Or is it… a bunch of teachers has taken my grammar test?
Why does the second sound so bizarre? Is the frequency with which we match apparent subjects like “a bunch” with “have” or “are” a lamentable pattern of grammatical laziness or is “bunch” just a special kind of word, rather than the noun it appears to be?
An interesting transition appears to have happened or be happening to English partitives and quantitatives, phrases like “a piece of”. Under certain circumstances, they seem to lose their grammatical class as noun phrases and are instead interpreted like adjectives, modifying a noun to come rather than being nouns themselves. You know the most common of these – “a lot of”, which appears to be a noun phrase with an indefinite article (“a”), a single noun (“lot”), and a prepositional phrase (“of ~”). In practice, “a lot of trees” is interpreted as a noun phrase about “trees”, not about a “lot”, which can see reflected in in the verb conjugations in sentences like “a lot of trees are in the park”, wherein “are” conjugates to match the plural noun “trees”. Needless to say, different noun phrases with a similar forms to “a lot of”, e.g. “a room with” or “a shot in”, are not treated this way – “a room with windows” is not a noun phrase about windows. I’ve never heard a sentence constructed like “a room with windows were open to let in the breeze” – have you?
You probably think I’m about to condemn a lot of the English teachers who took my survey for having bad grammar. No, I’m not. Instead, I’m about to propose a semi-regular change in grammatical class that most people’s (including my) notion of correct grammar hasn’t caught up with yet. I name this below the jump.
I regard myself as the most professional when I’m acting in ways that are seen as vaguely unprofessional. Contrarily, if everyone from administration down to new students seems to be regarding me as a consummate professional with everything under control and nothing left to chance, I feel as if I must be doing something wrong.
Part of this is unambiguously a result of modern training in language teaching with all its student-centeredness, communicativity, and insistence on relevance to real needs. Not many teachers educated since the Krashen days see language teaching as a matter of verbally transmitting the rules of grammar. But students often want teachers who appeal to their conscious and rational minds, and teachers respect each other for their grasp of effete theory and ability to maintain control of a room. On the other hand, asking a class to generate discourse by itself or choose topics close to them, taking long stretches of class time simply to listen to students negotiate with each other, is seen by many students and some teachers as abandoning your professional authority and objectivity. Ironically, greater professional investment in the current field of TESOL, which correlates with greater commitment to student-centered norms, leads students and colleagues to expect to gain more from you simply by listening, leading to still more disappointment when you seem to cede the floor to someone still figuring out “are” and “is” (see Holliday’s Appropriate Methodology and Social Context for a specific example of this effect). Here, our training seems designed to disappoint anyone who comes into a classroom to “learn” in a traditional sense. I believe most language teachers come across this conundrum often in their careers, more if they lean heavily to the Dogme side of CLT and especially more if their students see didacticism as a sign of seriousness.
With fellow teachers too, I feel a need to have conversations go slightly awkwardly to confirm to myself that I am taking an appropriately circumspect distance from the norms of my field. Besides the list of expressions the ended one of my recent posts, I find that their are surprisingly few terms that language teachers use that I can accept exactly as intended, because I don’t think the term accurately describes what people usually take it as. For instance, one that came up in a bit of downtime discussion with a colleague in the language lab today was “grammar teaching” (which we agreed should always be surrounded by scare quotes). In my view, “teaching” can only practically mean doing the things that bring cause people to improve in the area whose noun premodifies “teaching”. E.g., “surfing teaching” most intuitively means teaching people skills relevant to being able to surf, not some other skill tangentially related to surfing, such as musculature or the physics of erosion. Since the endpoint we want to reach with students with respect to grammar is (mostly) unconscious application of the rules, such as they are, in real-time or at least real-world situations, how can we call the explicit teaching of grammar rules “grammar teaching”, when that is the thing we are all trained in our MA programs to know doesn’t demonstrably lead to that endpoint? I’m not convinced that my answer to this question is the only acceptable one, but I’m far less convinced that the term “grammar teaching” should be tossed about as if we all agreed that teaching metalanguage and focusing on formS were the way to go.
