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Considering the Role of Grammar in the Language Acquisition Process

One issue that standardly divides our profession is that of the role of grammar (a.k.a. accuracy) in the language acquisition process.

Those teachers that self-define as 'proficiency-oriented' are often criticized by their more 'grammar-driven' colleagues for allowing students to hablar español como unas vacas francesas. Conversely, many aficionados of proficiency assume that those interested in accuracy sit just to the right of Genghis Khan, exhibiting no interest whatsoever in communication.

The debate is flawed; a genuine waste of time and passion. As there is no instance of any earthly language without grammar and syntax, it is time for all involved to recognize that grammar is a natural part of communication. It can, however, be rendered unnatural based on the teacher's presentation.

Moreover, what is the role of grammar in the language acquisition process?

If I were to utter the phrase "Je parlons français", you might be tempted to say "Imbécile…Ça me blesse les oreilles!" "Yo gustar la playa" might draw cries of "¡Bruto! ¡Bobo! ¡Estúpido! ¡Animal! ¡Sinvergüenza!" Yet, demonstrably, both original phrases would be totally comprehensible to any native speaker of that respective tongue. The differences between "Je parlons français" and "Je parle français", "Yo gustar la playa" and "Me gusta la playa" are not communicative. They are structural. Grammar does not render communication. It does, however, render existing communication accurate.

Is it important to use language as accurately as possible? Sans doute! Linguistic accuracy acts as an insurance policy. It assures that the largest number of us shall always have the best opportunity to understand one another. That notwithstanding, we must remember that it is possible to communicate fully in a less than accurate fashion. The more inaccurate the language, however, the greater the risk for miscommunication between and among interlocutors.

Perhaps this is, in its truest sense, the role of grammar in the language acquisition process; not to render communication, but to help us avoid miscommunication.

Languages evolve. Without an eye to standard usage, individuals from different parts of the world, if not the same country, using what they felt was the same language, could meet with substantial linguistic interference. Accuracy facilitates the negotiation of meaning.

Which inevitably leads us to a critical question. Before one frets about miscommunication, what must come first? Communication is, of course, the answer.

Less than accurate communication has always predated accurate language usage. That is precisely why we don't panic when our six year olds say things like "I eated…I runned…I writed." We naturally assume that, over time, the non-standard usage will give way to the standard.

The movement of language is, in fact, always from non-standard toward standard.

Clearly, many language teachers either ignore this fact or don't support the thesis. In our passion for accurate (standard) language, we present grammar prior to and outside the context of communication. Is it any wonder why so many of our students leave the classroom with a heightened grammatical knowledge yet lack the ability to communicate proficiently in L2? History suggests that we are more successful at remediating English than we have ever been at transmitting second languages to our students.

Structure, when viewed in isolation, delivers very little communicatively. Consider the word 'brings' uttered out of context. What does it mean? The mind instinctively seeks communication. Finding none, it naturally moves to a secondary function; identification. Brings…Third person singular…present tense…Indicative mood…The infinitive 'to bring'. How many of our students are more apt to identify parts of speech than communicate proficiently at some level in the second language? Are we actually emphasizing the non-communicative side of language in our classrooms? (Interestingly enough, the only structural point that carries meaning out of context is the imperative.) The rules of any given language should not subvert the language acquisition process.

It is important to consider error, not as the end of the world, but rather as the beginning of the language acquisition process. True learning comes about in the subtle shift from error to non-error.

In the language acquisition process, it would be advantageous for us to view grammatical accuracy as a destination rather than a starting point.