Fitting Grammar into the Language Learning Experience Grant Goodall UCSD The basic problem • Given meaningful exposure to language, learners’ implicit grammar will develop. • Should we as teachers intervene? Should we do more than just provide meaningful input and interaction? • If so, what should we do? You might think answer is clearly “yes” • After one year of study, most students’ abilities are still poor. • Would they be able to survive in the target culture? • What kind of job could they have? • Would anyone want to be their friend? • Don’t they need all the help they can get? But let’s keep things in perspective • 1 year = 30 weeks @ 5 hours/week • 150 hours • For a young child (the “best” 2nd-language learner), 150 hours = 50 days. (Assume 3 hours of contact per day.) • A young child will learn a lot in 50 days, but s/he will still have a long ways to go. Is it reasonable to expect more of an 18-year-old? • We know their language learning abilities are significantly diminished compared to a young child’s. • This does not mean that we should just sit back and do nothing. • This does mean that we should be cautious in assuming intervention is needed. What does the research say? • Does intervention have an effect? • That is, does grammar-focused instruction affect students’ learning of language? • Let’s divide this into explicit learning and implicit learning. Does grammar instruction affect explicit learning? • Yes. • It would be very surprising (and discouraging!) if the answer were “no”. Does grammar instruction affect implicit learning? • Yes and no. • Two complications: -How do you measure implicit learning? -What exactly do you mean by “grammar instruction”? How do you measure implicit learning? • Usual technique: learners produce spontaneous speech. • This makes it hard to test beginners, whose ability to produce spontaneous speech is very limited. • So most studies deal with “intermediate” learners. What exactly do you mean by “grammar instruction”? • This is crucial. • Research suggests that some types of grammar instruction have an effect on implicit learning and others don’t. Grammar instruction that may have an effect on implicit learning • Look for activities that encourage/force students to pay attention to: (1) The grammatical form AND (2) The meaning Example #1: Text enhancement The mouse ran down the hall and jumped onto Tom’s bed. Tom felt something fuzzy near his ear but thought it was the corner of his pillow. He reached up to touch it, but by then the mouse was already in his hair. The mouse made a nice little nest in Tom’s hair, and neither Tom nor the mouse woke up until morning. Example #2: Structured input Which of the following are true? a) Sandwiches are usually eaten by people. b) The computer was invented by George Washington. c) French is spoken in Indonesia. d) The blouse was removed by Justin Timberlake. e) People are often ridden by horses. f) Horses are often ridden by people. Example #3: Information gap • Student A: The cow was ridden by the __?__ . • Student B: The bear rode the cow. All of these examples encourage students to pay attention to: (1) The grammatical form AND (2) The meaning Grammar instruction that seems not to have an effect on implicit learning • Activities that involve: Sentence manipulation or creation where students do not need to pay attention to meaning. Examples • Add yesterday to each sentence and make any necessary changes to the verb. Paul eats dinner at 7:30. Mary runs to catch the bus. Alice breaks the record. Examples Create a proper sentence using the following elements: the/book/write/famous/author Examples Choose the correct form: The car was (sell) for $1700. All of these examples • Require students to manipulate or create sentences. • Do not require students to pay attention to meaning. Summary so far • Some grammar-focused activities seem to help implicit learning, others don’t. • The crucial distinction: Those that help all encourage attention to grammatical form AND meaning. Should you do sentence manipulation/creation activities at all? • No effect on implicit learning, but presumably do have effect on explicit learning. • Readily available. Most textbooks have lots. But keep in mind… First, do no harm. • Sentence manipulation activities do not help students’ implicit learning, • But could they actually do harm? • I will suggest that some of them probably do. How could a grammatical activity do harm?!? • Imagine an activity that encourages students to focus on a misleading generalization. • Such an activity could encourage the students’ implicit learning to go down the wrong path. • Unfortunately, there are many such examples. An example • Many textbook exercises focus on areas where the target language makes a distinction that the native language does not. • For instance, many Romance languages have two past tenses (with slightly different meanings), while English has only one. Spanish preterite vs. imperfect • Two ways to say “Juan went to Barcelona” • Preterite: Juan fue a Barcelona. Action completed. • Imperfect: Juan iba a Barcelona. Action not (yet) completed, or action done repeatedly. Why this is hard • You must choose. There is no “neutral” past tense form. • English doesn’t make this same distinction. The classic exercise • Anoche yo _____ (ir) a un concierto. ‘Last night I went to a concert.’ • Possible answers: (a) Anoche yo fui a un concierto. (b) Anoche yo iba a un concierto. • The classic right answer: (a) What could possibly be wrong with this? • Students need to learn to make the preterite/imperfect distinction, and this exercise addresses exactly that. • All languages make difficult distinctions of one sort or another, so this type of exercise would seem to be needed in all of them. But notice… Problem #1: The subject pronoun • Spanish verbs agree with the subject: fui I went fue he/she went etc. • Subject must be included, so that student knows how to conjugate verb: Anoche yo _____ (ir) a un concierto. The result? • Almost every sentence in this exercise has a subject pronoun. • In real life, Spanish uses overt subject pronouns only in specific discourse conditions (emphasis, contrast, etc.). • This exercise desensitizes learners to the presence of a subject pronoun, encouraging them to think of this as the default. Possible long-term damage to their implicit grammar. Problem #2: How students approach this exercise • Students are taught (or quickly figure out) to look for: Specific point in past → preterite Time frame in past → imperfect • In our example: Anoche yo _____ (ir) a un concierto. Anoche ‘last night’ is specific point in past, so use preterite. What would a real speaker do? • When uttering a sentence, real speakers surely don’t look for a time expression in the sentence to decide between preterite and imperfect. • Instead, they know what each tense means, and they choose the one that best expresses their idea. By training our students to look for a time expression: • We are training them to use exactly the wrong strategy to choose between the predicate and imperfect. • Again, possible long-term damage to their developing implicit grammar. Problem #3: The “right” answer • Students understandably get the idea that there is a single right answer. • But this is often not true. In our example: Preterite: (a) Anoche yo fui a un concierto. Imperfect: (b) Anoche yo iba a un concierto. (a) is likely, (b) requires more imagination, but both are clearly possible. It just depends what you are trying to say. Summary: why this exercise could harm students 1. It desensitizes them to the use of subject pronouns. 2. It trains them to use exactly the wrong strategy in choosing between the two forms. 3. It encourages them to think there is only one right answer, when this is not true. Summary: Will this exercise help with: • Input? No • Implicit learning? No • Explicit learning? Yes, but not very well. Why do we do exercises like this? • They are easy to create or find in books. • Students feel that they are mastering something. • Teachers feel that they are teaching something. • Everybody is happy. • But it’s a fool’s paradise. How do we help students’ implicit learning of these distinctions? • Any activity that requires them to attend to both the form and the meaning For example… Some sample activities • Matching sentences to pictures, video clips - E.g. “The airplane landed” • Acting out sentences - E.g. “John fell” • Drawing pictures - E.g. “Mary was sad because John went to Barcelona” • Text enhancement - • E.g. Highlighted imperfect forms in story. Structured input - E.g. T/F questions that crucially depend on distinction. Conclusion • Can grammar-focused activities help learners’ implicit grammatical development? Yes. • Do all such activities help? No. In fact, some may cause harm. • How do I know which activities will help? Choose those which require attending to both form and meaning.