The Role of Grammar in Language Teaching

SLA Topics   
Key Issues in SLA
Vivian Cook

conference paper in Ghent circa 1994
Vivian Cook

The idea of this paper is not to provide specific proposals for how language should be taught; these could only validly come from those actively involved in actual teaching. Rather the intention is to introduce some current ideas about grammar and second language learning that people may find useful for teaching in general. For the areas of grammar and language learning have been changing rapidly in ways of which people are still unaware; if teachers never know about them then they are not free either to accept or reject their uses in language teaching.


Grammar has had a bad press for many years. To many people, it is the boring subject done at school that consisted of learning parts of speech and parsing the fifteen types of adverbial clause. To language teachers, it is associated with the despised use of 'formal' grammar and the learning by heart of paradigms and rules with innumerable exceptions. Yet originally the word 'glamour' came from the same root as 'grammar'; the person who knew grammar was glamorous and could cast mysterious spells. Only in recent times has grammar become a peripheral boring activity. Compared to the obvious excitement of dealers madly buying and selling foreign currency, grammar could hardly be mentioned in the same breath.

Yet, to many working in linguistics, grammar has been the most exciting area of language in the 1980s, breakthrough following breakthrough in a dizzy and intoxicating fashion. For what actually enables the dealers to communicate with each other but grammar? Every bid they make relies on the grammatical system of language; it is at the heart of the activity. As it is at the heart of all human activity - declaring war, writing a love poem or a prescription, sentencing a prisoner to life imprisonment, advertising soap powder, praying, whatever their difference of motivation or seriousness, all would effectively be impossible without grammar.

Obviously then grammar is here being used to mean something very different from the school grammar of yesteryear; none of these activities involve formal or explicit use of grammatical rules. Let us go back to speech as communication. It is a shibboleth of language teaching that language is communication. We use language for a purpose and that purpose is to get something across to someone in a particular situation whether it is buying and selling or any other activity. But how do you communicate an idea to someone else? Let us suppose that IBM shares are overvalued; you could say that in your mind you have the idea of selling IBM at 550. This idea has to be turned into something that other people can hear and act on; your mind has to go through the process that produces the words "Sell IBM at 550", or more precisely the sound sequence seen in /sel aibi:em &t faififti/.

"Sell IBM at 550" <----------------> /sel aibi:em/

On the one hand are the ideas we want to express, on the other the sounds that we produce, we have the inner world of ideas in our mind contacting the outer world of other people via the sounds that we produce. In other words the relationship in our minds is:

MEANINGS <---------------> SOUNDS

The problem is how we connect the inner world of ideas and meanings with the outer world of sounds; what does the arrow in between stand for? Or, in reverse, as listeners how we connect the outer world of sounds with the inner world of meanings in our minds.

What is the connection between the two? What is the 'computational system' that links them? The answer to linguists is that the bridge between the internal meanings and the external sounds is covered by the set of mental relationships called grammar. The vital link between human thought and human communication is through grammar.


To linguists grammar is the mental system which relates sounds and meanings in the mind; it is the vital component in the human mind that allows us to use language for any purpose that we like. It is not just a static and prescriptive study but the core of what allows human beings to be human beings. Hence the modern interpretation of grammar rejects the earlier notions of prescriptive grammar that told people what to say, of traditional grammar that analysed parts of speech, and of structuralist grammar that looked at substitutions of items within 'structures' and patterns. Each of these of course has some truth to it but none of them reflect this central concept of the grammar as the core mental system of language.

What is grammar then? Since grammar is part of the mind, the object is first to describe things that are common to all human minds and then to look at how they differ. The grammars of all languages are similar; the differences are not random but represent systematic choices from the alternative ways in which the mind can use language, which are called 'parameters'. Let us take two parameters to show the kind of issue that they deal with.

The first is called 'opacity'. In English it is possible to say:

"Mary sometimes drinks beer"

but not:

*"Mary drinks sometimes beer"

However in French the reverse is true in that it is possible to say:

"Marie boit quelquefois du biere"

but not;

*"Marie quelquefois boit du biere"

In other words, in English the adverb "sometimes" precedes the verb, in French the adverb "quelquefois" follows it. In English you also say:

"Mary does not drink beer"

where the negative element "not" precedes the main verb "drink" rather than:

*"Mary drinks not beer"

In French however you get:

"Marie ne boit pas du biere"

in which the negative "pas" follows the main verb instead of preceding it. Furthermore English speakers say:

"The students all drink beer"

with "all" preceding the verb, but French speakers say:

"Les étudiants boivent tous du biere"

with "tous" following the verb.

So in English certain grammatical elements must occur before the verb, in French after it. A French-speaking person has set the opacity parameter so that these elements must follow the verb; an English-speaking person has set it so that these elements must precede the verb. The two languages differ in a single overall factor that affects all these constructions - how they set the opacity parameter.

A second parameter is called pro-drop. This reflects whether a language may leave out the subject of the sentence. In Italian you may say "parla" with no subject expressed; in English you must have a subject as in "he speaks"; in Italian you can say "parla lui" with Verb Subject order, in English you cannot say "speaks he". Also in English you have to have a subject in 'weather' sentences such as "It's raining" and 'existential' sentences such as "There's a book on the table", while in Italian you do not. This variation divides all the languages of the world up into two large groups, on the one hand those like Italian, which include Spanish, Arabic, and Chinese, on the other those like English, which include French and German. And this variation goes with other grammatical features in these languages, for example whether you can have Subject-Verb inversion in declarative sentences.

