Thursday, September 2, 2010

Grammar beyond the Sentence

We know that rules of grammar operate within a sentence. For example, if someone begins a sentence with ‘The…’ we know that any word cannot follow it. The rules of grammar allow only certain words after ‘the’. Are there rules that operate beyond the sentence? In other words, are there rules within discourses which decide what kind of sentence can follow another? If we violate rules of grammar within the sentence, we will get incorrect sentences of three kinds in addition to those with writing errors of spelling and punctuation.
There are rules of grammar beyond the sentence, within the discourse. These rules will decide which sentence can follow another one. If we violate these we will get sequences of sentences that lack coherence. This will affect communication. For example, consider the two sequences of sentences given below:
A. The boy ate all the mangoes. His stomach became upset.
B. The boy ate all the mangoes. The frog was in the pond.
The sequence of sentences in A will be accepted as an appropriate one for discourse whereas that in B will be rejected as it fails the test of coherence.
But we cannot come to a ready conclusion like this in the case of B. There is nothing “wrong” about it because we can cook up a story which will contain this sequence. All what we need is stretch out our imagination by virtue of which we can create a context for the appearance of sequence B.
At this point we have two possible answers to the problem of how we identify a piece of language as unified and meaningful.
i. Invoke rules of grammar that operate within the sentence as well as within the discourse.
ii. Make use of our knowledge - of the world, of the speaker, of social convention, of what is going on around us as we read or listen
It follows that factors outside language also are important for making a stretch of language coherent. In order to account for discourse we have to look at the situation, the people involved what they know and what they are doing. These factors help us construct a piece of language as discourse, which has a meaning and unity for us. We account for correct or incorrect sentences in a different way, by virtue of our knowledge about grammar. For doing this, facts outside language are not required.
Already we have seen that all sentences in a discourse may not be full-fledged ones. Sometimes there may be even linguistic fragments within a discourse. These fragments are taken for granted as appropriate provided their occurrence is justifiable by the context. For instance, consider the piece of conversation given below:

Husband: I have to go to Madras.
Wife: Why do you have to go to Madras?
Husband: I have to attend a conference there.
Wife: What conference do you have to attend there?
Husband: It is a conference on the teaching of English phonetics.
Wife: It is the most boring subject I can think of.
Husband: It is the most boring subject anyone can think of.
Wife: Then why do you have to attend the seminar?
Husband: I have to attend the seminar because I am teaching phonetics.
Wife: How long will you have to stay there?
Husband: I will have to stay there for three days.
Wife: What will you buy for me from Madras?
Husband: I will buy a sari for you from Madras.
Wife: If you are buying a sari for me please buy a costly one.
Husband: If I am buying a sari for you I will certainly buy a costly one.
Every sentence included in the dialogue is grammatical. Nevertheless, as a piece of conversation it fails the test of authenticity. Anyone who knows English will easily identify the above piece as a hypothetical one. In real life situations it is quite unlikely that any husband or wife will have involved in a conversation like this. Of course they may speak like this if they want to be funny and for doing so they will have to articulate each sentence intentionally. Nevertheless, that is not the way people talk in natural situations. People do not move around talking to one another by sequencing well-formed and full-fledged sentences one after the other. The above stretch of language satisfies the requirements of sentence grammar but it will be rejected by discourse grammar.
The pedagogic considerations of grammar teaching
When it comes to teaching of grammar we have to address ourselves to a few questions.
1. Why should we teach grammar?
2. What kind of grammar is to be taught?
3. At what point of formal education should we teach grammar?
4. What methodology would be appropriate for teaching grammar?

Why should we teach grammar?
Let us take the first question. There is a good old saying namely, ‘grammar is caught rather than taught’. Paradoxically, we keep on saying this and continue teaching some aspects of formal grammar in one way or the other. Descriptive grammars may have displaced prescriptive grammars. Nevertheless, for most teachers the term grammar is associated with a set of definitions and rules because grammar was taught taking recourse to traditional approach for a long time. It was guided by a set of rigid rules. Time came when the experts working in the field of education looked at the teaching of English grammar with a changed vision. Functional grammar came into existence and it got its place in class room teaching. The notion of teaching grammar through examples in different situations has gained much currency with the expectation that this would make grammar learning more interesting than before. It is claimed that by virtue of this strategy the learners would get the benefit of learning grammar without any emphasis on rote learning. Today in ELT circles grammar teaching has become participatory, interesting and learner-friendly through varieties of activities like games, rhymes, riddles and role play. The learners are involved in learning grammar spontaneously.
The shift towards activity-oriented teaching of grammar has obvious justifications. Nevertheless, the question remains unanswered: ‘Why should we teach grammar?’ More than fifty percent of learners fail to operate and write English with accuracy and fluency even though they apparently can do the grammar exercises in their text books correctly. This is probably because they know “about” grammar and are able to attempt the fill-in –the –blanks items quite successfully. So where lies the problem? It is in the way we teach grammar. Functional grammar is promoted as this being the call of the hour. There are experts who argue that it is necessary to orient teachers on teaching grammar in an interesting and flexible manner using authentic discourses and grammar games.
Teachers, whether they teach mother tongue or a second language, put forward several arguments in defence of concentrating on sentences while teaching a language:
• In the case of mother tongue, students already know how to communicate orally. What they need is to learn where to put full stops and how to write grammatical sentences.
• In the case of second languages what students need are formal skills and knowledge in terms of pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar which will provide the basis for communicating and interacting.
• These skills are demanded by examinations and are signs of acceptable language behaviour.
• Exercises can be neatly presented in sentences, with a tick or a mark for each one. This is important in formal teaching because exercises help students know where they are going and how far they have developed formal skills.
• Given practice in, and exposure to, correct sentences, the rest will follow in a natural way.
• The treatment of language in terms of sentences helps us know how language works; within the sentence we can establish rules and constraints that distinguish between licit and illicit sentence constructions.
• Sentences analyzed in linguistics are abstractions. Though these may appear very odd they are useful for language study.

