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Content over Grammar (Part two)

This is the second post explaining why teaching content should be valued more than teaching grammar (the first post can be found here).


In this post, I’d like to point out how an explicit focus upon teaching grammar can retard learner communication skill development as well as how unreliable, elusive, and, in some cases, contradictory even the most apparently simple of grammar forms can be.



1. Unnecessary grammar



Let’s start with the simplest of interactions – stating one’s name. In the name of ‘teaching grammar’ we often teach children to respond as follows:

‘What’s your name?’

My name is Takuma Fukushima.’


The repeated grammatical element, ‘My name is’ is redundant here. Yes, it is used in first turns (‘My name is Takuma Fukushima and I have a reservation for one night.’) However, when used in a response it becomes marked, as if the speaker is clarifying a mistake. So why teach the marked full form just to have students ‘carry out’ the grammar?


The pressure that learners feel to construct a fully grammatical sentence not only serves to burden them with unnecessary linguistic baggage but also makes them sound awkward or incompetent. Imagine, for example, a busy doctor in the middle of performing intense neurosurgery when she asks:


‘Nurse, what’s the patient’s temperature?’

And the nurse responds with:

His temperature is 36.7 degrees.’


The doctor wants the data and she wants it quick, dammit! This is no time for an exercise in formal grammaticality!



2. Unnatural grammar



English teachers also often have the habit of lingering upon minute lexico-grammatical distinctions that really are insignificant. A good example of this is the popular ‘going to vs. will’ lesson. In reality, in about 95% of all future tense cases either form could be used without any problem. Moreover, in those few cases in which one is preferred, the reasons as to why are subtle beyond all  but the most advanced EFL classrooms.


Not only that, but ‘expected’ grammatical forms that the teacher wants the students to ‘practice’ often don’t actually appear. To test the likelihood of ‘will/going to’ I actually asked four people their plans for the upcoming weekend. The responses were:

  • ‘I’m visiting a friend coming up from Oita.’
  • ‘Probably just hang out at home.’
  • ‘I don’t really have any plans yet.’
  • ‘I have to work on a paper.’


As you can see, exactly none of them used the target form. Indeed, teachers often end up forcing grammatical forms into conversations where they might not naturally occur. Instead of the awkward grammatical focus then, choosing the content-based topic of ‘future plans’ would make much more sense, would it not?



3. More-difficult-than-it-first-appears grammar



Another example is the teaching of the present simple. Because it is called the ‘present simple’ teachers often (wrongly) believe that this form should be taught early on — to beginners. But think about it. How often do we actually use a form such as, ‘I go…’. About the only time we use these forms is when we are talking about habitual activities (‘I wake up at 7:00 AM’), not a common type of utterance at all. Why prioritize such uncommon forms?


Interestingly, the present simple appears in more commonly in mysterious forms such as, ‘I come from Australia,’ (‘Mysterious’ because you most certainly left Australia well before the present and it is not a ‘habitual’ action.) Not so ‘simple’ is it?


What my trainee teachers soon find out when trying to teach grammar-based simulation lessons is that the underlying rules are far more complex and inconsistent than they imagined and certainly far more so than they can explain. Let’s look at a common error:

‘I like to sing a song.’


Generally, teachers would correct the above to, ‘I like to sing songs or, better, ‘I like to sing’ (after all we naturally sing songs, as opposed to singing arguments or discussions).


But what’s the principle behind the grammar? Well, most would explain that ‘a song’ implies a single (repeated) tune. Therefore, instead, one should use the plural ‘songs’ to indicate the general interest in singing, similar to: ‘I don’t like talking to a person.’ vs. ‘I don’t like talking to people.’


But no sooner do we ‘teach’ such a rule when we come across a sample like this (taken from ‘South Park’):


A woman can serve a sandwich just as well as a man!’


In this case, the ‘a’ is fine, even though we know that the speaker means that, in general, women can serve sandwiches just as well as men.


So, just how does this ‘a vs. plural rule’ work? Just try explaining it! Your learners will be more confused than ever – and you as a teacher might be too!



4. When ideation and grammar don’t match



Then there are the common problems that occur when even though our learners know the grammatical rule, it doesn’t match the ideation that exists in the first language. Let me use some examples with Japanese. First, let’s look at going from the active to passive voice – the mechanism is easy, right?


