Since we’re on a bit of a “let’s talk about grammar” roll at the moment, here are some more thoughts on the vexed problem of when to teach some grammar. But first, what is grammar?
In my view, when we are talking about Latin and Greek in particular, grammar is a surface description of the rules of the language’s morphology and syntax. That, by the way, is not a full-fledged linguistics definition of grammar, but the grammar that most students learn for Greek and Latin is not shaped by linguistics as a modern discipline, it’s shaped by the history of Greek and Latin grammar itself. And in that respect, the ‘rules’ that people learn are very often surface phenomena. They may be right, but they are not the whole story.
And grammar is also descriptive. It’s an attempt to theorise what the rules are based on what people wrote. Which is why my students infuriatingly hear me qualify almost every ‘rule’ with “this applies 95% of the time”. Because even violations of rules may not in fact be ‘ungrammatical’. A very clear example of this is the “genitive absolute” in Greek, which is so often not absolute, that calling it a genitive participial clause is my new preference.
So, if grammar is that, why teach it? I can think of three reasons you might want to teach grammar, and these relate to what I said in my previous post:
- Learners often want to learn grammar because they feel like they understand what’s going on. (Affective)
- Learners are going to interact with others (teachers, systems, institutions) where grammar is expected (Sociative)
- Grammar forms a meta-language that allows speakers to speak meta-linguistically about utterances. It also provides an entrée to the language-user to engage with a history of meta-linguistic commentary on texts and language (Meta-linguistic)
Personally, only (3) holds great persuasive force. (2) is a function of teaching learners in a variety of contexts and ends, and (1) I am fine to do because I think lowering learners’ affective filters and barriers as much as possible contributes to their overall wellbeing, and progress, as leaners. But for me, (3) is of most interest and importance.
So when and how do you do it?
Option A – you can sideline it and set it entirely as written material for students to read, or not, as they like. You could even set questions on it, worth 0 grades and 0%.
This has the advantage of providing learners all the grammar they want, but it takes it entirely out of the ‘must be learnt’ material. It shows that you genuinely don’t believe they need to learn it. But that you do indeed care enough to provide it to them. Grammar then becomes a kind of ‘bolt-on’ module that students can dive into, as they see fit, but not on ‘learning’ time.
Option B – Teach it all at the end
This approach basically says, “let’s front-load all our language learning, and when we’ve got a ton of that under our belts for the [X amount of Time], we’ll spend a bit of time at the end going over explicitly, what we’ve been doing implicitly.” I think this might work in year long blocks, perhaps semester blocks, but you’ve got two problems: (i) you’re giving up instructional time to do this, (ii) it’s going to be a lot of content.
Option C – Teach it in the Target Language.
This is what Ørberg does, of course. At the end of each Lingua Latina chapter is a section, latine, that explains the grammar of the chapter. It’s surprisingly effective, though I wonder how much that was for me because I already knew these things, and English grammar terminology is predominantly latine anyway.
The advantage of this is that you are giving learners the tools to talk in the language, about the language, as you go. So it’s more comprehensible input, and it creates more communicative possibilities.
The disadvantage, as I see it, is that it shifts learners’ focus back to grammar, and they may feel strong needs to ‘get this stuff down’, and ‘get it right’
One could also do this all in the language, but at the end. This would be like skipping all the grammar in LLPSI, but doing it all from scratch in Latin, once you got to chapter 35. I think the downside of this would be again, a lot of content in a shorter space, without giving learners the lead-up to acquire some of those words, structures, and concepts to talk about the language in the language.
Option D – Teach it as a separate module, and as linguistically informed as possible.
One final approach to this would be to modularise it off. Do your course in Greek, e.g., and then offer a course/unit/module that was explicitly Greek linguistics, designed to cover this material, and preferably in conversation with modern linguistics, not just the grammatical tradition. This could also be conjoined with a version of Option C. Indeed, if I had my way, I would do C ‘as we go’, and then ‘D’ as a separate course.
Or, I guess there’s option E – teach foundational grammar in the target language, until learners reach advanced levels, and then teach full-blown linguistics in the target language. I think that option will have to wait for my 4-year immersion college though….