Showing posts with label ESL. Show all posts
Showing posts with label ESL. Show all posts

Friday 6 December 2019

Who Needs English Grammar? Part II

English Grammar and Social Class

The unspoken subtext of English grammar is its connection with social class.  Traditionally, "proper English" meant whatever was used in the golden triangle formed by London, Cambridge and Oxford. As Tiger Webb explains, "in socially-stratified and newly literate Georgian England, any guide to 'proper language' would have sold like hotcakes"--which is exactly what happened with Robert Lowth's Short Introduction to English Grammar.  With the democratization of the language, a number of dialects, sociolects, idiolects and sublects emerged (there are a lot of lects out there--each with its own slight adjustments to the grammar).  David Crystal suggests that every Anglophone needs to know at least two Englishs:  one that is spoken locally and a second that is understood and accepted globally (or, at least, more widely).  (The local, more colourful version of English is the one more likely to be used in poetry and literature, by the way.)

With grammar, as with everything else in life:  there are choices to be made.  A pop icon or populist president might discover advantages in gainsaying the grammar of standard English in favour of a local dialect or patois.  On the other hand, scrupulous attention to the rules of prescriptive grammar might be the kind of branding with which you as an individual or your company or institution might want to be identified.

Beyond Fashion and branding, who does need English grammar?

Let us not be too quick to turn up our noses at branding and fashion.  In liberal, egalitarian societies, codes for dress as well as for language are invariably a source of protest. However, linguistic knowledge is stereotypically taken as a sign of general knowledge and intelligence (even if unwarranted).  Passing up the opportunity for respect, confidence and admiration which your grammar might impart (or undermine) isn't a wise decision--unless you are already a pop star or a president. Beyond fashion and making a good impression, there are practical reasons for knowing the grammar of the language which you speak.

Learning a foreign language

One of the strongest reasons for a native speaker to know the grammar of English is that it will facilitate the learning of a foreign language.  This is strictly anecdotal (not empirical evidence) but, having taught grammar to both native speakers and second-language learners, I noted that some native speakers were understandably reluctant to accept and even disbelieving that there were "rules" for something they had done naturally all their lives.  Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker both argue that language is innate, even genetic and instinctive, and that there is a universal grammar of all languages.  However, knowing the distinctive grammatical features of your first language is a huge advantage,  giving you parameters and a framework, as you take on a foreign language and can note its differences.  Conversely, I would add that you really don't know your own language until you have been required to learn another one.

Redundancy and entropy

The principle purpose of most grammar rules is to create redundancy.  Basic communication theory indicates that the greater the redundancy in a message the greater its clarity.  In oral communication, we use tone of voice, facial expressions, and gestures to reinforce the message.  In written communication we depend on grammatical features, subject-verb agreement, correct syntax, agreement between adverbs of time and the tense of the verb, and correct word type (see "What Is English Grammar?) to be doubly sure that our message will be clearly understood.  Consider some simple examples:

"I stopped there yesterday."  Here the past tense of the verb and the word "yesterday" are transmitting the same information; i.e., there is redundancy in the sentence.  The adverb "yesterday" makes it clear that the action was in the past.  The rules of grammar, which require the past tense of the verb plus the word "yesterday,  make it redundantly clear that the action was in the past. "I stop there yesterday," though ungrammatical, gets the message across.

"He is here."  The agreement between the third person subject "he" and the third person of the verb "is" is basically redundant.  "He are here" would transmit the same message but, in the absence of redundancy, with a touch of ambiguity.

When the message matters, the grammar matters

Legal documents are notoriously tedious to read.  They use more nouns than most writing, and avoid varying vocabulary, action verbs, adverbs and intensifiers.  In other words, they avoid all the features that make writing interesting.  They will also tend to be repetitive and redundant, strictly following the rules of grammar.  When clarity is of the utmost importance, grammar becomes important, even if (or because) it creates redundancy.

Grammar can change the message

As I pointed out in Part I, I am not partial to the "you're shit" versus "your shit" distinction as grounds for knowing English grammar.  However, there are subtle, refined distinctions in English messages that are transmitted through grammar.  Consider these pairs of sentences:

1. The less people know about us the better.

2. The fewer people know about us the better.

In #1 "less" applies to an uncountable abstract, the implied knowledge.

