Grammar: The Conundrum We Love and Hate

Grammar: The Conundrum We Love and Hate

By: Curtis Kelly

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As many of our contributors point out, they have had a difficult relationship with English grammar. Don’t we all? Grammar is mysterious.[1] It has a simple definition: “the set of rules governing the composition of clauses, phrases, and words in a natural language” [source]. And yet, for most of us, especially native speakers, it is the dark matter of the English teaching universe. It is hard to understand, hard to teach, and impossible to teach with certainty. We have all had that moment when, just after you smugly explain one of the few rules you have confidence in, a student says something that shakes your Jenga tower. “So, you see, Rafael, when you say you are going to a place, you have to put to and an article between the to go verb and the place, as in I’m going to a concert.” Rafael: “Then why do you say going to school?” Down the blocks fall.

[1] I confess, we are committing a sin: We are not distinguishing between the terms “grammar” and “syntax,” though a difference has been noted. In fact, most of this issue is really about “syntax,” a subset of grammar, but we have decided to call it “grammar” the way language teachers do.

Then, too, quite a few of the native speakers teaching English, including myself, were not officially trained in TESL. My degree is in Education. While I have attended somewhere around a hundred language conferences, and eventually did take some TESL courses—including one on transformational generative grammar—I never really learned how to teach grammar. The instructors seemed to skip over that topic, or maybe I was the one who skipped. Even in the transformational generative grammar course, we got a couple simple sentences to tree diagram, but then the teacher said, “Well that is what TG is, but it’s really hard to do long sentences” and that was it. Hmmm…hard for him I think.

So, the lack of answers to the mystery of grammar is what leads to the hate. I suspect that is why Krashen’s Input Hypothesis was such a hit in its day. He told us we don’t have to teach grammar; it will come naturally from input. And yet, some native speaker teachers of English, and virtually all non-native speaker teachers, spend years trying to crack that nut and free themselves from the usual cop out: “It sounds okay to me.” But learning grammar is tough. It has its own language: dependency vs. constituency, phrase structure rules, subjunctive mood. But when these disciples get to the point where they (think) they know all the rules, a kind of love develops, a pride, a battle ribbon that shows others that they have survived combat. When I send a student asking about that and which to my Japanese colleague, he waxes lyrical on clause restrictiveness, a topic area just beyond my pay grade.

So, for me, weaving together this issue has been a pleasure. I enjoyed reading about the journeys our contributors took, the discoveries they made, and most of all, that I could convince Stephen M. Ryan to write about grammar as the brain’s master stroke of predictive processing[2] I think you will enjoy their stories, too.

In putting this issue together, the hard part was choosing the introductory videos. I must have watched twenty, and you should thank me for the patience: Grammar is mysterious, but, unlike other mysteries, it does not excite. Sitting through these videos was tedious. This Lite video is not bad, showing us how grammar thinking evolved. However, the one I hope you will watch is Pinker’s delightful lecture on what language teaches us about the brain. It is not really about grammar, but he refers to grammar and syntax throughout. You’ll also learn why “language” does not include writing, why we do not really think in words, and why we evolved to be susceptible to choking. He talks about some aspects of grammar I do not agree with, such as Chomsky’s Universal Grammar, but I must admit, he made me realize that Chomsky changed everything for us, something which (that?) made me forever grateful.

[2] To tell the truth, I could not hold him back.

Curtis Kelly (E.D.D.), the first coordinator of the JALT Mind, Brain, and Education SIG, is a Professor of English at Kansai University in Japan. He is the producer of the Think Tanks, has written over 30 books and 100 articles, and given over 400 presentations. His life mission, and what drew him to brain studies, is “to relieve the suffering of the classroom.”

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