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On The Role of Grammar
by John De Mado

Lest I be viewed as being opposed to grammar instruction, I would simply state that language teachers do not have the prerogative to ignore the grammar and syntax of the language that they teach. The reason is both obvious and profound. There are no languages on the face of the earth that are without a grammar and syntax.


Steven Pinker, in his book The Language Instinct, relates the following story which underscores the organic nature of structure and syntax to language acquisition: (I paraphrase ...)


After the Sandinistas took political control of Nicaragua , they gathered up all the deaf and mute children that they could find and placed them in detention camps. The purpose of these camps was not to educate, but rather to train the children to perform low level civil service tasks for the state. Within weeks, these children, heretofore ‘incommunicado’, began to sign to one another. The signing was crude, more ‘gesticular circumlocution’ than anything, filled with ample potential for ‘miscommunication’. Nonetheless, the children had created a ‘pidgin’ sign language from nothing.


Eventually, a second group of children, equally as incommunicado as the first group, was commingled with the users of the newly minted pidgin sign language. Sensing that this pidgin sign language that was a good thing, although riddled with miscommunication, the new group set about to the task of ‘creolizing’ the pidgin sign language; that is, overlaying a simple syntax and structure that minimized the potential for miscommunication.


Today, this ‘homegrown’ sign language is the national sign language of  Nicaragua


The lesson here is simple: Structure (grammar) and syntax are natural byproducts of language acquisition, not the inverse! Given the chance, they both will bubble up and take hold, even without direct instruction. Moreover, the purpose of structure and syntax is not to initially create communication, but rather to reduce the potential for miscommunication.


I would submit to you that structure is primarily non-communicative. When I utter the word ‘brings’ out of context, what does that mean to you? How about ‘rapidly’ once again considered out of any linguistic context? You might be tempted to identify ‘brings’ as the 3rd person singular of the present tense of the indicative mood of the infinitive to bring. Or to classify ‘rapidly’ as an adverb, because it ends in ‘ly’, and further state that adverbs modify verbs, adjectives and other adverbs. But this is not 'communication'. Rather, it is 'identification'.


As a result, the language teacher must develop an instructional paradigm and method that recognizes both the primordial nature of vocabulary (and the time that it takes to develop it) and the inevitable emergence of grammar and syntax. This is a matter of recalibrating our usage of time in the World Language classroom based on the nature of language, not our perceptions of what that nature should be.


Consider both, however, against the backdrop of just about any other noun … Say, ‘apple’, for instance. I’m sure that there might be someone out there whose mind might drift to identifying ‘apple’ as a noun. However, I would strongly conjecture that you, the reader, conjured up an image of ‘apple-ness’ instead … A fruit, red, round, crunchy, pie, motherhood, New York, Baby … William Tell, the dentist, computers, Original Sin! Vocabulary comes laced with meaning. Structure does not. In fact, the only structural point that we teach that is readily communicative is commands. Do you sense the difference in communicative value between ‘Bring’ and ‘Brings’? In the former, you probably feel a sense of somehow being engaged in the process of ‘carrying’ something to someone somewhere. ‘Brings’ offers no personal engagement whatsoever. In other words, it doesn’t ‘resonate’ with you. In other words, it doesn’t communicate.


The single most common gesture use by pre-linguistic children is pointing with the index finger. Why would a child make such a gesture? To find out whether a word is an adjective or an adverb?... Hardly! It is a request for identification of objects in a world which, for the child at this point, has no labels. Lexical items help us to make sense of the world around us. The starting point for human language is lexical in nature, not structural. This should offer us clear guidance as to what we should be emphasizing in our classrooms from day one.


My purpose for begging your indulgence on this point is uniquely to float the idea that, perhaps, the reason why certain students do not end up communicating in a second language to any substantive degree is because classrooms are primarily focused upon those aspects of language that are largely non-communicative.


The issue for us as Applied Linguists is not whether grammar should be eliminated from the language classroom. Au contraire! Grammar and syntax are natural components to all languages. Left to its own devices, any language will evolve its own grammar and syntax over time. The real issue at hand is ‘defining’ the role of grammar and syntax.


I would humbly submit to you that many teach grammar and syntax as prerequisite knowledge for communication. I contend that this notion is misguided, at best, and leads us down the wrong path instructionally. Grammar and syntax are important, not for the creation of communication, but rather for the avoidance of miscommunication.


Before concerning yourself with miscommunication, what must first exist? Communication, of course. And that very communication will always be less than accurate. Simply stated, grammatical accuracy is a destination, not a point of departure. (One of my Ten Organizing Principles for Language Acquisition …)


Proficiency-orientated classrooms are student-centered, unlike their Mastery-driven counterparts because, in the end result, language is 100% an acquired ability. There is good reason to believe that no one ever has actually been taught a language; that we are all 100% responsible for the language that we own. Many of you who might have been considering a move to real estate sales probably feel that I have just provided you the perfect reason to jump ship! Not so! This fact does not diminish the role of the language teacher. Au contraire, it exalts it! It challenges the language teacher to desist from serving as the conduit for all language activity and to find ways to encourage kids to select it.


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