In #2 "fewer" applies to the countable "people."

1.  I'm going to see her tomorrow.

2.  I'll see her tomorrow.

In #1 "going to" implies a previous arrangement or understanding.

In #2 "will" does not carry the implication of an arrangement, and can be a spontaneous decision.

1.  I've seen that movie.

2.  I saw that movie.

In #1 "I've seen" (the present perfect tense) implies some effect on the present (i.e., "I don't want to see it again").

In #2 "saw" is past tense and neutral about the present. (see The Truth about English Verb Tenses)

Who needs English grammar?

Most English speakers will use these grammatical variations correctly without being aware or able to explain them.  I began these posts on "Who needs English grammar?" by pointing out that we impose grammar most on people who need it least.  At some point in the learning process, language learners will benefit from instruction in grammar, but that point is late in the process (See The Ball of String Theory).

My own rule of thumb for when to teach grammar in an ESL or EFL context was whenever a student asked a question about grammar.  Teachers of English need to know the grammar.  I'll go one step further and say that anyone who teaches anything in English needs to know English grammar.

"Yes, no, toaster"

I still remember watching a documentary series in Quebec entitled Yes, No, Toaster.  The expression "yes, no, toaster" was a typical comedic response from a young Quebec francophone to the question "Do you speak English?"  The documentary, which investigated the relative ineffectiveness of English language instruction in Quebec, was provoked by Audrey de Montingy, a finalist in Canadian Idol in 2003, who confessed that she couldn't understand a word of what people were saying to her during the show, even though she had had six years of ESL instruction.  The Yes, No, Toaster  series took cameras into various English-language-instruction settings.  The one that sticks with me (sticks in my craw, I should say) was an advanced class in which a student asked her teacher "What's the difference between 'will" and 'going to'?"  The teacher not only refused to answer but used the occasion to mock the student by saying "You're not ready for that level yet?"

The Moral of the story

The moral of the story I've been telling is that we should ensure that the right people are being criticized, and the right people are doing the criticizing.  Teachers mocking inquiring students; unilinguals criticizing polyglots--these are just plain wrong.

Sunday 17 November 2019

The "Ball of String" Theory for Learning English as a Second or Foreign Language

The "Ball of string" theory

I believe in the “ball of string” theory of learning English. Imagine that the English language is an infinitely long piece of string. You begin rolling the string into a ball. The English that you have mastered, can repeat and understand almost perfectly, is your ball of string.

Daily English is redundant and repetitive

Your ball of string begins with the English words and expressions that you might hear every day: “Hello,” “How are you?” “How much is it?” “Where’s the bathroom?” “Coffee and a cheese sandwich please.” “Nice weather today.” “Tomorrow.” “Next Monday.” “That’s nice!” All the simple words and expressions that you hear constantly repeated. Assuming you are somewhere where people around you speak English, you don’t need to learn any grammar or how to conjugate verbs or have a vocabulary of unusual words or expressions. If you are surrounded by people who speak English and you pay attention, you will discover that in daily conversation people use a small variety of words. English, as it is spoken in daily life, is repetitive and redundant. You only need to learn how to understand and repeat the things you hear most often being said around you in order to begin “your ball of string.”

To Learn is to add something new to what you already know

When you are rolling a ball of string, as the ball gets bigger it becomes easier and easier to add more string and you will do it faster and faster. Learning is the process of adding something new to what you already know. The process is fast and efficient because you only learn what you really need to know right now. In every course, book or program for learning English, you will be asked to learn things that you don’t need immediately and you may never need. For example, a course or book might encourage you to learn, the conjugation of the verb “to write” in the present continuous: “I am writing, you are writing, he is writing, we are writing, you are writing, they are writing.” In real life you are probably never going to say any of these things, so why waste time learning them. Learn only what you need right now for your life, interests and occupation, (maybe “I’m writing to him right now” will be useful), the rest you will be able to learn easily when your ball of string is much bigger.

