5 reasons focusing on grammar isn’t helpful for beginning level language learners

As a language teacher, I love grammar. I geek out on Grammar Girl podcasts and have been know to get lost for hours in Cambridge’s Encyclopedia of the English Language. When I was learning Spanish, I’d pour over grammar texts and drills about minute rules for prepositions and irregular verb forms. It would not be out of line to call me a grammar geek. However, as I complete my second decade of language teaching, I’m finally grasping the reality that in my classrooms, most of my students are simply not cut out of the same cloth as I am.

While debates over explicit grammar instruction among language teachers can grow quite heated, I believe this is a discussion that must continue if we want our jobs to stay relevant. Colleges and universities across the world are increasingly eliminating or optionalizing once stringent foreign language requirements, often under a logic that states, “I studied xx language for 4 years and I still can’t speak a word of it.” Clearly, the world outside the language teaching community isn’t benefitting nearly as much from the grammar rules as the teachers are.

As I see it, there are five primary reasons not to deliver much explicit grammar instruction in the early years of language education:

1. Language teachers like grammar, but students generally don’t get it.

I remember the day I proudly created a beautiful verb conjugation worksheet to help my students learn some basic Spanish verb conjugations. I color coded and tabled the heck out of those verbs and proudly presented the masterpiece to my students ‘for reference’. Then, we sang songs about tener, ser, and estar, practiced drills, played games and did worksheets. “They are ready for the test,” I told myself. So I gave them the test. Almost all of them failed.

“I don’t get this, Señora. It doesn’t make sense,” they claimed. Even after my elaborate dog and pony show, it was like I hadn’t taught them a thing. When asked what grammar-loving teachers should do with this reality, my current department chair is known to respond, “Respectfully speaking, they need to get over themselves.” This is the crux of the issue, I suppose, for all teachers – do we teach what we love or what the students need to flourish?  

I must insert a caveat here before the grammar-nazis angrily click off my post: there is a place for explicit grammar instruction, but it is not at the beginning levels of language teaching. In order for students to understand the grammar rules, they need to have the context of spoken language for the rules to make sense.

2. Early language is not acquired through the formal study of grammar rules.

Ask any parent if explaining the difference between the past perfect progressive and subjunctive tense helped their 3-year-old learn a first language was helpful. Their answer will surely be, “Huh?” First language is acquired through continuous repetition and modeling accurate language, and second language acquisition does not differ that much. Beginner level classrooms should be filled to the brim with opportunities for students to listen and speak without getting bogged down in the details of grammar rules.

3. The primary purpose of learning language is communication, not accuracy.

When learners are allowed to speak freely without fear of correction or mistakes, they grow in confidence to try again. In our globalized society, the primary purpose of language is to communicate. Secondarily, language can also be learned for academic purposes, for special professional purposes, etc., but the masses simply need the ability to hold a conversation.

4. It’s more fun to have conversations than to conjugate verbs.

With language classes becoming increasingly optional in the high school and university level, one significant influence that will increase our course enrollment is being interesting and engaging. When language teachers require students to spell, conjugate and pronounce every-last-word correctly, it sucks the joy out of language learning. Techniques used in Total Physical Response Storytelling (TPRS) like MovieTalk and reading level-appropriate novels help pull students into active language learning without boring them to tears.

5. There’s no need to speak language perfectly.

I know, I know… I’m walking on thin ice with prescriptivist linguists here, but we have to consider the ultimate goal of language learning in our modern world. Must I wait until I’m completely fluent and can speak Mandarin perfectly before chatting with my Chinese neighbor around the corner, or is friendship built in our broken attempts at communication with one another? A hyper focus on grammar communicates an expectation of perfection in language rather than the need for communication and relationship.




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