Grammar is dead! Long live grammar!!

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Hugh Dellar

Structural grammar has dominated EFL for too long and the time for change is now! Classrooms remain full of tenses, conditionals, and modal verbs while the pedagogy of Grammar Translation continues to hold sway. Communicative Language Teaching failed to change this state of affairs, and new generations of both local and global coursebooks retain atomistic grammatical cores. However, there are several serious problems with the way things are at present. In this paper, I will consider the problems with the canonical nature of grammar as it currently stands, the myth that more grammar necessarily results in increased fluency, and the under-explored nature of spoken grammar, before moving on to suggest that recent corpora-based findings about the nature of language necessitate a major change in both the kind of language and the kinds of texts we spend classroom time looking at. I will then consider some of the practical classroom implications of this view and will finish by outlining ways that teachers can implement change.

Part One: The Problem with Grammar

Firstly, there is the problem of the canonical nature of grammar as it stands. Part of the problem with canons of knowledge is that they keep out as much as they include. Canons are also handed down from generation to generation and are largely a matter of traditional consensus. The grammar of the written language has long been available to grammarians whereas the more recent insights into the very different nature of spoken grammar have yet to have much impact on grammar books or classroom coursebooks. Despite the fact that most students studying General English want mainly to speak and listen to English, we still insist on furnishing them with the grammar of the written language.

A second problem with grammar is its gloss of democracy. All specimens of grammar are given equal prominence as if they were all of equal importance. This runs counter to what corpora-based research tells us about how grammar is used. Corpus linguistics reveals that over 80% of all verb tense usage in both written and spoken texts is either in the present simple or past simple. Is this total dominance reflected in the percentage of space given over to these two tenses in coursebooks? Not a chance!! The percentage of verb tense usage in both spoken and written English in the present perfect continuous is less than 1% and yet despite this, units dedicated to this relative obscurity appear in countless coursebooks. In short, the notion of a broad, diverse, grammar-dominated syllabus simply does not reflect the reality of the way language is actually used.

A third flaw with the way grammar is handled is the fact that it's still widely believed that more grammar makes students more fluent, competent users of the language. However, contrary to popular wisdom, very little advanced English consists of what coursebooks often label "advanced grammar." The production of such convoluted gems as "Were I richer, I would definitely purchase one," "Never before had I heard such a story", and "Had I not arrived in time, the kitchen would have caught fire" sadly fail to make learners sound more "advanced". If they really want to communicate more complicated ideas, what they need instead is different kinds of multi-word phrases. The true mark of an advanced learner is the ability to access under pressure a wide range of such phrases, particularly adverbials - in the not-too-distant future, Going back to what you were saying earlier - and complex, densely-packed noun phrases - the introduction of tighter laws, the continuing decline of educational standards, and so on.

My next point is to do with the pragmatics of time and space. English courses only have so many hours. The upshot of this limitation is that we are faced with a stark reality - time spent on rehashing the same old grammar means less time being available for exactly the kind of multi-word phrases that are essential for fluency.

Then there's the added problem that learners denied access to a wide range of collocations and fixed expressions - the most concise, condensed ways of expressing many ideas - need to construct much longer expressions with more grammaticisation, thus running a much higher risk of making mistakes, than the speaker who can use a precise lexical phrase with very little grammar. For instance, if you don't know the expression It boosted team morale, you have to construct something like the following: "It went to make the feeling and the spirit of the team go up". We thus need to accept that many grammatical errors are actually the result of lexical deficiencies and that what is thus needed is NOT more grammar correction and study, but rather more lexical input.

This brings me to the crux of my argument against grammar. The traditional model of language—the clear-cut division of language into grammar (usually tenses) ands vocabulary (usually words)—is invalid. Language does not consist of lexicalised grammar. Rather, it is made up of grammaticalised lexis. A vast proportion of the language used day to day (and especially spoken language) is pre-fabricated blocks. Because we speak in real time, with all the time pressures that involves, we need a mass of expressions to enable us to communicate. We could not function if we were putting language together word by word, using simply our underlying knowledge of grammar and vocabulary. We all have thousands and thousands of expressions in our repertoire—I'd rather not, How should I know?, You'd better not, Rather you than me, It's not worth the effort—and yet they still play only a marginal role in the majority of language courses.

