… well, actually, I don’t. I call myself a linguistics major. But I’m a linguistics major who attempted to double-major in literature until I realize that it would mean taking four lit classes in a single semester during my senior year, at which point I said, “I’d like sleep and sanity, please and thank you,” and minored in rhetoric instead. But I still consider myself an English major. I write like one, as anyone who’s seen my Academic Writing will attest. I text in fully punctuated, grammatically correct sentences. I giggle at terrible grammar jokes. I dither about whether to footnote/endnote inside or outside the punctuation at the end of my sentences. I believe firmly in the importance of the Oxford Comma (an opinion upon which I think Hitler and JFK would, for the sake of their dignity, agree).
And for as long as I can remember, I’ve been The Girl Who Corrects Everyone’s Grammar. I’ve been doing it for so long that I can’t actually think of any specific instances in which I’ve corrected people, though I’m sure my friends and family will be happy to provide them once this is posted. I tell my friends it’s part of my charm, and they agree – whereupon they cheerfully and deliberately bombard me with misuses of there/their/they’re, it’s/its, and your/you’re. Or they refer to things as “addicting” in order to make me twitch.* But I digress.
Living in a non-English speaking country does things to your English. When addressing nonnative speakers, you slow down, over-enunciate, and simplify. First to go, of course, are the complex rhetorical structures you’ve spent your academic life perfecting. You condense your modal verbs, abandon all words longer than three syllables, discard objects and articles with wild abandon. You affix tag questions to your queries, having realized once the phrase is halfway uttered that your listener won’t catch the upward inflection that marks it as a question.** You try to keep your speech as unmangled as possible, for the sake of your higher-level learners, but sometimes the oversimplification in the name of understanding is often necessary.
And then, somehow, it starts leaking into your everyday English. Latinate words elude you, and you find yourself Googling the finer points of grammar as complex constructions grow unfamiliar. And then one day, the dam gives way altogether, and you answer a request to turn up the stove with a beauty like, “That’s the most hotter it gets.”***
I suppose it was inevitable, then, that I might find my more advanced students asking me to correct their grammar more often.
I should note, I suppose, that most of my classes are not grammatically-focused. I figure that if these students want lessons on exactly how to structure their sentences, they can get it from Mongolian teachers who will actually be able to explain them in ways the students will understand – with my limited Mongolian, I can do this only for the students with the most advanced English. Instead, my focus is typically on getting them to speak. I try to make them use their English aloud, in contexts outside of the grammatical exercises that many seem to think are the only ways in which they can practice and learn.
Especially with my elementary-level learners, my desire to observe the niceties of grammar has long since been superseded by the desire for meaningful communication. I’ve seen a lot of students who spend most of their time in silence, too terrified of making a mistake to open their mouths, and that kind of environment is the last thing I want to foster. If my students want to talk, I tend to let them. Obviously, in the classes in which I actually teach grammar, I’m picky about whatever structure we’ve been focusing on that day. But if they don’t obstruct my understanding, I tend to let a lot of errors go.
I used Ryan Woodward’s Thought of You in my high school speaking class last month. This beautiful short film made the rounds on Facebook when it first came out on Vimeo a few years ago, but I’m embedding it here anyway. You don’t need to watch it to understand my point, but you should anyway, because it’s just that gorgeous.
After we had watched, I asked my students to tell me about the video. They hit the basics pretty quickly: It’s a love story. There is a man and a woman. They are dancing. They are drawings. The man leaves and the woman cries. Without any prompting from me, they also identified crucial shift at the video’s climax: the woman is white at the beginning and black at the end; the man is the opposite. “Why do you think that is?” I asked them, and the room fell silent, as it does almost every time I ask them, “why?”
And then I heard the voice of the smallest girl, the one who never speaks up unless I specifically call on her and false starts three or four times whenever she tries to answer the question.
“Maybe… she is at beginning not love him, and he is love her. Next, she is fell, and he is not love her.”
It took her a long time to stumble to stumble through this grammatical nightmare of an utterance, but I was impressed with her nonetheless. Grammatically correct or not, the meaning was clear, and she had done an excellent job of explaining her interpretation within the narrow confines of her limited vocabulary.
Moreover, it was a tricky question to start with. The Mongolian education system, from what I’ve seen, puts a great deal of emphasis on listening to the teacher talk, and little to none on critical thinking. Even fairly high-level students, when asked a why question as simple as, “Why do you like basketball?” will often answer with a shrug of the shoulders or, “It’s interesting,” if they answer at all. Literary interpretation is not on the menu in their own tongue, much less a second language. So I certainly wasn’t about to interrupt my student in the midst of her answer, no matter how far it wandered from the tradition constraints of grammar. That she felt compelled to offer an interpretation was victory enough.
Obviously, this is a complicated topic that I’ve only touched upon, and that I’d like to address at length another time and with appropriate references to SLA theory. But at the moment, I’d like to hear from the other TEFL-ers among my readers. To what extent do you focus on grammar in your lessons? When do you start to switch your focus from “get them to talk” to “mold their English into something that adheres to standard grammatical rules”? And just how do you get those terrified beginners to talk?
* No, that’s not hyperbole. I really do twitch. And while addicting is a word, it’s not an adjective. Addictive, people. So much more elegant, in addition to being the right part of speech.
** And because it’s the structure most likely to be recognized as a question by speakers of a language that uses sentence-final question particles.
*** Uttered by a friend who shall here remain unnamed. He’s only been here a few months longer than I, so I’m sure it won’t be long before I start to unleash my own grammatical monstrosities. My house grows glassier by the day.