The role of grammar in communicative language teaching:
An historical perspective
University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
The topic of this teleconference, "The role of grammar in communicative langauge teaching" suggests an uneasy relationship between two elements: namely, grammar on the one hand, and communication on the other. In my remarks I hope to dispel some of the misunderstandings that promote its continuing existence. But, before I address the role that grammar has played in the history of second language teaching, I'd like to first explore the nature of grammar: What is it? Linguists define grammar as a set of components: phonetics (the production and perception of sounds), phonology (how sounds are combined), morphology (the study of forms, or how elements are combined to create words), syntax (how words are strung together into sentences), and semantics or meaning. Because all languages are characterized by these components, by definition, language does not exist without grammar.
However, grammar has not always been defined in these terms. Originally, the term grammar, grammatica, referred to the art of writing, as compared to rhetoric, rettorica, the art of speaking. As used today by many teachers and learners, grammar is loosely understood to be a set of rules that govern language, primarily its morphology and syntax. But morphology and syntax are only two components of grammar. Communicative language teaching has brought a renewed emphasis on the role that semantics plays in the definition of language. Communicative language teaching is fundamentally concerned with 'making meaning' in the language, whether by interpreting someone else's message, expressing one's own, or negotiating when meaning is unclear. Viewing grammar with all of its components helps us as language teachers understand the complexity of what it means to know the grammar of a language. Clearly, the goal of language learning in the communicative classroom is for learners to acquire the grammar of the second language in its broadest sense, to enable them to understand and make meaning; that is, to become proficient users of the second language. Research and experience have shown that explicit teaching of grammatical rules, even if we were able to formulate them all, does not produce such competence. How, then, should grammar be taught?
You may have noticed that I said that communicative language teaching has brought a renewed emphasis to the role of semantics, especially in the early stages of instruction. The title of my presentation also promises an historical perspective. What I will do now is demonstrate that the goal of developing learners' functional competence in a second language, the goal of communicative language teaching, is not a new idea: it has existed for at least the past five hundred years. And a look at the history of second language teaching will reveal characteristics of pedagogy that have been known to promote functional language competence as well as explain why language teachers have not had access to that pedagogy.
While we are all aware of the status that English currently enjoys as a world language, an international system of communication, it has held that position for a relatively short time. At the beginning of this century, linguists lamented the loss of the only world language that they had known: Latin, and they could not fathom that another language would ever take its place. You see, the rediscovery of the classics during the Renaissance resulted in more than an information explosion in academia; and fluency in Latin represented much more than the ability to edit manuscripts: Latin was a language of considerable usefulness as the language of culture and wider communication, and therefore power. In other words, the reasons for learning Latin in the fifteenth century were not very different from learning English today, in the age of the Global Village.
The importance of acquiring communicative competence in Latin dramatically affected language teaching. An entirely new curriculum was created: the studia humantatis (literally, the study of humanity) in which the goal of learning Latin shifted from the preparation of students who could accurately copy manuscripts or compose in imitation of classical authors to the study of what those authors had to say, in Latin. Far from imparting an aesthetic appreciation alone, the revival of learning was understood to be a practical education. With its emphasis on the study of history, philosophy, and science, the new curriculum was designed to give students access to information necessary for personal, moral, and civic development, while simultaneously developing their second language proficiency in Latin.