So the knowledge of the first language in our minds tells us how to tackle opacity and pro-drop; to understand even simple sentences in these languages we need to know whether they must have subject and where the negative element appears in relation to the verb. As children we have learnt what kind of language our native language is from the speech that we have heard; we have set the parameter in our mind to the values for a particular language. While these two parameters are examples from one particular theory of grammar, namely that known as Government- Binding Theory, they are typical of the kind of discovery that grammarians are making. On the one hand they are producing a powerful description of what is going on in our minds; on the other they are telling us about 'obvious' things that stare us in the face in the languages we know, even if they were not covered by conventional ideas of grammar before.

L2 teaching

What this does this mean for our understanding of how people learn second languages and how they should be taught? The overall lesson is that the learners' minds construct grammars for themselves; teachers cannot do it for them. Grammar is inside the mind and is a system of knowledge; it is not a set of rules or structures to be memorised or learnt as habits; it is an active system built up by the mind for dealing with all the sentences that it hears. Teaching provides the means by which students can build up this computational system in their minds. Whether the students and teachers have the goal of business communication in the second language or some other goal, they cannot escape from the fact that grammar is at the core of what they are doing and learning.

As well as the ideas about grammar put forward by linguists, those doing Second Language Acquisition research have also been coming forward with ideas about how people learn second languages. In particular it has been discovered that there are particular sequences of acquisition through which most learners go regardless of their first language. For example children go through a stage in learning the first language in which they leave the subjects out of their sentences; that is to say they treat all languages as if they were Italian rather than English. Only after they have gone through this stage do English children start to discover that their language is different. So the sequence of acquisition for learners of English is usually first sentences without subjects, secondly sentences with subjects. Similarly in Second Language Acquisition people have been unearthing many sequences of acquisition of grammar. Negation for instance has a particular sequence starting with negative elements outside the sentence and going on to elements within the sentence. Relative clauses seem to come in an order of difficulty; everybody finds certain types harder than others. Most famously the so-called grammatical morphemes of English such as "the", "-ing", and possessive "-s" occur in much the same order regardless of the learners' first language.

One of the lessons for teachers is that learners' minds construct the grammars in their minds in a particular order. Teaching can do little about changing the sequence of acquisition but has to work round it. There is no point for instance in correcting Italian beginners learning English when they leave out subjects; this is a natural stage they will go through. The language presented to learners has always come in a fairly conventional agreed order; in English, teachers have started with the present tenses and worked their way through the continuous and perfect till they reach the passive. Why? Because it fits in with teaching. Research into Second Language Acquisition can now provide a fair amount of information about the sequences that learners go through naturally so that teaching can now take this into account, though not necessarily by following it slavishly.

How else might this type of grammar be taught? The mainstay of grammar teaching has been the technique of grammatical explanation: you explain the rules to the students and give them examples of it so that they first get a conscious understanding of it and then start to use it automatically. The problem with the technique was in part that it did not use a modern version of grammar but relied on traditional grammar. What if we can devise a system of grammatical explanation that would be more real to the students because it would at least attempt to follow the type of grammar that they already have unconsciously in their minds? Explaining opacity or pro-drop to students would not be very difficult and might have very useful effects on them; indeed to some extent teachers may have already been doing this without knowing it. Obviously the underlying grammatical description behind such parameters is far from easy but a version that students can make use of might well be possible.

A further approach might come under the idea of awareness training. Several people believe that, rather than teaching particular grammatical points, teachers should be raising the students' consciousness of grammar in general. Once they are on the lookout and sensitised to the possibilities they will be able to acquire the necessary grammar of the language far more easily. So any grammatical point such as pro-drop would do provided it had the desired effect.

Finally one of the most promising applications concerns how parameters are set. Generally it seems that what is necessary to learn the setting for a parameter is enough of the particular type of sentence that exemplifies the point in question. Take pro-drop. What do you actually need to hear in order to learn that your language must have subjects? The unexpected answer that has been proposed is that the vital ingredient that tells the learner that English must have subjects is hearing dummy subjects such as "it" and "there". So what is needed in order to learn this aspect of English grammar is to encounter examples of "It's raining" and "There's a fly in my soup". These do indeed figure in most beginners courses - but not for that reason! One doubts whether any teacher laboriously taking his or her class through "There is a book on the table" versus "There are some books on the table" actually realised that this was teaching that English has compulsory subjects! So the crucial thing for teaching appears to be the choice of particular sentences as input for the learners; if they get the proper range of sentences then they can set the parameters naturally for themselves. If we filter the sentences too severely we may unknowingly cut out the crucial evidence that the learner's mind needs; a too restricted diet may not have the right vitamins for good health and proper growth.

To conclude, it has been argued that teachers should become aware of the new ideas about grammar and language learning that are being proposed today so that they can take from them whatever they may find useful. There is a certain trend at the moment for teachers to say that the communicative revolution has been overdone and we should start thinking about introducing grammar once again. It would be sad if, through ignorance, this trend meant going back to the concepts of grammar that were used in bygone days rather than those current today, as sad as it would be to see chemistry teachers deciding that the core of their subject was medieval alchemy.


The general teaching points in this article are expanded in V.J. Cook (1991), Second Language Learning and Language Teaching, Edward Arnold, Sevenoaks. The syntactic and Second Language Acquisition background is explained in V.J. Cook (1993), Linguistics and Second Language Acquisition, Macmillan, Basingstoke. See also 'The role of grammar in the applied linguistics of language teaching'.