Traditional grammar classes should be replaced by tutoring in language awareness and analysis guided primarily by languages already known in the classroom

Teaching grammar in some form or the other — traditionally prescriptive — is an essential part of the school curriculum. Generally, all children learn at least two languages in secondary school, spending approximately 1,400 hours — much more if three languages are taught — on grammar. But this mechanical exercise does not lead to any tangible addition to the knowledge base of either the children or the teachers. This is a massive waste of human energy and resources, not to mention the boredom it inflicts on the teacher and the taught alike. It also results in the neglect of the multilingual potential in the classroom. A default classroom is characterised by inherent language variation and this multilingualism can be treated as a resource to enable focus on the scientific study of language (i.e. real grammar), leading to meta-linguistic awareness, cognitive growth and social tolerance.

Irrespective of which theoretical model or pedagogical practices is followed, almost all grammar-teaching, explicit or implicit, is done within the framework of a ‘standard, pure language and a single correct, grammatical answer’ through a ‘Present-Practice-Produce’ model. Children don’t even become aware of the highly rule-governed behaviour of the structure of language and how the same grammatical phenomenon may function across languages. Nor do they become sensitised to the socially-determined variability in the dynamics of linguistics. We would find that in most cases what’s taught is insensitive to the nature and structure of language and a great opportunity to build on an enormous resource available for free in the classroom is lost. It is most unfortunate that the students, despite having been drilled in grammar for a number of years, are never encouraged to think and reflect about their own languages or about the languages of their peer group.

Pick up any textbook of English at the elementary school level. You will find exercises on changing active voice to passive and vice versa as if all sentences can be ‘converted’ from active to passive and there is a mathematical equality between the two.

What is worse is that children are never encouraged to reflect on what happens to the phenomenon of ‘Voice’ in, say, Hindi and Telugu, the two languages they may be learning along with English. Consider, once again, the case of Subject-Verb agreement — a topic on which mechanical exercises are repeated ad infinitum across school classes and languages. All school teachers would recollect the amount of time they spend ‘correcting’ phrases such as ‘He walk’. I wonder whether it is appreciated that all children who learn English (as a first, second or third language) go through such stages. There is, in fact, a very strong structural pressure to use ‘walk’. In the present tense, we use ‘walk’ with ‘I, you, you (plural), we, they’; the ‘s’ of ‘walks’ simply copies the subject ‘he/she/it’ onto the verb, rather redundantly; yet all children learn ‘walks’ when the moment is ripe. We could do better things than this in our grammar classes.

Most textbooks also have exercises on ‘contracted forms’, once again making children mechanically run through ‘do not = don’t; is not = isn’t’, etc.; the fact of the matter is that this is not always true. A sentence such as ‘Don’t you ever shout at me’ can never be rendered in the form ‘Do not you ever shout at me’. There are contexts in which the speakers of English use the contracted forms and there are some where they don’t. Also, there are several varieties of English, including, for example, the Black English Vernacular (BEV) which regularly use the double negative for specific communicative functions. ‘You ain’t going to no place now’ is a legitimate sentence coming from a native speaker of English.

Consider the case of making negatives. If you are not in good health, you could say: ‘I am not well’ or ‘I am unwell’ or ‘I am ill’; the first one is a case of commonly used explicit negation, the second of using a prefix such as ‘un’ and the third of using a different lexical item; each to be used in specific contexts. What happens in Hindi or Tamil or Santali or Angami or whatever languages happen to be available in the classroom? Shouldn’t years of grammar lessons provide a forum for the discussion of such phenomena? It is quite possible that children may discover on their own that the negative particle ‘not’ always stays close to the auxiliary or the verbal complex. The sense of joy and wonder children experience when they unravel such across-the-board concepts in human languages is always a memorable sight.

Discovering rules

In the case of English plurals, the standard practice is to teach children that they should add ‘-s, -es or -ies’. What about speakers who don’t go to school? And, children do make plurals before going to school! The rule in English is, in fact, rather simple — take any word of English and add the sound ‘z’ to it; it is vocalised with the sound ‘s’ in one set (cap, cat, trick), with the sound ‘z’ in another set (rib, bed, bag, photo, baby) and as ‘iz’ in still another set (bus, brush, church, judge). Notice that ‘baby’ (pronounced baybi) ends in a vowel sound and in all such cases we simply add the sound ‘z’; thus baybi + z = baybiz. If children are given proper instructions and sufficient space to reflect on data collection and classification in their minds, they can discover such rules on their own.

School textbooks will also invariably have exercises on the comparative and superlative degree, teaching children, say, in the case of English, to add ‘-er’ for the comparative and ‘-est’ for the superlative degrees (fast, faster, fastest). However, most children rarely become aware that this can happen only with words of one or two syllables. The moment you have bigger, polysyllabic words such as ‘accountable, interesting, fascinating, fabulous etc.’, you need to add ‘more’ or ‘most’ for comparative and superlative forms respectively. And how do other languages — Kannada, Tulu, Konkani or Hindi — handle the issue of degrees of comparison? All these languages may be available in the same classroom.

In Hindi grammar — and perhaps in language instruction in general — it is customary to teach classification of words into tatsam (‘as it was’) , tadbhav (‘born of that’), deshaj (‘local’) and videshaj (‘foreign’) as if words walk around with flags in the mind of a speaker of her language(s). No speaker of Hindi may know, or care to know, that pustak (‘book’) is from Sanskrit; botal (‘bottle’) is from Portuguese, top (‘gun’) is from Turkish, bas (‘bus’) is from English and kitaab (‘book’) is from Arabic. For her, they are all Hindi words. Words fortunately don’t need passports and visa stamps to walk across languages.

What is being suggested here is that the traditional grammar classes could be replaced by language awareness-and-analysis classes guided primarily by the languages already available in the classroom. Such a process takes children through a process of scientific enquiry, empowers their languages, generates self-esteem, sharpens their cognitive skills and enhances mutual respect for each other’s languages. Several research studies have shown the close relationship between multilingualism, linguistic analysis, meta-linguistic awareness, cognitive growth, scholastic achievement and social tolerance.

(The author retired as Professor and Head, Department of Linguistics, University of Delhi. He may be contacted at agniirk@yahoo.com)

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