Among the most celebrated proponents of the studia humanitatis was Guarino da Verona (1374-1460), an early humanist of the Italian Renaissance, an educator celebrated throughout Europe for his scholarship and his outstanding reputation as a language teacher (Garin, 1958). Guarino argued that if students were going to be able to use Latin to understand the classical texts, as well as to convey new ideas, Latin must be acquired as a living, practical language. Therefore, he proposed that the first emphasis in instruction should be on meaning, rather than on form. Students must acquire "the habit of speaking continually in Latin" in addition to the ability to read and write. He understood that interpretive skills develop sooner than expressive skills and that language learning is a developmental process. He cautioned against harboring expectations that are not commensurate with the learner's stage of development, reminding the teacher, "don't expect from a baby's lips the learning appropriate to a mature adult." Moreover, he indicated that, with experience, competence will eventually emerge. Because the ideas of the classical authors as conveyed in their writing formed the content of instruction, authentic text was central even in the earliest stages of the curriculum. Thus, Guarino gave the following advice on how to approach a written text:
Guarino recognized that initially the student might encounter difficulty, so he recommended don't be frightened if at first you don't understand; limit yourself to knocking on the door and calling again: the door will open and someone will answer (Garin: 345) Interestingly, even though Guarino wrote a grammar, he rarely mentioned it. In fact, the study of rules as a prerequisite to language development is conspicuously absent from his advice. Instead, Guarino's model stresses the acquisition of competence in a second language as a gradual, developmental process; he views the teacher as a guide and model of competence that learners will use. According to Guarino, interpretive skills come first, acquired through immersion in the language, exposure to excellent models, and interaction with interesting subject matter. Fluency in oral and written expression develops gradually, as a consequence of exposure to good models and pleasant interaction in the second language.
In the century following Guarino, the early humanists were thwarted in their attempt to establish Latin as the international language for all European citizens. With the rise of national cultures, national languages served to characterize national identities. In considerable measure still the language of scholarship, Latin was not the language of home, community, or commerce. Nevertheless, fluency in Latin continued to be held in high regard, and it carried enormous prestige and power. The genius of Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556) lay in the development of a detailed plan for the wide-scale organization and implementation of the study of humanities, the curriculum that granted such competence.
Like Guarino, Ignatius believed that functional language ability would be acquired only through exposure to interesting texts accompanied by meaningful interaction in the second language. The insistence on the development of learners' ability to actually use Latin was paramount such that "all be well grounded in grammar and the humanities" (Letter to Father Urban Fernandes, 1551). As to how this foundation should be acquired, Ignatius advocated that students acquire interpretive skills through their attendance at the daily lectures. These lectures were conducted in Latin, with the caveat that "care must be taken that the lectures are accommodated to the capacity of the students" (Letter to father John Pelletier, 1551). Understanding Latin, however, was a necessary but insufficient condition for language acquisition. Ignatius insisted that "all, but especially the students of humane letters, should ordinarily speak Latin" and that "the students of the classical language cultivate their ordinary conversation by speaking Latin commonly; and their style, by writing" . He insisted that interpretive skills could be acquired by comprehending the lectures, but expressive skills must be cultivated by using the language to exchange ideas. Ignatius recommended that all students meet in small groups after the lectures to discuss their content "with one [student] repeating [the content of the lecture] and the others listening, and with mutual proposing of difficult points; and that they go to their teachers if there is something that they cannot settle among themselves" (Constitutions, Part IV). Language ability developed as the message of the day's lesson was negotiated by the learners in a small group setting. They were encouraged to solve problems together as best they could, using the teacher as a resource. Despite the hiatus of a century, a striking similarity exists between the langauge teaching beliefs shared by Ignatius and Guarino.
In the century following Ignatius, Johann Amos Comenius's vision for educational reform surpassed that of either of his predecessors. Throughout his long and arduous career, Comenius (1592-1670) devised curricula for infancy through the university, proposed a universal system of education and even advocated the invention of a new language of wider communication to replace Latin, which had been supplanted by the vernaculars for anything other than law or scholarly pursuits. Comenius was famous in his time, however, not for his philosophical treatises, but for his wildly popular textbooks [the Janua linguarum reserata (1631), the Vestibulum (1633), and the Orbis sensualium pictus (1658)]. He also published a manual in which he described his teaching method, entitled Didactica Magna , the Great Didactic (1657).
Comenius, too, argued from the outset that language learning follow the "natural order": namely, that "the matter come first and the form follow" such that
He agreed with Guarino and Ignatius that learners begin with an author, and he lamented the contemporary practice which had students commence with grammar rules, bemoaning his own language learning experience in which Latin grammar was taught us with all the exceptions and irregularities; Greek grammar with all its dialects, and we, poor wretches, were so confused that we scarcely understood what it was all about.
According to Comenius, such instructional practices only ensured that beginners in grammar are so overwhelmed by precepts, rules, exceptions to the rules, and exceptions to the exceptions, that for the most part they do not know what they are doing, and are quite stupefied before they begin to understand anything. Comenius maintained that "all languages are easier to learn by practice than from rules" .
