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When and How to Teach Grammar: II – Reflections on studying a foreign language

For two thousand years, no one in the western tradition challenged the notion that education should be based on the liberal arts, starting with grammar… It was not until the beginning of the twentieth century in America that a full-fledged revolt against the liberal arts occurred.

David Mulroy
The War Against Grammar

The goal in teaching grammar is to attain “second nature” competence. For some reason, in modern teaching theories this second nature element of language seems to go largely unrecognized (in the classical tradition it was a big deal. Aristotle used and, I think, coined the term), at least when it comes to language study.

For example, virtually every foreign language program these days markets itself as informal and immediately useful. They boast about the speed with which the student will be able to speak and even think in the foreign language.

Of course, what they mean is that the student will be able to ask for food or a cigarette as soon as they disembark.

The assumption seems to be that if you learn a language conversationally then you can say you know that language. So they talk about how you will learn a second language the same way you learned your own language and they think that is a virtue.

But have you ever stopped to think how hard you had to work to learn your own language? I have five children and I watched them do it. It took years, with an astounding number of models and corrections and suggestions and experiments.

The way you learn your first language is a great way to learn your first language, since it is the only way you can learn a first language and since the human mind is created to excel at that sort of learning between about 15 months and about five years.

But its a horrible way to have to learn a foreign language, especially if the speaker of the foreign language isn’t utterly fluent in that language.

But we seem to have an oven-burner aversion to formal instruction. It may be nothing more than intellectual laziness, but only an individual can look at himself to know that.

What I mean is that, formal instruction rests on the assertion of the will.

When you are learning “naturally,” as they sometimes call it, you don’t really have to assert your will. You pay attention and let the lesson carry you, like a TV show would, but you don’t have to demand much of yourself.

I will only note here, without indulging the temptation to fall down a rabbit hole, that the training of the will stands outside the consideration of most modern pedagogy for the simple reason that much post-Darwinian thought does not believe in a will the way the classical and Christian thinkers did.

What I’m saying about the point at hand is that contemporary educators and text book developers tend to avoid formal instruction, and this is certainly true of foreign language instruction, because of an aversion to formality. They think you can learn grammar and a foreign language on the fly.

And there’s an element of truth to what they do that would be neglected to our loss. Anytime you learn any skill, you need the informal element. Like anything, you can see this best in the physical realm. If you want to learn how to play basketball, you’ll want to play a lot of pick up ball. If you want to learn how to skate, you’ll want to tie those skates on and head to the park.

But in neither case can you attain mastery without formal instruction. I am proof of that with baseball, basketball, soccer, and football. I played all four of those games constantly as a boy. My best game was baseball, which I tried to play 24/7/365. But I was never systematically coached at it because every summer I went to camp for a week or two and it never entered my mind that I’d be allowed to miss that time.

So I became a decent baseball player who could field a ground ball off the gravel, but I never learned the fine points that would have made me a good baseball player.

So it is for so many of us when it comes to language.

We take it a step further and resent the notion that there is a right way to speak or write. “Who are you to impose your grammar and vocabulary on a subgroup?” we ask, thereby excluding members of these subgroups from political or social involvement that requires refined language, and setting them up as victims of petty demagogues.

But language does have a form and that form is rooted in the nature of the world and of the human mind. Thus, in a way that might seem ironic to some, the best shortcut you can take to learning a foreign language is to study it formally.

For example, I still want to learn Latin, even though I know that apart from a miracle of providential grace I’ll never be able to do so properly. So I try to pick up the Latin Grammar for a few minutes every day. I’ll review endings or read up on prepositions or remind myself how adjectives work. By doing so, I learn the form of Latin.

Vocabulary is the least challenging part of a foreign language. In fact, if I were teaching people who had an internal motivation to learn a foreign language so they didn’t need any short term cheaper satisfactions, I would hardly teach vocabulary at all for the first few lessons. I’d teach them three or four verbs and then show them a bunch of things you can do with them. In other words, I’d teach them the forms of the verb in that language.

Then I’d teach them how to form nouns, using three or four nouns.

