BATJ Talk Grammar in second language learning, using and teaching Sept 2003

Abstract and notes

     SLA Topics  SLA Bibliography  Vivian Cook 


What is grammar?

Grammar to many linguists is the 'computational system' that links sounds and meaning in the human mind. It is how we know that 'Mr Bean loves Teddy' means something different from 'Teddy loves Mr Bean' or 'Does Mr Bean love Teddy?' All speakers of human languages need grammar to be able to produce and to understand speech and writing. Grammar is far more than the grammar-book or the structure: drill it is the underlying system in our minds that enables us to communicate.

So what do we know when we know grammar? Let us take two examples that have been well studied in linguistics. One is the pro-drop parameter: this divides the languages of the world into two groups - those where it is compulsory to have a subject in the sentence like English and those where a subject is not necessarily required like Japanese. The other is the Competition Model which sees how people identify the subject of the sentence while processing it: in some languages like English the primary factor is word order - the subject has to come first; in other languages like Japanese the main factor is animacy - the subject has to be animate.

Acquiring grammar

How do we acquire grammar? One necessity is to get examples of the relevant constructions so that we can build on them. Then people construct their own mental grammars out of what they hear. Hence they go through stages that are their own not parts of the native speaker grammar. English e.g.s. It has been claimed that all second language learners create the same basic grammar of a second language regardless of the first and second language involved. Whether we have two separate grammars for the two languages or not is another question; my own view is that there is also a relationship between the two grammars. We don't just add a new grammar alongside the first but change the whole system.

Teaching grammar

So how do we create a new grammar in the minds of L2 students? The crucial point is that the students' minds are creating a new system out of what teachers provide to them.

- grammatical explanation. Provide students with a description of the target grammar. The first point is to make certain that it accurately reflects the language today and is not just a recycling of traditional notions from books; for example there is/there are. This approach crucially depends upon the conversion of academic knowledge of linguistic description into an ability to use grammar. Hence the grammatical terminology has to be known to the students and compatible with their previous knowledge; is the conventional grammar of Japanese compatible with the traditional grammar English students know? And done in the L1!

- consciousness raising. Make students aware of the nature and importance of grammar. This will allow them to fend for themselves, to work out and explore grammar on their own.

- input. If students are creating grammars in their mind, then we need to provide a sufficient range of samples of the language for them to build on. Some advocate 'enhanced' input in which various features are highlighted.

- conventional grammatical exercises. None of this rules out the conventional techniques for teaching grammar such as structure drills and fill-in exercises, provided they are creating grammars in people's minds that they can use for their own purposes and provided they are based on a proper description of the contemporary language, or at least those aspects of it that the students need to know.


What is grammar?

Magic: their swords soe sore can byte Throughe help of gramarye

All white from head to foot, as if bleached by some strange gramarye.

Grammar is magic; grammarian is magician casting 'glamours', spells

Glamour; no prob for Japanese to confuse l & r!

So grammar is spells and glamour

Modern grammar = what the mind knows of language (chomskyan sense = competence etc)

We know Mr Bean loves Teddy is different from Teddy loves Mr Bean 'cos of word order

Mr Bean loved Teddy is different 'cos of word ending

Does Mr Bean love Teddy? is different 'cos of syntactic movement

To convey meanings in English we need to be apply to arrange and modify the words in various ways

This Chomsky calls the computational system

Sounds <------------------------------------------>meanings

Sounds <-----------> grammar <-------------->meanings

computational system

grammar is the underlying system that allows us to communicate

Examples of grammar

pro-drop parameter; familiar example from UG

two groups of languages; those in which subjects are compulsory, those in which they are not

any speaker of English knows that we say 'I speak' not 'speak', any speaker of Japanese that we say hanashi-masu

English versus Japanese and lots of others

originally seen as complex but now as straight null subject issue

part of the principles and parameters model; variation is setting values for universal properties

part of the speaker's grammar we take for granted; vital to producing, understanding sentences

Competition model

What's the subject of the sentence?

The boy eats the apple

The boys eats the apple

The apple eats the boy

Factors: order (English), agreement (Dutch), animacy (Japanese)

Each language weights the cues differently

We need to know the subject weighting in a language to follow sentences easily

Grammar is the means of processing

Examples show invisible aspects, not obvious but vital every time we process a sentence

Differences between languages within similar grammatical systems and processes

Acquiring grammar

So how do L1 or L2 learners acquire these?