So when I hear someone use this arguably commonsense term, I often ask what they mean, which in professional language teaching situations is sort of the equivalent of a volleyball player asking what you mean when you say “serve”. I think I leave a lot of colleagues with the alternating impressions that I know a lot and that I don’t know anything (sometimes this impression requires little effort). I do this because I have professional pride in not taking terms and practices for granted, especially if they are as common as “grammar”. My unprofessional inability to smoothly carry on conversations on language teaching is a point of pride for me as a professional language teacher. As is my ability to recognize but not care about split infinitives.
In the classroom, there are ways to work around being seen as unprofessional, and they will placate some students. I found that with my ESL students last semester, if I took a significant piece of class time to explain (with reference to research) why I don’t see much merit in going through the grammar textbook chapter by chapter or stopping to explain every new word in a reading textbook written at the i^2 level, they would generally come along for the ride, bumps and all (as opposed to before, when what I thought were interesting tangents were generally seen as undisciplined diversions from the coursebook). And the bumps are much more important than a smooth but unremarkable ride. I tend to think that in a few years the bumps are all they’ll remember.
Ironically in a field (ideally) focused on creating unconscious and automatic mastery, I often feel I’m in the business of making memories, albeit memories of a particular type and as a scaffold for particular things I want them to know. If I don’t have their attention and they won’t remember what we did that day, I feel like I wasted their time, even if a random passerby peeking into the classroom would have seen something that strongly resembled “teaching”. I seldom find that the way to create memories is by rigorously following a PPP lesson plan (or “teaching grammar”). In order to fulfill my duties and see myself as a teacher, I sometimes need to look conspicuously unlike most people’s conception of one.
A few weekends ago I attended my second major CATESOL event, and I noticed a few more differences from my last teaching organization, JALT (the Japan Association For Language Teaching – yes, they capitalize “For”, meaning the acronym really should be JAFLT, or ジャフルト). I’ve come to notice what I think is a bit of a drawback to CATESOL’s highly dedicated and professional members. I’ll dance around it for a little before I finally get to it later on. Or maybe I’ll nestle it between body paragraphs so you’re not tempted to just skip to the bottom.
One thing you find when moving from one culture to another is that you frequently find yourself waiting for things that never happen, seeing social cues that are invisible to the rest of the population and waiting for a conditioned response that is curiously not forthcoming – a “bless you” after a sneeze, a door held open, or a formulaic conversation-ending phrase before your coworker leaves the break room. In CATESOL and in my first semester in ESL in California I’ve had this feeling very often. I keep expecting some hot-button topic to be mentioned, even gratuitously, and then it’s not. Or I expect the speaker to drop an author’s name just to let the audience know he/she knows his/her stuff, but he/she just moves on. In their place, sometimes things I’m not familiar with get name-dropped instead, or sometimes (this is most alienating) nothing happens at all. I find myself oddly unable to follow professional conversations in a natural way. Many conversations here seem like the first time I heard a telephone conversation in Japan, where nobody says “bye”, they just hang up when they’re done talking.
I’ve written down a few things I found myself waiting for and didn’t see – things that are conspicuously absent from my CATESOL/ESL experience. For reflection, I’ll follow them with some things that I hear regularly in CATESOL or ESL but I rarely or never heard in Japan or JALT. And for the record, I still haven’t lived in California for even half a year, so feel free to take my claims with as much salt as you need.
MIA in CATESOL
Native Speaker. I have heard this just once here, from another teacher from Japan. On the other hand, at least 2 of my superiors have been non-native speakers, and many more coworkers wouldn’t have fit the NST mold in Japan (i.e., they are not white). I have heard a bit about the advantages of learning from teachers who have experience learning English as adults, in that they understand where the students are coming from or are former ESL students themselves. Interestingly, this was not couched in a NST/NNST dichotomy, but rather the firsthand ESL experience of those teachers. I kept expecting the words “native” and “non-native” to be used, as they often were in Japan, to discuss the stereotyped strengths of the NST/NNST groups (in Japan, “foreign” and “Japanese”). Even more surprisingly, but I haven’t heard any talk of the supposed advantages of NSTs, whether for authenticity, correctness, or anything else. It’s almost as if people here believe that NS status isn’t as salient as qualifications or experience as a language teacher!
