What is a (grammar) rule?

(Updated November, 2017)

In February, I read an article with my classes about business ethics (or the seeming lack thereof in parts of the corperate world). You can find it on onestopenglish.com, Business Spotlight Worksheet: Money or Morals. Highly recommendable lesson by the way.

In the introductory paragraphs, the author (Vicky Sussens) describes a group of children playing hide and seek:

It is a beautiful autumn day. The sun shines golden on a small group of children who excitedly agree to play hide and seek. “Whoopee!” calls Sarah, racing off to a tree to hide her eyes. “Count to ten!” shouts Johnny, “That’s the rule.”

Rules are so much part of human interaction that even children can stick to them – especially in a game where there are winners and losers. (p 2)

This passage led to a discussion on the nature of rules, laws, regulations etc. and someone remarked that especially – not even – children insist on following the rules of a game. We all remembered such incidences. Without everybody sticking to the rules, many games would simply be unplayable. Rules are the defining features of a game.

In larger groups, like societies, rules become laws to ensure, in the best of cases, a cooperate and peaceful life among all members of the community. In any case, there are significant reasons for rules and they are always made by humans (‘manmade’ so to speak).

Do languages have rules too?

If the answer were yes, what would be their nature? What would they be for? And who made them up or developed them?

Continue reading

When the ‘past’ tense does not refer to past time or: Confusion by Misnomers

One of my main issues over the last years of teaching has been with traditional grammar terminology, especially with ‘present’ and ‘past’. To a certain extent I believe in linguistic relativity i.e. that the language we use to describe something has an influence on how we perceive this something. It is not such a surprising insight, if you think about it. When someone refers to an object as table, I will not think of a chair. Well, I actually might think of a chair in association with the table, but that is a different point.

So when a form is called ‘past’ tense, most people – if not all – will believe that the term refers to the meaning of the form. However … Continue reading

How Languages Are Learned

This morning in class, the question of correcting came up again (see post from February 18).

A colleague, who subbed for me while I was on vacation, seems to have a noticeably different practice from my own and three of us started talking about this after class.

The issue of correcting someone while speaking raises a lot of questions concerning the process of language learning on the one hand, but also on the subject itself: what is it that we are actually learning? What is or should be in focus? Continue reading

To correct or not while someone is speaking

I don’t like correcting students while they are communicating. My reasons are several. First of all, I don’t want to interrupt their flow of thoughts. As I strongly believe that meaningful communication leads to language acquisition, herein lies my priority. Which is not to say I never go more deeply into questions of accuracy, grammar reflection, vocabulary practice and at times even drilling of forms. Many students expect this in a language course and some profit from it. Continue reading

Topics and Taboos or: The Principle of Meaningful Communication

One of my basic teaching or training principles and aims is to create a situation in which ‘meaningful communication’ takes place. What is meant by ‘meaningful communication’? This is one of my main tasks – and sometimes challenges – in every class, and the main thing to find out when getting to know new groups and new students: what are they interested in as individuals, what are their interests (and needs) in respect to the context in which or for which they intend to improve their language skills – in companies their respective jobs – in short, what is meaningful in any given situation. Continue reading

Do I follow a specific concept of language teaching? (1)

A reflection on my own principles

It was our end of the summer tennis season get together at an Italian restaurant. I arrived later as I had a late evening class and one of my team mates asked me where exactly I had been or came from so late and we got into talking a little about my job. One of the questions she asked me after a while was if I had a concept – for a lay person maybe not comprehensible, but I was totally overwhelmed by this question at that moment, and not only because I was tired. I didn’t want to be rude by answering too briefly and I didn’t want to appear as if I had no clue of what I was doing and why.

Continue reading

Some Remarks on ‘Correctness’

This morning we discussed my verb structure circle system (see under pages) in one of my classes. It was, again, as I found, a very interesting discussion. There seems to be one point of misunderstanding, though, when I question the validity of right or wrong claims: my position is not ‘anything goes’ and ‘rules don’t matter’. Continue reading

Fluency versus Accuracy – Some Thoughts

What is more important: fluency or accuracy? I’m aware of the artificiality of the opposition. It makes no sense to set the two against each other. There is no either – or.

However, the two concepts do sometimes seem to linger in the minds of foreign language speakers. Every once in a while there are participants in class who hardly say anything. Now this may just be due to the nature of their personality: they are less imposing or more laid back, prefer to listen to others before they utter their own opinion etc. Continue reading

An Overview of the English Verb Structure System: Introduction

What is grammar?

Whenever you ask this question, e.g. in a first year Introduction to Linguistics course or to learners of English, the first reaction is often one of bafflement. Isn’t the answer rather obvious? Tenses, prepositions, if-clauses: all the stuff you were supposed to learn in school.

When I ask adult learners of English, which area of grammar they feel they have the most problems with or feel they need more practice in, they most often answer: tenses – closely followed by prepositions. The first year linguistic student as well as most learners of English equate ‘grammar’ with verb structures or ‘the tenses’. Especially in a German context there seems to be a certain obsession with ‘tenses.’ And many learners of English worry about getting the ‘tenses’ right, even students I consider quite advanced. Although, when asked, most agree that vocabulary is much more important than correct ‘grammar’, there seems to be a certain unease or insecurity when it comes to using the ‘tenses’. Continue reading

Some Thoughts on the Role of a Language Teacher

Teacher: One who carries on his (sic) education in public” (Theodore Roethke, American poet, 1908 – 1963; In: Jim Scrivener, Learning Teaching: The Essential Guide to Language Teaching, 3rd ed. 2011, p 8)

Keywords: learner’s autonomy, teacher as moderator
I have always felt uncomfortable with calling myself an English teacher. To me, the word ‘teaching’ assumes a way too active role on my part – or on the part of any language teacher – in the process of a language learner’s development. It also shifts the blame on the teacher when the learning seems to have failed or seems to be failing.  And it gives the student of the language a false sense of security: let’s visit a class and have someone teach us the language – all we have to do is go there.

Going ‘there’ surely is a first admirable step to take when one decides to take a course, and more difficult at times than one might think. And although I do believe that some kind of learning takes place in any kind of situation in which I expect it to, the concept of ‘teacher’ places the emphasis too much on a person that will teach me; on a person Continue reading