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The Uni-Files

A candid look at EFL life and lessons from a university teacher's perspective.

May 20, 2010

Why I never teach grammar tenses

I've talked before about how I find it strange when teachers talk of 'teaching' a vocabulary item. The notion that naming a discrete item in English equals 'teaching' seems odd to me. 'Telling' is more like it. If I show young Japanese kids a picture of a dog and say 'dog', or even 'Inu ha Eigo de dog to iimasu', I'm not really 'teaching' anything. I'm simply telling them what the English label or cognate is. 'Teaching' it seems to me, means having the learners come to understand at a deeper semantic level (that is, identifying the meaning range- think of an item like "worth", which crosses several Japanese lexical cognate boundaries) and the ability to use it appropriately and flexibly within meaningful contexts (e.g., swell- "My ankle is swollen. My calf is swelling up too. If it swells any further we will have to operate").

In doing so, I may highlight the new word and try to get students to raise consciousness about it but I can't say that I teach it. I may consciously use it in various forms in the materials I produce so that students may absorb or inculcate that item but any such acquisition is a by-product of the task it appears in, and not of explicit item-teaching.

The same goes for grammar.

The idea that you can 'teach' a grammatical tense seems absurd for me and doubly absurd at the university level. Why? OK- let's start with that old standard, the past tense: One might try to 'teach' it as follows: "We use the past tense when something happened in the past". Oh really? So, how about, "Yesterday, I was standing in the shower when...". Or, "I have been to Kabul three times". In other words, the 'past' is not always represented by the past tense.

Now what about the past tense inflection? We could 'teach' learners that most verbs take -ed as an ending but also that there are many irregular past-tense verb endings that you'll have to learn too (and of course most of the irregular verbs are the most common items). Since there's no way of learning them systematically, students will just have to memorize a list. And that's not the same as teaching or learning a tense.

The problem is that the notion of 'past' causes semantic difficulties across languages. Knowing how to make the inflection and knowing when to make the inflection are two very different animals. Using only the former criterion, coming from Japanese, the following would be ok:
A: Put the books down over there.
B: I understood.

This is because Japanese renders the moment of understanding as having been already attained ("Wakatta") whereas English treats it as a current state ("I understand"). Likewise, "I knew that he was married" is fine in English but a direct translation from Japanese would produce: "I was knowing...". So, knowing how to make the inflection, the mechanical transformation of the verb, is easy but this hardly constitutes understanding the past tense.

Rather, knowing how and when the past is rendered in English (or any language) discourse, psychologically or semantically, is a delicate and complex matter that is best developed by exposure to a variety of meaningful contexts in which time relations are juxtaposed.

The same principle can be applied to the passive voice. We can say that "The pedestrian was scared by the foreigner" is the passive form of "The foreigner scared the pedestrian" but the ability to make the transformation is just a matter of mechanics. It doesn't tell us anything about WHEN we would choose to employ the passive voice or what semantic or psychological considerations and choices would make us choose it. The factors behind a choice of voice can be quite complicated if taught as a discrete item. And again, Japanese and English don't match up here (e.g. "I surprised").

Most grammatical 'rules' taught in junior and senior high schools in Japan have been absorbed at some level in Japan by students, even if latent, implicit, and subconscious. But productive mastery of these forms (as opposed to passive, multiple choice, recognition) eludes almost all. University is precisely the time and place in which this latent understanding can be made more fruitful- by exposure to the contextual aspects in which grammatical and lexical choices are made. Simply going over 'the rules' again is to reinvent the wheel, and a flat one at that. Students are not suddenly going to 'get it' in university if they are 'taught' grammar tenses and the like all over again. Instead, they have to be presented within academic contexts that are meaningful to learners, contexts which reveal norms, choices, relations and meaning/application ranges.

University is the perfect place to do this. At university, Japanese students are declaring majors and (should be) considering content in greater depth and with greater interest. If English is a medium used to explore these areas of interest and research, the structures which express the underlying relationships, states, and actions will be more fully absorbed, married as they are to students' cognitive engagement (of course, there is no accounting for the militarily bored and uncommitted). That understanding of structure which they have retained in some vague, ephemeral state from high school, will be made manifest. The 'rules' will become applicable to semantic content.

One visceral example of this occurs with my first year medical students. In learning to take a medical history students are forced to think of relevant opening questions for patients in order to gather sufficient information. A number of these take on the perfective aspect (I say that because it's not really a 'tense' per se). To wit:
How long have you had it?
Have you noticed anything else?
Have you taken any medicine?
Have you had anything similar in the past?

Contrast these (and I do highlight the contrasts) with:
When did you first notice it?
What did you do when you first noticed it?
How long do they last?
Is there anything that makes it feel better?

As students understand the semantic range of each form (because the questions are relevant to their own interests, carried out in etended tasks, and presented within a meaningful context) they can begin to 'feel' the range of stituations that demand the perfective, as opposed to the other forms and tenses. In other words, the semantic range is known to them and they now see that certain meaning ranges demand the perfective. To 'teach' the perfective first, as a rule-bound structural discrete item, would be ass-backwards, since there is no underlying semantic range in which students can place the form.

Teaching grammar and university EFL- like opera and peanut butter.

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