Interlanguage. This troubles me. The way I understand our profession, interlanguage is the ball we are always trying to move down the field, and everything else we do is just indirectly trying to do that. If I don’t hear any acknowledgment of interlanguage in discussions of what we do, I fear I may not understand the rules of the game we’re playing. By “acknowledgment of interlanguage” I mean recognizing that some aspects of students’ mental representations of English may have to come in a certain order (not the order that grammar textbooks present them in), that the representations we care most about aren’t always amenable to explicit teaching (i.e., “knowing” a rule won’t necessarily lead to its incorporation in IL), and that grammar terms are not necessarily the currency of the classroom, useful as they might be for other reasons. Way too often in CATESOL I hear people talk about “grammar teaching” as if its only possible form were “explaining grammar in metalanguage”, and “grammar syllabus” (or worse, “coursebook”) as a stand-in for “syllabus”. I see some indirect evidence that people think about IL, and in many cases it could just be that they think they’re too mundane to talk about. On the other hand, I’ve heard people dropping grammar terms as if they were celebrities they once met, and it seems taken for granted that lower-level courses are “grammar-based”. My brain threatens to abandon ship whenever someone describes lower-level ESL as “teaching basic grammar forms”.
I haven’t figured out what this lack of mentioning is evidence of, but a bit of open discussion on old staples input, intake, uptake, interaction, and natural order would go a long way toward putting my fears to rest. I feel a bit like I’ve been admitted to a prestigious medical school, but all I’ve heard discussed are 1) holistic ways to lengthen life and 2) the head bone’s connected to the (beat) neck bone.
Extensive Reading. I suppose this follows from the last one. A few colleagues at my current institution have talked about this, and I’ve heard rumors that it was once attempted. My school does in fact have almost a full bookshelf of graded readers (more if you include other languages), organized by one of the full-timers, so it may be ahead of the curve. I haven’t heard ER mentioned in presentations though, especially to the gratuitous degree it’s mentioned in JALT, even in presentations on totally different topics. To the contrary, I have seen a great many reading textbooks here, most intended for close reading as a class, with the more unfamiliar vocabulary the better. My fear is that the lack of concern for interlanguage is what drives the lack of focus on ER, or that people are making assumptions about their students’ exposure to English outside the classroom (potentially obviating the need for a focus on input in the classroom) that aren’t coming true. See next point.
Free conversation. This is generally a term of abuse in SLA, and many people would take it as a sign of quality that ESL teachers seem to avoid it. However, and this surprised me as much as anything about ESL, most teachers here also seem to understand that their students remain ensconsed in their L1 communities when not in the classroom. This being the case, and considering how infrequent cases of successful L2 acquisition that include no unscripted interaction are, we really ought to look for ways to actively encourage free conversation, even at the expense of stuff that is actually in the curriculum. I recognize that not everyone is willing to jump on the Dogme train (another term I haven’t heard in SoCal – Dogme, not train. Actually, train too) but if our students have little to no interaction, negotiation, opportunity for recast, etc. on subjects of their choosing, and instead have 5 hours of controlled grammar practice per week, we’re sacrificing probably the most important predictor of L2 learning for something 4th or 5th on the list. It seems very odd to me that teachers can see how close many of their students’ day-to-day lives are to EFL rather than ESL and continue to focus on form as if input and interaction were taken care of.
To recap, my main concern is that the lack of IL discussion that I’ve seen evinces a lack of knowledge about what really builds L2 competence, and that grammar books and dense reading activities have filled the gap that that knowledge should occupy. Again, some people seem to talk in a way that implies IL is a central concern and simply haven’t used the word, which is fine – they don’t feel a need to name-drop it. The thing is, I’m not convinced everyone is on the same page where this is concerned, as evidenced by the abundance of synthetic syllabi and grammar jargon. Many folks seem to think that their job is explaining English grammar, and that this will result in students being able to use it. I hope to be proven wrong.