If much of our language is more fixed than has generally been imagined, it should also be added that grammar itself is far more constrained by lexis than has long been believed. The real world imposes a limited set of probable endings on many grammatically-derived sentence starters. It is, of course, possible to say many things, but considerably fewer things are realistically probable. We all know, for instance, that the present continuous is often used to relate future arrangements we have made. However, this tense is limited to a very small number of verbs in normal, everyday speech:

I'm meeting . . .
I'm going to . . .
I'm having dinner / a drink with . . .

and not a lot else!! In fact, what is of real interest here is not so much this relatively closed set, but the endings each would collocate with:

I'm meeting . . . a friend of mine for a drink later
I'm meeting . . . an old friend from college who I haven't seen for ages
I'm meeting . . . some friends from work and we're going out for dinner in town

and so on.

To summarise thus far, we use less grammar than we imagine; half of the grammar that we do teach, we hardly use at all; much of that which we do use is far more constrained by vocabulary than we may previously have imagined, and much of our actual spoken language is blocks, chunks of pre-fabricated language, grammaticalised lexis. I now want to move on to consider some of the implications of this.

Part Two: A Way Forward

a. Teach grammar as lexis

The past and present simple must start taking up a larger proportion of our classroom time. Yet in purely grammatical terms, what is there to say about them? They are either in the present, or in the past, and both pretty simple, apart from the odd irregularity like the third person -s or irregular past tenses. Whilst the grammar of these tenses can be covered in a lesson or two, far more problematic for learners is the fact that many of the most frequent verbs in the language are low-semantic content words with a number of common collocates. Knowing that get is irregular will most definitely not help learners produce items such as I got fed up with it, We got a quick bite to eat, or I got home quite late last night. We've got to start focusing more on grammar as part-and-parcel of such lexical bundles and move away from simple form manipulation into fully grammaticalised lexicon building.

b. Grammaticalise lexis in typical ways

We also need to think about how to grammaticalise the lexis we are teaching in typical ways. One of the problems with the atomistic, block-by-block approach to grammar is that there's a blink-and-you-miss-it factor in-built. Students who join a course late may miss out on the present perfect altogether! What learners need instead is constant repeated exposure to the most common grammatical patterns of the language. By putting the words we're teaching into fully grammaticalised sentences, we're not only facilitating this kind of exposure, but we are also exemplifying usage. We can also include other words typically found with the words being taught, thus making as much relevant language as possible available to students.

c. Teach more fixed and semi-fixed expressions

We need to move away from thinking about language as being either vocabulary or grammar, and start looking instead at the ways in which the two frequently combine to make fixed and semi-fixed expressions, bits of common, reusable language which come fully grammaticalised and which students can be encouraged to learn wholesale. For instance, students studying a unit about films, could be encouraged to learn things like the following:

It's one of the best films I've ever seen in my life.
It wasn't as good as I thought it would be.
I loved every minute of it.

and so on.

d. Teach the grammar of spoken English.

If we really want our students to be able to speak fluently, we need to give them access to the grammar of the spoken language. This includes things like the kind of adverbials that allow us to go beyond the past simple and say things like "I went shopping in the bazaar yesterday afternoon and bought a really nice new jumper" (Past simple sentence + place adverbial + time adverbial + result clause, a surprisingly common, generative pattern). Another example would be one of most common ways of expressing cause and effect in speech: so + adjective + result clause, as in "I was so tired I went to bed as soon as I got in."

Hugh Dellar is a teacher and teacher trainer at the University of Westminster, London. He is also the co-author of the General English coursebook series, Innovations. His main interests revolve around the implications of new findings on the nature of language for classroom practitioners, trainers, and materials writers.