We have noticed that when a child acquires the first language, she does not “learn” grammar in a formal way. She internalizes the grammar of the mother tongue through exposure to the language. Similarly, in second language acquisition, we must concentrate on giving exposure to the learners using interesting and authentic text which will make them aware of the structures as well as the functions of the second language. Discourse–oriented pedagogy has been conceived with a view to facilitating language acquisition at the primary level through experiencing a variety of linguistic discourses. In the modular approach the sub-modules of language are transacted in such a way that the learners will be able to intuitively distinguish the so-called grammatical utterances from the ungrammatical ones. This obviates explicit teaching of grammar at the primary level.
At the same time we will introduce grammar at the secondary level for which we can put forward a few pedagogic justifications.
1. The acquisition paradigm is followed at the primary level which helps the learner to develop knowledge of language non-consciously. Once this target is achieved, we have to take the learners to a higher level of knowledge of language where the learners apart from developing intuitions about well-formed constructions will also learn about some aspects of formal grammar. This knowledge hopefully will serve him better as a conscious monitor while undertaking the editing of discourses at a higher level.
1. In Kerala where drop-outs at the secondary level is almost zero, general education is defined as including the higher secondary level. At this stage the learners have the freedom to choose subject of their own choice from among a variety of knowledge domains. So the learner has to have basic concepts related to these knowledge areas by the time she completes education at the secondary level. Language is a knowledge area that deserves to be treated on a par with other knowledge areas such as mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, commerce, and so on. This justifies learning about language at the secondary and higher secondary levels.
3. We know that every creative writer imprints his or her marks of identity on their writings. That is why we are able to distinguish the personal style of an author. We listen to the writer’s voice when we read a poem, a novel or an essay. We expect the learners at the higher secondary level to identify the voice of the author from his/her writings which will eventually lead her to identify her own voice as a second language user. We know that writers create their personal style of writing by taking recourse to certain structural devices. The learners at the secondary level should learn about these devices. A pre-requisite to this at the secondary level they should be able to identify linguistic elements that constitute various syntactic structures and how these are configured using devices such as complementation, subordination, coordination, relativization, clefting, passivization and so on.
What kind of grammar
What kind of grammar should we teach at the secondary and higher secondary levels?
There are different types of grammar such as lexical grammar, categorical grammar, relational grammar, functional grammar, phrase structure grammar, generative grammar, transformational generative grammar and the like to mention a few. Each one of these approaches language as a system from different points of view. ELT experts of our own times across the world say that if at all we have to teach grammar it is functional grammar. They argue that learners of English as a second language should have a clear idea about what kind of expressions are to be used for specific communicative functions. This is why books on functional grammar comes out with a list of several communicative functions such as making an apology, agreeing or disagreeing with others, inviting people and so on. Children are persuaded to learn these. The implicit assumption is that if learners are well- familiarised with the structures that will serve these purposes they will be able to maintain both fluency and accuracy while communicating with others using English.
When we look at this assumption through critical lens we will see that it cannot be sustained. We have acquired our mother tongue through meaningful discourses and we will be able to use it doing full justice to its functional aspects. We do not have to learn separately how to invite people or how to apologise. Acquiring a language implies acquiring both its structures and functions. Native speakers of any language will be able to use it by virtue of the intuitive structure consciousness they have acquired. Therefore there is no point in teaching functional grammar. We cannot go for the other kinds of grammars too.
At the secondary and higher secondary levels we will be focusing on lexical, phrasal and clausal categories of language and how these are interconnected in different ways to yield different structures. Also the learners will learn what structural changes are in operation in a given configuration and how licit and illicit structures are generated by these operations. This implies that the learners will have to get sensitized on some aspects of transformational generative grammar.
When to teach grammar
From what we have discussed above it is clear that we do not have to teach grammar at the primary level, that is from classes I to VII. By learning English grammar consciously what the learners get is ‘knowledge about’ the language. This knowledge will not help them speak spontaneously in English in interpersonal communicative situations. For this they should possess ‘knowledge of’ the language. This knowledge is acquired non-consciously and precisely this is the reason why we have replaced the fragmentary approach to teaching language with discourse-oriented pedagogy. As has been already mentioned, this helps the learners with acquiring both the structural and functional aspects of language. Of course, as part of discourse construction they will be generating both grammatical and ungrammatical sentences, especially at the beginning stages. The syntactic and morphological errors and the errors of spelling and punctuation that they may make are taken up and rectified through the process of editing. It is to be remembered that editing at the primary level implies editing within the domain of sentence grammar. At the secondary level we will have to go for different levels of editing as mentioned below.
1. Editing related to sentence grammar
• Syntactic editing
• Morphological editing
• Editing errors of spelling and punctuation
2. Errors related to discourse grammar
3. Thematic editing
4. Editing related to discourse features
The methodology
The last question is related to the methodology of teaching grammar. The curriculum, syllabi and textbooks have been developed and are meant to be transacted in tune with social constructivism and critical pedagogy. Construction of knowledge has to take place at all levels of learning and in all domains of knowledge. This implies that we cannot stuff the learners with lots and lots of information pertaining to grammar. Grammatical concepts are to be constructed by the learners by analysing a certain body of linguistic data available from the discourses and categorizing them in specific ways. The general processes of the constructivist classroom will be retained in tact for facilitating concept attainment in the realm of grammar.