Why Grammar-based Instruction is Bunk

In recent years, grammar mavens and traditional language educators have been up in arms against a perceived attack on “the righteous study of grammar”. Their basic contention is (as recently stated on a a pro-grammar blog), “Anything students need to know has to be taught, not caught.” These defensive claims always perplex me considering that nearly all language classes (whether at high schools, universities or private language schools) still spend the vast majority of class hours teaching and testing grammar rules. If anything, we have been too accepting of grammar-based instruction, and need to do a better job of showing people the truth (hence the creation of this site.)

I believe that grammar based language instruction underpins why so many people hate language learning, and fail to reach fluency despite years of concerted effort.

But I can hear the language “prescriptionists” yelling:

“If people don’t study grammar, how then will they ever learn to speak and write properly!?”

I have a one word answer for them, and I will say it in the Spelling Bee style they tend to love:

“Input. I-N-P-U-T. Input.”

So why is natural input the key to languages and not explicit study of grammar? Again, the answer is strikingly simple:

“Language ability cannot be taught; it can only be learned.”

Most schools, educators, and parents have come to believe that they have to “teach” children both native and foreign languages. This reveals a basic misconception about language, which has been thoroughly debunked by researchers far smarter than I, including Steven Pinker of Harvard, and Stephen Krashen of the University of Southern California. In a nutshell, their research shows that human language is an innate physical skill akin to walking. You were not “taught” how to walk; you figured it out through trial and error. Your ability to speak your native language is the same. Native English speakers learn to string sentences together through listening input (which starts in the womb by the way!), not because parents or teachers taught them about “subjects” and “predicates”, the meaning of Latin or Greek word roots, or English case inflections.

Ok, I hear the grammar mavens shouting again:

“So if the grammar-based approach to language learning is so ineffective, why has it survived so long?”

There are many reason for this, including ignorance, arrogance, and tendency to stick to tradition. But perhaps the biggest reason is good old fashioned greed. There is a lot of money to be made selling books, training teachers, running conferences, preparing students for tests, and selling cram school tuitions. (You’ll notice that many of the pro-grammar blogs make affiliate income through links to grammar books, test prep courses, etc.)

Oh, now I hear language teachers shouting (a group of which I am a member):

“Then what are we to teach our students?”

The main tasks of an effective language teacher include:

  1. Getting students fired up about the language.
  2. Providing a cultural context for the language.
  3. Giving suggestions for high quality input resources that fits your student’s interests, ability level and professional or academic needs.
  4. Learning your student’s native language (this shows that you are interested in their culture and that it is indeed possible to learn a foreign language well using this approach.
  5. Limited explanations about grammar and vocabulary

“Wait a second, grammar explanations!? You hypocrite!”

I include #5 not because it will help students learn the language, but because:

  • Most students (and employers!) demand it
  • Some people find it interesting (and interest trumps all)
  • Many students (especially in East Asia) must pass grammar-based university entrance examinations. Even though it’s an unjust war, you still need to prepare them for battle.

 

  • Michael

    John Fotheringham writes:

    “Language ability cannot be taught. It can only be learned. Most schools, educators, and parents have come to believe that they have to ‘teach’ children both native and foreign languages. This reveals a basic misconception about language, which has been thoroughly debunked by researchers far smarter than I, including Steven Pinker of Harvard, and Stephen Krashen of University of Southern California. In a nutshell, their research shows that human language is an innate physical skill akin to walking. You were not ‘taught’ how to walk; you figured it out through trial and error. Your ability to speak your native language is the same.”

    I disagree with those allegations. Are you saying that teaching languages is unnecessary and teachers of languages are not needed? Your comparison of learning a foreign language to learning to walk is wrong, because learning a language is a mental process of developing language skills (not a physical process), and learning to walk is a physical process that involves developing a physical ability. I can draw a really valid comparison in this regard. Can you safely drive a vehicle on the road without knowing theoretical traffic rules? Will you learn traffic rules while driving on the road? So you must know theoretical traffic rules before practical driving on the road. Grammar rules can be compared to traffic rules; grammar rules have a similar role for learning and using a foreign language successfully and correctly to reduce mistakes and misunderstanding. Without adequate knowledge of traffic rules a driver can easily cause an accident or can endanger traffic safety. Fortunately grammatical mistakes don’t have such potential serious consequences as traffic violations do.

    • http://l2mastery.com John Fotheringham

      I have spent half my career as a language teacher, teacher trainer, and corporate trainer, and have a great respect for the profession. Teachers can indeed serve a very important role. But the keyword here is “can”. The sad truth is that, despite the best of intentions, most teachers spend most classroom time on fundamentally ineffective methods. As I’ve said many times, languages cannot be taught, only acquired. The teacher’s role then is to provide meaningful, interesting input for students and creating an environment in which they feel comfortable using the language.

      Languages are obviously controlled in the brain, but it happens at a near sub-conscious level, just like walking. I, too, often use driving as analogy (but in a different way). Just like walking, the physical ability to drive a car smoothly comes from lots of practice driving, not conscious knowledge of the rules of the road. The latter is obviously important, but one could know every word of the rulebook and not be able to drive worth a damn. The same is true for knowledge of grammar. As I saw in Japan, many Japanese native speakers (including English teachers) had memorized massive amounts of knowledge about English grammar, but were not able to apply it in speaking. This is the difference between declarative and procedural memory (you are promoting the former, while the latter is what really matters when it comes to acquiring a foreign language.)