Why we need to change our approach to teaching English

The undue emphasis given to learning grammar inhibits students from gaining linguistic competence

February 10, 2024 02:33 pm | Updated 02:33 pm IST

In informal settings such as homes or any non-institutionalised contexts, grammar takes a backseat, facilitating smoother and quicker language acquisition. 

In informal settings such as homes or any non-institutionalised contexts, grammar takes a backseat, facilitating smoother and quicker language acquisition.  | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

A revolutionary shift is required in the realm of English language teaching to empower learners in acquiring linguistic competence. The current approaches, methods, strategies, and techniques in practice have not yielded the desired results. English remains an aspirational language, despite our country’s centuries-long acquaintance with it.

The current predicament has given rise to a genuine inquiry into whether they are linguistically incapable or if the approaches employed are flawed. While both possibilities exist, the latter seems to be the prime culprit. The theories and practices of the English language were predominately shaped by the British, especially the monolinguals who did not have much grip over the bi/tri/multilinguals’ styles of acquiring languages. They laid undue emphasis on the peripherals of the language such as grammar and pronunciation and insisted on achieving a ‘native-like fluency and accuracy’. Deliberately, the uncanny emphasis placed on these aspects granted them their desired centrality of the process.

Obstacles to learning

Let us examine how the grammar of English is an obstacle to learning the language, grounded on the experiences of numerous teachers and learners, but which remain unarticulated, as we are treated as non-native speakers.

Drawing upon our experiential knowledge of mother tongues, we could affirm that we acquire them in ‘immersive’ contexts by watching, listening, imitating, and producing. The initial stages involve articulating sounds, gradually progressing to individual words, then expanding to chunks of words and ultimately maturing to produce simple sentences. Notably, grammar hardly figures in the scheme of learning. Polyglots vouch for this, as they constantly keep their antenna alive to pick up expressions from all possible sources and are least concerned about the grammatical correctness of their acquisition. A parallel can be drawn from migrant labourers, who focus on the ‘survival language’ in their place of residence and work. Even those who never stepped into schools can absorb the necessary language, unaware of their grammaticality.

In informal settings such as homes or any non-institutionalised contexts, grammar takes a backseat, facilitating smoother and quicker language acquisition. The insistence on grammar, particularly in institutionalised settings, reveals a distortion in the cognitive process, be it the mother tongue or other tongues. Recognising this, educational curriculums introduce the grammar of the mother tongue at a later stage; even then, learners are averse to its components.

In our pedagogy, contrary to real-life ecosystems, the introduction of the language and grammar of English occur almost simultaneously, as if learners could acquire the language through grammar. This ignores the truth that grammar is about the language, not the language. As learners advance through their educational journey, many may rattle off grammatical rules but struggle to produce meaningful linguistic output. However, grammarians and theoreticians characterise grammar as the ‘backbone’, deeming it more critical than the flesh and blood of language and their overemphasis on ‘accuracy’ during the initial phases hampers the learning process.

Another misplacement significance lies in attributing equal weightage to all four skills — Listening, Speaking, Reading, and Writing (LSRW) — disregarding the natural order of acquisition. Speaking and listening inherently take precedence over the other two. Speaking is regarded as an intrinsic part of our biological system, whereas writing labelled as ‘artificial’ — ‘an artefact’, ‘surrogate of speech’ and demeaning it as ‘written language, not language’ — as billions thrive without mastering the skill. Therefore, prioritising speaking over the other skills, particularly in the initial phases, is imperative.

An often overlooked, yet crucial, distinction lies in the differences between the spoken and written forms: “Spoken language is not written language spoken out; written language is not spoken language written down.” While written language adheres strictly to grammatical rules, spoken language provides leeway; a single word, a phrase, or an unfinished utterance can effectively convey the intended message. The additional advantage of the nonverbal elements such as gestures, postures, visual cues, and tonal variations can amplify meanings and keep the listeners captivated. Further, the spoken form could be imbued with emotions to sway the audience, but the written mode consistently maintains a formal tone, follows a linear progression, and ‘distanced’ from readers.

Regrettably, the grammar of written language is imposed onto the spoken mode, which acts as a stumbling block to gain speaking competence. There is a tendency to relish the distortion of our mother tongue’s grammar by ‘others’ but there is a stringent ‘zero-level tolerance’ for English and the errors are subject to mockery. Nevertheless, a liberating development is the acceptance of non-traditional grammar usage on social media, where code switching, and code mixing are liberally employed and embraced by all.

Reading helps

The most practical approach to gain grammatical sense is predominantly by reading, and this unconscious cognitive process seamlessly embeds grammar into long-term memory. In contrast, the conscious teaching of grammatical items may enable learners to comprehend, store, and recall but incapacitate them in application, serving little purpose. Leaning can occur consciously, subconsciously, and unconsciously, and for grammar sub/unconscious learning through reading may prove far more effective than conscious drilling.

Applied linguists emphatically state that the grammar of a language can be learnt without knowing the language and, conversely, a language can be learnt without knowing its grammar. For spoken communication grammar is not an absolute necessity; hence, we must cease to insist on it for the effective acquisition of English.

The writer is a retired Professor of English and National Secretary of English Language Teaching Association of India (ELTAI).

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