L2 Grammar and the Brain

November 2020

We explore how the brain weaves its understanding of L2 grammar into a cohesive tapestry. We look into which aspects of the brain come into play when learning and deploying grammar. Best of all, we have many practical tips for teaching and learning grammar in another language! (And yes, we couldn’t resist including copious amounts of weaving-related jokes and images.)

cover photo by Nowaja from Pixabay. Other photos from Unsplash & Gratisography

Watch before you read...

Steven Pinker gives us a fascinating lecture on language and the brain. While this lecture is not about grammar, our issue topic this month, the Chomskyan Pinker is makes it impossible for him not to touch on grammar throughout. It is a long lecture, but one every language teacher should listen to.

Curtis Kelly introduces the issue topic by pondering our love-hate relationship with it. Then, Stephen M. Ryan starts the Think Tank off by defining grammar as part of predictive processing, the mind-opening theme of last month’s issue. Award-winning textbook developer, Michael Rost, tells us what he learned about teaching grammar from Rod Ellis, back when Mike was his editor. Mike also gives us some practical ideas for teaching grammar, with more coming in the next two articles: Carl Eldridge explains how students can get a better grasp of grammar through visualization, and Rachel Paling encourages us to replace our usual teaching practices with a richer, more brain-friendly, coaching approach. Finally, Robert Taferner takes us deep into grammar acquisition by contemplating how he came to understand it through Processability Theory, a theory that proposes grammar is acquired in stages.

In the PLUS section, David Stepanczuk tells us how the Perpetual Anxiety Cycle caused by Emergency Remote Teaching almost got him, but rumors of a foreigner running around Osaka with a Fuji camera suggests that he is still with us.

Our Thoughts on Grammar

Grammar: The Conundrum We Love and Hate Curtis Kelly

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.

Think Tank Articles

Grammar as a Predictive Tool: Chains that Make Communication Possible Stephen M. Ryan

Grammar. Not really something to gladden the heart of any language teacher or student. Subject of some of my worst Friday-afternoon lessons ever. Deceptively simple in its details. Maddeningly frustrating in its application. Mind-numbingly dull to explain. What has it ever done for us, anyway, apart from giving us a way to discriminate, on tests, between students who are strong analytical thinkers and those who don’t quite “get it?” Well, quite a lot it turns out, including a way to stop our brains from overheating and the species-defining gift that is communication itself.

Back in the Dark Ages, almost before we realized that languages could be taught communicatively, a favourite simile for grammar was Chain and Choice. I have struggled to find anyone trained as a teacher after the mid-80s who even remembers the name, but now Chain and Choice is back, back with a new name and far wider implications, as part of the radical theory of cognitive processing known as Predictive Processing.

Did you Notice…? The Role of Noticing in the Development of Grammar Michael Rost

There is one main principle that governs language growth. It regulates the development of “external language” as a shared social system as well as the development of “internal language” that the individual uses as a means of thought and available output for communication. The principle is so fundamental—like the Law of Gravity—that we seldom notice it. This is the principle of contrast: “A new form emerges in a linguistic system only if it provides a significant contrast with a form that’s already in the system.[1]

I first learned of this principle from Eve Clark, way back when I was at the University of Michigan, in a course I took on child language development. The principle of contrast applies to all language systems—phonological, lexical, syntactic, pragmatic—but it is especially interesting in the acquisition of grammar.

Understanding English Grammar Through Visual and Experiential Models Carl Eldridge

What if we taught grammar based on the principles of the physical world from which it originates? What if we put aside the traditional approach of teaching form, explaining meaning, and having students commit this information to memory? What if we went back to physical principles, and metaphors based on them, that can be experienced and understood by all learners?

I can’t help wondering if the traditional approach to grammar teaching, based on form, usage, and memorization is actually helpful in terms of what is happening in the heads of expert speakers when they communicate.

How Can We Make Grammar Brain Friendly? Rachel Paling

One of our major endeavors in regard to grammar is to help our learners understand it as quickly as possible, and we can only do that when we change the way we deliver it, creating a more relaxed, curiosity arousing, association provoking, interactive process. In other words, we should strive to make talking about grammar enjoyable for both the educator and learner.

The advances made over the last 30 years in neuroscience and our fundamental comprehension of how the brain functions, learns, and reacts can now assist the way that grammar is delivered, creating the necessary bridge from theory to the practical application of neuroscientific principles, transforming traditional grammar instruction through what could be called brain-friendly coaching conversations. This involves not only applying principles from neuroscience, but also changing our delivery style through the use of professional coaching skills.

The Grammar Story: Investigating the Staged Acquisition of L2 Grammar Through Processability Theory Robert H. Taferner

When you read an engaging story, it grabs hold of you and transforms your reality. In that transformation, a teachable moment arises that helps us puzzle through to our next stage of awareness. The story of how I came to understand grammar acquisition by second language (L2) learners is such a journey.

Acquiring an L2 is not an easy feat. Even with a relentless pursuit of the clear expression of our thoughts in another language, grammar mistakes and errors are our constant companions. A grammar mistake refers to missteps or other forms of omissions that someone makes due to a lack of attention. On the other hand, a grammar error shows that the learner requires further instruction to understand and utilize the item correctly. In the classroom, it is common practice for teachers to correct both mistakes and errors as a default reaction to a perceived learning need. However, the efficacy of correcting learners’ errors continues to be a subject of an ongoing debate, with some participants suggesting that errors should not be corrected.

Think Tank Plus

How PAC Almost Got Me David Stepanczuk

I’ve heard a lot of talk about Zoom fatigue. What has not been much talked about is computer fatigue. This includes eye strain and other physical and mental issues. It seems like a symptom of a greater issue: the perpetual anxiety cycle. I want to show you how I dueled with PAC.

Personally, this angst-fueled fatigue-fueled angst came as a nasty surprise with the advent of Emergency Remote Teaching (ERT). Since getting my first Mac in the 90s and joining the local Mac Users Group, I have come to treat my computer as an all-in-one tool. Many computer owners do not go much beyond emails, Facebook, and YouTube. At the other end of the spectrum are people like me, power users. We do everything with our machines. So then, why is it, I thought, that five weeks into ERT, when my teaching work is done, that I exit my private study like a patron fleeing a night club fire?

Call for Contributions: Ideas & Articles Think Tank Staff

Become a Think Tank star! Here are some of the future issue topics we are thinking about. Would you, or anyone you know, like to write about any of these? Or is there another topic you’d like to recommend? Do you have any suggestions for lead-in, or just plain interesting, videos? How about writing a book review? Or sending us a story about your experiences? Contact us.

English Grammar Fails Your Students Might Like to Know About

(but not for children)

MBE Logo

The MindBrained Think Tanks+

is produced by the Japan Association for Language Teaching (JALT) Mind, Brain, and Education Special Interest Group (BRAIN SIG). Kyoto, Japan. (ISSN 2434-1002)

Editorial Staff

Stephen M. Ryan                Julia Daley                   Marc Helgesen

        Curtis H. Kelly                 Skye Playsted              Heather McCulloch



Get issues delivered to your inbox at the start of each month!


Stop receiving issues in your inbox.

Reader's Survey

Take a short survey to help us learn more about our readers!