Back to school: Part One

As you may have noticed, we recently wrote a Beginner’s book and I have written a series of posts exploring the ideas behind it. One thing that’s driving this two-man campaign (you can decide for yourself if that means it’s an advertising campaign or a war!) is the commonly-expressed view that lexical approaches are only good for higher levels, not for low ones!

Indeed, even among those that can see the value of a lexical approach for teaching English at low levels, some say that it can’t work for Russian / German / Spanish [insert pretty much any language here] because [insert language] is ‘very grammatical’. However. to me this has never seemed like a good argument. Native speakers of any language essentially learn to speak in accordance with the grammatical norms of their language at pretty much the same rate, irrespective of how many complex rules there are (see Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct – among others – for this observation).

We are leaving aside literacy and the size of the lexicon here for the moment. We’re talking about things like creating plurals, tenses, use of feminine / masculine forms in some languages, case in others; generally, the most inflected grammatical features that appear in native-speaker conversation. If speakers are learning at the same rate, but one language is more ‘complicated’ than another, this leaves us with two basic options:

(1) Kids who learn to  speak one language are more intelligent or better able to decipher and employ rules than speakers of some other less complicated languages.


(2) Kids are learning in a similar way that is equally complex or equally easy. 

Obviously, as a speaker of one of those ‘easier’ languages, I favour the latter viewpoint!

The argument put forward by proponents of a lexical view of language – or a so-called emergentist view of L1 development – is that, to put it crudely, learners start from sounds, then build words, and notice or subconsciously process how these words are used with other words. From these combinations, patterns are discerned, which are then used as the basis to create new meanings. Many of these patterns become established as the ‘rules’ of grammar that teachers are all familiar with and may teach, but quite clearly, in the end, it is our fellow users usage of language who win over any single rule. Hence, irregular forms continue to exist along with particular ways of organising words in collocations, chunks, lexico-grammatical patterns or whatever you want to call these common word combinations. This also explains how language change happens – although education may be reducing the speed of that change. 

In fact, education is often cited as the reason why languages are seen as being ‘grammatical’ and need to be learnt grammatically. Certainly, some countries ‘teach’ grammar to their native-speaker students, but what are students actually learning in these lessons? For example, lessons in Spanish to native speakers in the Spanish education system tend to focus heavily on describing aspects of grammar. Some may argue that this is ‘teaching the grammar’, but I would suggest that what students are largely learning is how to describe or write a language that they already essentially speak grammatically correctly. An example of this can also be seen in the new English curriculum which requires students to identifty things like diphthongs and prepositional conjunctions. Primary-school students may well struggle with these tasks, but ten-year-olds can clearly already use both (We went to McDonald’s before we went home). And, of course, people spoke grammatically consistent forms of Spanish and English before there was mass education.

Again, let’s ignore here the fact that some students may use grammar which is not deemed appropriate usage in academic writing or by some other classes of speakers. We need to understand that (a) these ‘uneducated’ grammatical norms are still grammatical in that they contain consistent and re-useable patterns, and (b) that there will always be marginal – albeit marked – differences to ‘educated’ speakers norms. Most grammar will be shared by all L1 speakers. L1 speakers in these school lessons may also be learning to expand their lexicon and understand how these words are used, but that is not the kind of L2 ‘grammar’ that drives L2 coursebooks.

Now, when it comes to second languages, most of us are not in the situation of having the amount of exposure to language that L1 users get. It also seems that our ability to process sounds and patterns is inhibited after a certain age. We seek to combat this by presenting ‘rules’ of the language that we can make use of by combining the rules with the single base-words that we have made an effort to learn. It is seen as a way of getting to communication quicker – or at least it should be. Unfortunately, many teachers then make the mistake of assuming that the point of rules is to learn the rules . . . and that the point of producing language is to produce ‘accurate’ examples of these rules. This can then lead to the false belief that we shouldn’t say anything that is incorrect or be put in a position where we might try to say something that we haven’t formally learnt yet. As a result. these ‘rules’ need to be drip-fed to us bit by bit, building up to more complex sentences in the belief that it’s only by learning and mastering these rules + word meanings that we can produce native-like accuracy.

It isn’t!

On the other hand, we have the supposedly ‘rule’-free lexical approach. This is also a misundertanding – certainly of the lexical approach I practice, ay any rate. A lexical approach at low levels is NOT about refusing to show any patterns and providing no ‘rules’ (let’s call them guidance) about how you can create new sentences from the words we know.