On the other hand…
行方不明 (whereabouts unknown) in JALT
Credit/non-credit. By this term I mean the distinction between classes which lead to transfer and those that don’t. I’m willing to chalk some of my opinions on this topic in Japan to the fact that I spent almost all my career there teaching at my own school and later to non-English-majors at university. However, I’m convinced that almost all ELT in Japan is low-stakes, and no discussions on credit/non-credit classes are a symptom of this. Let me qualify that – almost all ELT that conforms at all to international norms is low-stakes, because ELT that is not test-prep is almost by definition irrelevant. If you are doing anything other than helping students cram in pretertiary settings, you are giving your students more “cultivation” and “character” than real opportunity to advance in society. The apparent lack of communicative English in the public school systems is a bit more complicated than I’m making it seem here (briefly, the high-stakes tests most parents think they’re preparing their kids for by teaching them grammar-translation don’t actually have much or any grammar-translation on them), but the point is that 20th-21st century approaches to SLA like CLT are on the losing half of a “serious/unserious” dichotomy, grammar-translation being cartoons from the New Yorker and CLT being Larry the Cable Guy. If you want to be treated as a professional, teach like it’s 1890.
JALT, an organization aligned much more with international ELT than Japanese public education, has a membership who sees grammar-translation as stone-age pedagogy (which sometimes makes it appear to old-fashioned grammar teachers as a professional organization of unprofessionals). Its ranks are full of highly intelligent and passionate teachers working in stigmatized “oral communication” classes, desperate for their work to be taken seriously. As with a lot of ELT in Japan, the closeness to international norms of any teacher’s approach seems inversely proportional to the seriousness with which society takes them. If you are a JALT member, your greatest achievements with your students are almost invisible to the machinery of social advancement.
In contrast, “credit” teaching in community colleges in the US is playing for keeps – you’re teaching students who more often than not plan to transfer to American universities, and the skills they get with you help them in immediate ways. What they get with your help will lead them to get along better with their classmates, make sense of a lecture, or understand what exactly about the latest Trump quote everyone is so alarmed/amused about within the very near future, not on some hypothetical far-off study abroad or business trip. Even “non-credit” students still have to live here, and in my experience are motivated in a way that seems less conducive to narrow-minded grammar study. If you teach in Japan you’ll have a few students who need English to achieve their heartfelt goals, and make inspiring use of their language skills – but my point is that if you teach ESL, they’ll be the majority in every class.
I don’t mean to say that ELT in Japan would be improved by the addition of more credit classes – but the prevalence of discussions of “credit/non-credit” classes in ESL (along with various other terms you hear bandied about, like “SLOs” and “transfer”) shows how much edifice is built around the idea that people in the US really need English education.
Immigrants get it done
As I said in an earlier post, a whiff of desperation and a nagging feeling of inadequacy can sometimes be a great motivator. Maybe teachers in Japan are overcompensating with their high-minded discussions of when output leads to noticing the gap, but their students are almost definitely better off for it – even if the circumstances that produced such passion for the details of SLA are unhealthy overall. Also, maybe being somewhat isolated socially, particularly from the norms of ELT in Japan (which, again, date back to the advent of village horticulture in the Yayoi period) allows JALT members not to be co-opted as much by an industry that would much prefer you just use a coursebook than plan tasks or have conversations.
I realize now one of the most essential aspects of JALT – it is composed of immigrants and deviants. The NSTs in JALT are mostly members of racial and cultural minorities, and the Japanese JALT folks are people who like to hang out with visible minorities. They would not blend in in a crowd of average citizens and gain little social capital from their careers. Of course they lack the youthful energy of CATESOL; very few of them went straight from their BA to grad school and then right into teaching. I suspect most of them (like me) had years of teaching experience before they got their first qualification. They also have an immigrant’s healthy skepticism of mainstream culture; a decades-old tradition of teaching one particular way has no meaning to an immigrant NST. They have little use (or little chance of establishing) institution identities around their places of work; they need professional identities established among other people with shared experience and expertise to take pride in their work.
Maybe I’m romanticizing the immigrant experience in Japan a bit. Still, I think “institutionalization” is my new favorite word for capturing the differences I’ve felt between CATESOL and JALT.
Appendix: Phrases that causes my jejunum to undulate violently
“when you get to that point in the curriculum”
“the present simple” (particularly in Chapter One of a grammar textbook)
“master a grammar point and continue on to the next one”
“reduced adjective clause”
“_________ clause” (when spoken to a beginning learner)
“know the meaning exactly” (meaning “know the accepted translation in Japanese”)