Watch low-budget television

This approach means that you focus on what you already know, practicing, repeating and perfecting what you know, instead of constantly trying to learn something that you don’t know and may never need. If you are living in an area where people around don’t speak English, you will have to try and artificially create the environment where the “ball of string” approach will work. I would recommend watching television soap operas—not big-budget shows. The lower the budget, the more tv-shows depend on actors talking a lot in normal dialogue and common language. You don’t even have to understand the show, just begin to understand the words and phrases that are being used most often to add to your ball of string.

What a teacher is teaching isn't necessarily what a student is learning

Even if you are taking a course to learn English, you can use this “ball of string” approach. I have often told teachers of English that what they are teaching is not necessarily what students are learning. Imagine a teacher is giving a lesson on verb tenses and asks each student in turn to repeat the different tenses. He might say “okay, good,” and “now your turn,” “very good” and “now you.” The teacher might think he is teaching the verb tenses but what the attentive, ball-of-string student will learn is “okay, good,” “now your turn,” very good” and “now you.”

Monday 12 March 2018

The Truth about English Verb Tenses: There Is Only One!

Tense versus aspect

Some languages do not have verb tenses.  The English language has only one tense:  the simple past tense, also known as the preterite tense, which signals that an action was completed at a specific time in the past.  ESL teachers, like me once upon a time, confuse students by saying that English verb tenses refer to the past, the present or the future, but they don't really.  Once you start teaching verbs in detail you realize that we use modal auxiliaries like "will" and "going to" to refer to the future.  What we traditionally call "the present tense" refers to the present, past and future, as in the examples "I live in Canada" or "The population of Sao Paulo is 10 million."  The more difficult and significant distinction among English verbs are aspects like habitual (I study), continuous (I am studying), perfect (I have studied) and perfect continuous (I have been studying), which usually get taught as being different tenses.

Twelve tenses or four aspects?

The truth is that when I was teaching issues like verb tense I, like everyone else, always instructed my students that there were twelve different “tenses” in English.  In hindsight I recognize that by identifying the various forms of verb as referring to the past, the present or the future, I was mislabelling what the various forms indicated and necessarily misleading and confusing my students.  The crucial concept is not “tense” but “aspect” and most grammar books destined to instruct students learning English don’t even mention the concept of “aspect.”

Tenses do not correspond to the time frames which give them their names

Describing verbs as being “past,” present” or “future” is (with the exception of the past) meaningless and misleading.  The fact that English verbs can be “simple” (or habitual/repeated), “continuous” (or progressive, the French “imperfect” is sensible), “perfect” and “perfect continuous” is much more significant and meaningful.  Teaching “aspect” is a much more promising approach for getting the variations across to students than the self contradictory tradition of referring to every form of the verb as a “tense.”  The only way to prove my point is to consider each of the so-called “verb tenses.” 

Grammar and usage:  no point in one without the other

One caveat:  when teaching it was my ambition to teach grammar and usage together.  In other words, if I found myself teaching a sentence that was grammatically correct but I could never imagine anyone ever saying it in a meaningful context I would take a step back and reconsider what I was teaching.


Present tense.  “He eats spaghetti.”  Not very meaningful.  In context: “He loves spaghetti.  He eats spaghetti every chance he gets.”  We call it the “present tense” but obviously it refers to the past and the future.  The one time period “eats” does not refer to is the present.  The aspect can be described as habitual, repeated, factual or stative.

Present continuous

Present continuous.  “He is eating spaghetti.”  No obvious meaningful context.  Maybe Mom calls home to the nanny to ask what little Johnny is having for lunch.  “Is eating” does refer to the present, but it also refers to the past and the future.  In fact, in the real world we most typically use the “present continuous” to indicate the future:  “I’m seeing the doctor tomorrow.” The important issue is it’s aspect:  it signals something continuing or in progress.   The concept that students will eventually have to grasp is the difference between a “repeated” or “habitual” action and a “continuous” action.  It is difficult to come up with an absolute, teachable distinction between these aspects, but the most obvious distinction is that a continuous action can be interrupted.  (Think about it.  We all think we know the difference between a liquid and a solid but physicists have yet to come up with an absolute distinction.  Exactly at what point is a solid ice cube considered liquid water?  Same problem with continuous versus repeated.)