However, my lexical approach recognises that accuracy:

  • can only come from expousre to normal usage within normal conversations and texts;
  • is NEVER fully achieved with regards to the norms of L1 speakers unless initiated and practised at an early enough age and for enough time;
  • is not a sensible goal for most L2 learners but especially for beginner students!

Teaching lexically, therefore, emphasises communication above accuracy. In order to have communication at the lowest levels, we need to focus on words and provide grammaticalised examples of these words that will help with communication. These examples can be used as patterns for students to adapt to their own use. Some of these patterns may be (part of) the traditional grammar that we teach; some may include more than one bit of grammar that we typically teach; some may not be a typical pattern we teach (for example I’m going + place (to + noun) / I’m going + activity (to + verb)).

Through this work on chunks, students will gradually build up an understanding of generalisable grammar patterns, and lexical teachers will (or at least I would, anyway!) do short exercises to reinforce and broaden understanding of these patterns at some later stage. However, I also understand that ‘mastery’ of any grammar pattern will only occur over time, if it occurs at all, and that mastery is actually relatively unimportant. To my mind, the more ‘complex’ the grammar, the greater the need to support students in this way IF the goal is COMMUNICATION.

Well, that’s the theory. Can it be done in practice? I was challenged and a challenge can be difficult to resist sometimes. To that end, I have started learning Russian, with the very generous support of my friend and colleague Anita Modestova. We’re loosely following the content of Outcomes Beginner, translated by Anita, with a good amount of additional freer conversation that has emerged out of this material. I say conversation, . . . that’s a very generous word for what really happens. Let’s call it very slow and very short exchanges, instead.

We’ve had about twenty-five hours of classes so far. As a contrast, I have also just started attending a Russian class in a place that shall remain nameless. It has turned out to be conducted from the extreme end of the grammar-based learning method – although I have also experienced different teachers within this method. In the posts to come, I’ll be describing and reflecting on these experiences. I will try to be honest, including about how I might be biased in different ways. Some things have already made me re-think things a bit – including some thoughts on communication / accuracy line I’ve talked about here . . . but more of that to follow.

Paka for now!

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5 Responses

  1. I have two questions for discussion:

    1. There are two types of Grammar: Intuitive Grammar that acts like a feeling what is right and what is wrong, and Formal Grammar dissected into thousands of pieces or rules which L2 adult learners can’t remember. Why you don’t consider these two Grammars separately?

    2. The lexical approach to teaching English to adults uses conscious learning and learners are expected to remember a lot of information. But language is not information to be remembered; it is a skill to be subconsciously trained to avoid appalling forgetting curve and innate habit of cross-translating in the head. Have you ever considered the Subconscious Training as a better alternative to the lexical approach or to any other method of conscious learning a second language?

    • Hugh Dellar says:

      Hi Arkady –
      I an see from your details that you have links from an Ed tech company, so I’m not surprised you’re trying to promote a particular angle on learning.
      Presumably, it’s an angle that dovetails with your own products.

      To address each of your questions in more detail . . . well, there are many, many different ways you can sub-divide what we think of as grammar – certainly not just the two which you suggest. Of course, you can argue that what is sometimes called “expectancy grammar” – the ability to predict what someone is going to say or what the listeners expects to hear – is important, or that fluent users are primed / conditioned to expect language to work in certain ways and that these ways don’t always tally with the more detailed ‘rules’ laid out in grammar books (though they often DO) . . . . and, of course, much ‘formal’ grammar only operates in very limited contexts. All of this is obviously true, but I’m not sure what you were hoping to find on this in this post or why you felt it was worth mentioning. Maybe you can enlighten me.

      I’m not keen on the idea of ‘a lexical approach to teaching English’ myself. I see the lexical approach first and foremost as a way of looking at language, and that teaching lexically implies a way of handling classroom material and student output in a way that reflects this view. In terms of whether or not language is – or can / should be – learned consciously or unconsciously, clearly both happen. There’s loads of evidence that language can be learned consciously UP TO A POINT. Full proficiency and ability to use elxis and grammar in a wide range of contexts obviously takes more time, exposure and experience, but telling teachers who’ve SEEN students learn, use and CONTIUNUE TO USE things that they have taught that this doesn’t happen is just daft – and a lousy well of selling whatever it is you’re here to try and sell.

    • Julio Palma says:

      Mr. Zilberman,
      I am interested to know how many languages have you learned unconsciously? Furthermore, please tell us about those L2 you have never resorted to cross-translate in your head. And how it works. It seems like a method out of this world.

  2. Mike Budden says:

    I am very much looking forward to reading more about how your Russian lessons are going.

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