It would lead to conceptually boring sentences, but so would any other option. You can’t write many interesting sentences for the first bit of a language program.

So why bother trying? Teach them how verbs and nouns behave while they don’t need to be distracted by also trying to figure out what the words mean. Then add a few more words as they get more and more effective at forming them.

Approaching it this way has less practical value, in the sense that you couldn’t go to Italy and ask for a coffee in good crisp Italian. But if that’s my goal, then I should just go to Italy for two weeks and send the kids on walking tours by themselves. Necessity, Plato taught us, is the mother of invention.

But it has much more practical value if the goal is to learn the language very well over the long term, to learn how to think, to learn how language works, to learn their own language better, and to learn grammar.

Ironically, the biggest problem I encounter when I study the forms of Latin is when I don’t know the meaning of terms like participle, modifier, voice, mood, clause, reflexive, and others, which I would never have any trouble with if, in my middle school years, I had learned English grammar.

Blogs are hard to keep disciplined, so I hope I haven’t wandered around so much as to be incomprehensible. My point in this post is to say that we should teach grammar formally, not just “naturally” so called and not just “practically.”

Knowledge is a good thing, good for its own sake. It doesn’t need a practical justification. People like knowing things. Children like knowing grammar. So teach them.

To make that point, I have reflected a bit on my encounters with foreign langauge study. My argument is that almost every contemporary foreign language program errs by being too practical and too informal. As a result, children might well learn the foreign language they are studying, but that’s pretty much all they’ll learn.

They could have also learned about the structure of their souls, the order of reality, the form of thought, and how things fit together – though they would not have learned much of that directly and not all of them ever would have learned it.

So to the immediate, practical questions of when and how to teach grammar, I’ll add this:

  • Informal language study is best in the preschool years. I wish every preschool child could be bilingual, at least. I could not care less what foreign language they learn at that age.
  • Formal English grammar should be taught very simply, systematically, and gradually beginning in second grade.
  • In K and 1 children should be taught about verbs and nouns and some basic modifiers, but not so much with technical language. The crucial point for this age is that the teachers MUST speak with excellent grammar and diction and they must know the technical side of grammar well enough to know how and when to correct children (and yes, K and 1 students should be corrected for incorrect grammar!)
  • In the middle school years, every student should study grammar and composition intensively. Fail to teach formal grammar in these years and the golden age of grammar instruction has been lost. You can and must still learn formal grammar if you want to be educated, but it will be more difficult the older you get. There is just something about these “logic” stage years that makes kids pick up formal grammar (which is really a logical study) quite readily.
  • In high school, students should be writing constantly and, assuming they have learned what they should have learned by this stage, they should be required to use sound grammar in all of their writing for every class. In addition, they should go on to learn the finer points of grammar during these years. Until their senior year they should not be allowed to break the rules of grammar for rhetorical purposes unless they can explicitly and formally defend their actions.
  • The instruction I am referring to in this bullet point list refers to formal training in one’s own language. But their is no better way to drive home grammar lessons than learning to translate into and out of your own language. Therefore, in third grade, I recommend commencing the formal study of Latin Grammar – slowly, systematically, gradually.
  • I also recommend the memorization of Latin and Greek passages from great literature as early as possible. Age doesn’t matter here. If you want, you can also translate.

You probably can see that I think language is important. Is anything in school more important?

Indeed, everything else depends on it. Give her back her place.

And here’s the thing: close attention to formal grammar accelerates the process by which grammar becomes second nature. Just as, for most students, formal instruction in phonetics accelerates the pace by which decoding becomes second nature and the child can get on with reading, and formal instruction in the math tables accelerates the pace by which adding and subtracting become second nature and students can get on with fractions, geometry, algebra and the hidden mysteries of math, and formal instruction in dance accelerates (yea, makes possible) the pace by which a ballerina can dance en pointe, and formal instruction in painting accelerates the pace by which a painter can express the hidden mysteries of the universe in a smile.

Systematic formal instruction, in other words, saves the child from having to learn a foreign language the way he had to learn his own. That requires that he learn the form of his own language.

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