblical languages studies tends to leave students (and professors) with some rather odd, peculiar, idiomatic ideas.
  3. Recognising that this isn’t the context for acquiring more Greek means that somewhere in a syllabus there needs to be something else responsible for the ongoing acquisition of more Greek. And that could include the development of ongoing L2 language for talking about L2 grammar.

 

2 responses

  1. “Recognising that this isn’t the context for acquiring more Greek … ”

    Yes, this.

    Review of the textbook I used in first year greek, I have become reasonably convinced that a strong part of my difficulty with following the grammar points was down to vocabulary. It seems that the desire to stick to known bible verses in the examples of particular grammar points, means that 50% or more of the words in the examples would have been unknown to me at the time I was attempting to follow the example. Lets provide grammar examples that are 100% composed of words the student should have already learn’t.

    Like

  2. Pingback: Recommended Post: What to do when you must teach explicit grammar – Greek Language and Linguistics

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