Present Perfect

Present perfect.  “He has eaten spaghetti.”  Can you imagine yourself saying this in the real world?  Here you would really have to stretch your imagination to come up with a meaningful context.  How about:  “He has eaten the spaghetti, but there is some lasagna left.”  This “verb tense” drives Francophones crazy because there is no equivalent tense in French, but the structure (verb “to have” + past participle) is exactly the same as the simple past in French—but it’s not the simple past in English. Again, we call it the “present perfect” but it refers to an action that has taken place in the past.  The concept that needs to be gotten across to students is the answer to "what does 'perfect' mean?"  The perfect aspect implies a time frame within which the action happens (not the action itself) that is “perfect” or “complete” or like a circle or at least has a beginning point and an end point.  The implied time frame extends from some time in the past to the moment of speaking, and the action occurs at some unspecified time within that  “perfect,”  completed time frame. 
I have presented the following scenario to try to get across the meaning of the “present perfect”:  John wants to ask Mary out, but she wants to politely, indirectly decline.  John asks “Would you like to see Star Wars with me tonight?”  Should Mary say: a) “I saw it.”  or b) “I’ve seen it.”? Native speakers will recognize “b” (the present perfect) as the correct answer but will likely be at a loss to explain that the present perfect is used to signal an action in the past (Mary’s seeing the movie) which touches the present (Mary’s declining John’s invitation).  Adverb phrases like “so far,” “already,” and “up until now” are the strongest signals that the present perfect is required.

Present perfect continuous

Present perfect continuous.  “He has been eating spaghetti.”  In this case the context is easy to imagine:  something you would say because Johnny has spaghetti sauce all over his face.  Take note that the action of this supposed “present” tense is in the past. In terms of aspect it’s “perfect” because the implied period of time extends to the present, but it’s continuous because some consequence (sauce on face) of the past action has spilled over and is continuing into the present.

Past tense

Past tense.  “He ate spaghetti.” This is a verb tense.  The one tense in English that it makes sense to describe as a tense.  The action takes place at a specific time in the past or it was repeated in the past.  It’s past tense because  the action takes  place in the past.  The past tense uses all four aspects:  simple, continuous, perfect and perfect continuous.

Past continuous

Past continuous.  “He was eating spaghetti.” The important distinction to be learned is between the simple past aspect and the continuous aspect—exactly the same concept necessary to grasp the difference between the simple present and the present continuous; i.e., the continuous can be interrupted.

Past perfect

Past perfect.  “He had eaten spaghetti.” This usage seems a bit off.  When might you say this?  More likely, the context would demand “some spaghetti” or “the spaghetti” as in “His sister was angry because he had eaten the spaghetti” or “He got sick after he had eaten some spaghetti.”   The context needs to make the “spaghetti” more specific in order for the action of eating it to have been completed in a past time frame. The action took place in the past, but the important distinction is the implied, “perfect,” “completed” time frame within which the action took place.

Past perfect continuous

Past perfect continuous.  “He had been eating spaghetti.”  Here an imagined context jumps out at you.  It’s “perfect” (in the sense of completed, defined,  limited, or full-circle) because the action happened within an implied (or expressed) time frame, but “continuous” because some consequence passed or spilled over the implied limit—“ . . . and had noodles on his shirt” or “ garlic on his breath” or “he had to stop when someone knocked on the door.”


Future.  “He will eat spaghetti.”  Unless prefaced by something Biblical like “God said . . . ,” I find it hard to imagine how this might be a statement about the future.  In general, I don’t see this as being a tense.  “Will” + the root infinitive seems more like all the other modals—“can,” “should,” “may,” “must,” “might,” “would”—than a verb tense.   Our sample only makes sense to me as a conditional sentence:  “If there is nothing else available, he will eat spaghetti.” Anglophones typically express the future by using the expression “going to.”

Future continuous

Future continuous:  “He will be eating spaghetti.”  Same argument as above—not a verb tense.  Still seems a modal to me.  Again, the important distinction is aspect:  continuous versus habitual.

Future perfect

Future perfect:  “He will have eaten spaghetti.”  Ditto the argument.  This is a modal verb + the perfect aspect, not a verb tense. 

Future perfect continuous

Future perfect continuous:  “He will have been eating.” Ditto previous claims about “will” as a modal and aspect.

What Does Article Five of the North Atlantic Treaty Actually Say?

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