1. by hearing examples of them

Obvious but a necessity; how do you know Japanese is pro-drop, English is non-pro-drop without hearing examples of pro-drop sentences

Sometimes problematic 'cos pro-drop sentences exist in English

2. constructing their own mental grammars

distinctive nature of the learner's grammar

ESF basic learner grammar

Simple rules created by L2 learners after say a year

NP V NP girl take bread

NP cop NP it's bread

V NP pinching bread

Don't know what this does for Japanese but typical of L2 learners of European languages

learner has put together a grammar of their own

3 linking the two grammars in the mind

an L2 learner already has one grammar; how do they build on a second?

Often seen negatively as a transfer from L1 to L2.

So in the case of pro-drop, English learners of Japanese need to learn that Japanese is different; danger of using too many subjects in Japanese

MUGtest results

But also nowadays also seen as feedback from L2 to L1
take the comp model: how do Japanese people who know English locate the subject in Japanese?

Results: over-use of animacy in Japanese, less reliance on case-marking ga wa, salience of plurals

My own idea is multi-competence: two languages in same mind

Integration continuum

Question is how the two grammars relate in learning and processing

Teaching grammar

Two crucial points:

What can teachers do?

1. provide grammatical explanation

- is it an accurate reflection of the language?

teaching has a tradition of grammar, certainly in English

things get taught because they are part of this tradition

There is a book on the table/there are some books on the table >> /D z/

Is pro-drop part of Japanese textbooks? Not mentioned in English ones

- provide a convertible grammar: i.e. knowledge to use
different grammatical traditions, English/Japanese; does the British student know either?
so they have at least to be able to understand the description (consequently in L1)

consciousness raising

emphasis not on teaching specific aspect but on making them aware of grammar
my own approach to intonation; they never learn the details but at least they are aware of it.

students take over from teacher; need for exploratory discovery grammar lessons. E.g. corpora on computer

providing input

their minds need data to work on

threshold perhaps of number of instances of say pro-drop

teaching just provide a range of things for students to work on
for example students learn what they are never taught; eager/easy to please

perhaps enhance input

conventional grammar exercises

why not do drills, fill-in exercises etc?
OK provided they meet the overall requirements of creating a grammar for use in the mind, not rote-memory nor academic knowledge but a computational system

Sum Up

Grammar is a vital part of language not a dead subject

Perhaps the crucial human part of language; other species have words, cries etc but not grammar

The integration continuum in multi-competence


What is grammar?

"their swords soe sore can byte
Throughe help of gramarye"
Medieval Ballad

"All white from head to foot, as if bleached by some strange gramarye." 1883

Mr Bean loves Teddy

Teddy loves Mr Bean

Mr Bean loved Teddy

Does Mr Bean love Teddy?





Subject & null-
Verb subject

Italian pro-drop lui parla parla
Chinese pro-drop ta shuo shuo
German non-pd er spricht *spricht
English non-pd he speaks *speaks
French non-pd il parle *parle

The Competition Model

The boy eats the apple

The boys eats the apple

The apple eats the boy

Factors in choosing the subject


The Basic L2 grammar (ESF)

NP V NP girl take bread

NP cop NP it's bread

V NP stealing bread


Acquiring Grammar

1. hearing examples of constructions in context

2. constructing their own mental grammars

3 linking the two grammars in the mind


Teaching Grammar

Crucial points:


1. providing grammatical explan-

2. consciousness raising

3. providing input

4. using conventional grammar

Follow-up reading

Cook, V.J. (ed.) (2003) Effects of the Second Language on the First, Clevedon, Multilingual Matters

Cook, V.J. (2002) 'Language teaching methodology and the L2 user perspective', in V.J. Cook (ed.) Portraits of the L2 User, Clevedon: Multilingual Matters 325-344

Cook, V.J. (2001) Second Language Learning and Language Teaching, Edward Arnold, 3rd edition. Translated into Japanese (1993)

Cook, V.J. (1989) 'The relevance of grammar to the applied linguistics of language teaching', Trinity College Dublin Occasional Papers, 22