On the desire to speak about matters grammatical

Part of an ongoing series on objections to communicative methods

In my last post on these three inter-connected questions (those who don’t want to speak), I discussed the issue of those who object to the ‘content’ of communicative approaches – e.g. the desire not to speak about daily trivia. In this I turn to a similar but again distinct question – what is the ‘nature’ or ‘object’ of language instruction more broadly. Is the point of language instruction in historical languages to teach “grammar, and the analysis of language and texts along grammatical lines”? Or is it something else?

I want to say firmly that it’s something else – that the purpose of teaching a historical language is that students acquire that language as a language, with at least the concomitant proficiency in reading texts in that language, but preferably also some competency in listening, speaking, and writing.

If that is true, then we can ask a separate question about ‘grammar’ – or really two questions. Again, (1) what ‘is’ grammar, as it is taught, and (2) what place could, should, or must grammar have in our classes.

These are actually quite large questions. And the answers I give here may not be shared by all, but I’m articulating what I call “my considered and informed opinion”.

Grammar, as it’s typically taught and understood in classical languages, is a systematic description (descriptive!) of the language as it was used by its speakers and authors, as evidenced in a particular corpus of texts. It is language talking about language. And for that reason it’s incredibly useful, because one of the things that we might like to talk about is how language means. Having a vocabulary, and an understanding, of what nouns and verbs are, what endings are and do, how adverbs function, how clauses relate, etc., allows us to have conversations about how a language is working.

That’s why grammar is metalanguage – it involved a technical (domain-specific!) set of vocabulary useful to have if you want to talk about language itself. And most of our grammar is embedded in the history of Latin literature itself, since grammar as a field emerged among Latin and Greek authors.

But it’s very important to note that the analysis and study of language moved on from Latin grammar and philology to become Linguistics. We now call the systemic and scientific study of language(s) “Linguistics”, and the grammar traditions still incumbent in classics departments are often woefully ignorant of modern linguistics, carrying on with fossilised understandings of how languages work (often highly prescriptive), neglectful of how applying linguistics to Latin and Greek would yield, and already has yielded not only new insights, but in some cases overturn traditional categories and ways of talking. Traditional grammar is often quite bad grammar.

So, grammar is language for talking about language, and that’s quite a useful thing to have, especially since we are very interested in language! But what place should grammar have?

The Grammar-Translation method fundamentally operates on the maxim that if you teach people to understand grammar (and practice applying it in translation exercise), then they will learn the language. Several centuries of experience, and the work of modern SLA theory, strongly suggests that grammar is not the mechanism by which acquisition occurs. So we are left asking, “if grammar is not the mechanism by which acquisition takes place, what role could it have?”

I do think grammar can play a positive role in the language learning space, but before I get on to that let me qualify by saying, it is entirely possible to teach for acquisition without utilising or having a place for explicit grammar at all. Some teachers appear to have adopted that position, and it may be that you have learners who do not want to learn grammar. They don’t have to.

But you may also have learners who really do want to learn grammar in one form or another. So here’s a range of things that I think grammar can do, and you might want it to do.

  • Grammar can be a means of making things comprehensible.

Just like quickly glossing things in English can short-cut having a 20minute circumlocution to get across your meaning staying in language, having the tool of metalanguage can quickly and directly make something understood. This only works if you teach some grammar along the way, but it works. I’d rather use grammar to make something comprehensible in a sentence, than not.

  • Grammar allows you to talk about language use

Precisely because grammar is metalanguage, if you want to talk about language as a topic, if you want to talk about how language means, then this is a domain that learners need to acquire. I wrote in yesterday’s post about how I became quite domain-competent in talking about grammar in Mongolian – it’s because I (and my students) wanted to discuss language.

  • You can do grammar in the target language.

There’s no reason you can’t do grammar talk in the target language. Indeed, since students are likely learning a lot of this metalanguage vocabulary for the first time, doing it in the target language might be even more beneficial. So, in my Latin classes, we do talk about nomen, verbum temporale, modus coniunctivus, et cetera. While my Greek classes get subjected to questions like ἐπὶ τίνος πτώσεως ἐστιν αὕτη ἡ λέξις and the like. You can do communication about grammar in the language, thus creating more opportunities for comprehensible input.

  • You can equip students to access technical resources and secondary literature.

I was asked in a separate question about how I equip students to access various resources. If someone goes on to ‘higher’ study (caveats must apply), and to read technical commentaries, grammars, etc., etc., they will need to come to a mastery of traditional terminology. This is one reason I tend to work on grammar in both the target language and in English – if you’ve learnt both παρατατικὸς χρόνος and imperfect tense-form, you aren’t going to have a problem either discussing it in Greek, or reading a commentary talk about why something is imperfect.

  • You can sideline/background grammar.

One of the things I have tended to do now is to leave it to students to read information on grammar in English, or watch videos that I have produced (examples here), outside our main instructional time. Especially if they feel the need to get that kind of handle on the language (which many do), they can do that, it’s all there, but then we are freer in our limited instructional time to focus on operating in the language.

You don’t have to abandon grammar to do communicative methods, but you do need to let go of doing grammar as a primary mechanism for learners to acquire the language. If you want to teach grammar as the content and goal of language instruction, without acquisition, you are better off designing a course that is “Linguistics of Historical Latin” and adopting full-scale a linguistic approach to the language which presumes that none of your learners have, or will acquire, any facility in the language. That is totally fine. Indeed, I wish there were more places that in fact did that. There is a woeful absence of teaching Linguistics applied to historical languages.

But grammar? Yes, teach some grammar. Just teach it appropriately, and for its fit purpose, and without thinking it leads to acquisition directly, but as a means of talking about language for those who want to do so.

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