Despite outright contradictions that crept into his writings regarding the method of teaching Latin, Comenius acknowledged that if one wished to learn a modern language
That is, learning the second language through contact with excellent linguistic models and meaningful interaction with interesting, relevant subject matter, a recommendation in perfect harmony with both Guarino and Ignatius!
So far, I have presented an historical perspective on second language teaching that is not well known, but that supports many tenets of communicative language teaching, and especially resembles what we know of today as content-based instruction. What of the other perspective, the one that Comenius so soundly condemns? For despite the similarities in beliefs held by the historical reformers, teaching practice looked in many cases entirely different: classroom instruction consisted of memorization of rules, repetition, drill, an early emphasis on linguistic accuracy coupled with a strong measure of error correction, and the postponement of subject matter teaching until the grammar had been 'mastered.' One may well question why such practice persisted when it did not produce functional competence. The answer to that question lies in part in how the stances of the reformers were conveyed in pedagogical treatises, the language teaching manuals of their time.
In each instance, those who sought to capture the reformers' ideas, their innovations in teaching practice, for future generations of language teachers grossly distorted those ideas. Remember Guarino's insistence that learners begin with understanding the overall meaning of a text? Here is how that idea was conveyed in a pedagogical treatise written by his son, Battista, who claimed that he was presenting exactly what his father believed:
In teaching, the fact that verb tenses are formed according to a general rule is of utmost importance... To such an extent that ... in the blink of an eye they can distinguish a noun from a verb and the tenses of the verbs. They will soon arrive at the point where they can respond accurately to frequent interrogations by the teacher. Then, little by little, they will come in contact with the [ancient] authors, starting with the easiest prose writers because you don't want to wear them out by the profundity of the content at the expense of practicing the rules that they have learned. [The rules], first and foremost, are what we consider the most important thing of all.
And what of Ignatius' insistence that students develop their intrepretive abilities by attending the daily lectures in Latin? The Ratio studiorium of 1599 gives these directions on how to deliver a lecture:
First he [the teacher] will go through the subject both in Latin and in the vernacular; secondly he will so interpret each sentence that the vernacular explanation will be given immediately after the Latin; in the third place going through it again from the beginning [...], he will select words by twos and threes of which he will explain the force and the derivation.
What of the little session following the lecture, in which small groups of students discuss it content and negotiate the meaning among themselves? In the Ratio is is described as follows:
After the lecture, let him [the teacher] remain in the classroom or near the classroom for at least a quarter of an hour so that the students may approach him to ask questions, so that he may sometimes ask an account of the lectures, and so that the lectures may be repeated.
And finally, Comenius and his unequivocal stance that subject matter teaching and language leanring proceed hand in hand and that rules are thorns to the understanding? Here are some of the practical suggestions that he himself offers for classroom practice:
And as for teaching "men, not parrots"?
In each lesson, after the teacher has briefly gone through the work that has been prepared, and has explained the meanings of the words, one of the pupils should be allowed to rise from his place and repeat what has just been said in the same order (just as if he were the teacher of the rest), to give his explanations in the same words, and to employ the same examples, and if he make a mistake he should be corrected. Then another can be called up and made go through the same performance while the rest listen. After him a third, a fourth, and as many as are necessary, until it is evident that all have understood the lesson and are in a position to explain it. In carrying this out great care should be taken to call up the clever boys first, in order that, after their example, the stupid ones may find it easier to follow.
We seem to have a dual tradition in second language teaching: namely, a theoretical stance that views language above all as a rich and complex system of human communication that is best acquired through meaningful interaction with interesting content as opposed to a pedagogical practice that insists on accuracy, explicit instruction in rules, and rote learning of grammatical forms. Five hundred years of experience is ample testimony that true change in institutional practice is difficult to effect; but it is especially so if we--as agents of change--don't make clear what it is that constitutes the innovation. By discussing the role of grammar, it is my hope that this teleconference will function as the first of many long overdue steps in clearing up misunderstandings of the type that we have witnessed in the history of our profession and, thus, bring practice more in line with theory, research, and centuries of experience.