The police caught the suspect —- The suspect was caught by the police


But the much bigger question is: WHEN/WHY do we choose the passive voice? There tends to be two common responses to this…


a. When the recipient/object should be emphasized:

‘Lady Gaga was originally named Stefani Germanotta’

b. When the agent is not important or not clear:

‘Machu Picchu was abandoned in the late 1500’s’


Fine. But then, sometimes, in Japanese we get passive forms such as:


‘私は妻に死なれた’ (watashi ha/wa tsuma ni shinareta). Literally, this translates as, ‘My wife was died’ or, perhaps, ‘My wife died on me.


What is going on here?


Well, it just so happens that the Japanese notion of the passive voice can express emotional uptake, which is much less of a function of the passive voice in English. So, even if our Japanese students understand the active-passive mechanism perfectly well, they will still construct ‘ungrammatical’ forms such as ‘My grandfather was died’ precisely because they are deploying… the grammatical rules!


There are many more everyday cases in which such grammatical infelicities occur. The simple past tense is a good example.


For example, we might teach a rule such as: ‘If the action is completed and occurred in the past, one uses the past tense.’ But then we encounter common Japanese phrases such as:

‘わかりました’ (wakarimashita) – This is uttered in the past tense in Japanese, so, literally this becomes: ‘I understood.’  


Why? In Japanese, the ‘realization’ is a ‘past’ event. But native English speakers don’t think of sudden understanding as being ‘in the past’. So we say instead:

I understand, or, I see


It’s the manner in which other languages frame ideas and experience that causes these mismatches. Knowing what the past tense is and how to form it in English doesn’t help much if one’s idea of ‘past’ is different.


But wait! We do sometimes use the past tense in such a case:

‘Got it’


I told you that grammar rules are horribly inconsistent!


It’s easy to find several other common ideation-grammatical mismatches between Japanese and English:

‘We got our Christmas bonuses early this year!’

‘よかった!’  (‘Yokatta.Literally,That was good.’)


Japanese uses the past tense in such immediate cases. But English doesn’t. Instead we use the present:

That’s good’ or, ‘Good!’


Knowing how we form tenses in English doesn’t help EFL students if one’s L1 cognition does not categorize it in the same fashion.


Here’s another ideational mismatch: ‘Ralph’s upholsterer is having his baby.’

‘知っている (shiteiru. Literally, ‘I am knowing as opposed to,I know


No matter how obvious it may seem to a native English speaker that knowledge is a state and thus shouldn’t be expressed in the present continuous form, people learning English from very different L1s will not view it that way.



5. More mismatches



Let me introduce a few more telling examples. Here is one that we’ve all heard to death:


‘Japan is a safety country.’


Is there a rule that can help learners fix this mistake?


Most teachers would point out (correctly) that ‘safe’ = adjective and thus addresses quality, while ‘safety’ = noun and thus addresses category. One could also offer up contrasting examples such as, ‘safety program, safety features’ vs ‘safe city, safe food’. But this still might not help Japanese students. Why not?


Because Japanese noun+ (e.g., ‘anzen-na’) forms are neither fully adjective nor noun. They tend to cover both grounds. Thus, ‘safe’ and ‘safety’ as concepts are less distinguishable in Japanese.


Sometimes too, Japanese grammar expresses something that is expressed paralinguistically (non-verbally) in English. For example:

鍵を忘れてしまった (kagi wo wasureteshimatta)


How would you express this in English?

Likely as, ‘I forgot my key!’, accompanied by a sigh or a gesture/intonation indicating regret, anger, or frustration. The gesture or tone translates the てしまった ending.


However, the emotional content is actually encoded into the grammar in Japanese. Therefore, our Japanese students, if they are concentrating upon ‘correct grammar’ will actively try to encode it into English – and will end up either confusing themselves or remain silent because, ‘I don’t know how to say it in English.’



So, in summary…



The problems expressed above are not just issues of ‘different English -Japanese grammar’ (and thereby do not merely underscore the belief ‘we have to teach this different grammar’). They are, rather, are problems as to how differently ideation is expressed. Ideation and ideas are related primarily to content. Teaching from a grammatical basis therefore does not adequately address these basic issues. 


Once again, content trumps grammar.





Mike Guest

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