"Language learning is a long, arduous process, and it’s not realistic to expect that ELLs will become nativelike in less than 10 years, much less the one semester I have them in my course." (Error Feedback in L2 Writing, Charles Nelson )
Completely and totally agree with this statement, and am looking forward to Nelson’s explorations on the subject of how (or if) ESL teachers can promote the transfer of grammar.
Confession: I’ve been teaching for nearly 8 years now, and I have had the experience of working with the same students for several years. I’ve seen their confidence bloom. I’ve seen them begin to speak with greater fluency, and I’ve seen them increase their vocabulary and actually use new words in everyday conversations. I’ve seen them use verbs correctly in simple and even complex situations. But one thing I have yet to see in all my 8 years of teaching, is a student consistently use native speaker like grammar. Fluent yes: conversation is easy and with few to no pauses or "ummm’s" or "uhhh’s". On some levels, correct grammar…basic tenses are usually ok. But, as Nelson mentions, there are areas of student speech that just seem to rebel.
I would like to wonder if this is partly caused by a lack of engagement with grammar. I wholeheartedly believe that how we learn our second language should be similar to how we learned our first one. Our first language was never about memorizing lists of verbs or complex explanations about "tense" or time. We never agonized over if we were talking in the future or the past or the past perfect. Instead, it was about hearing these grammar items repeatedly (like thousands and thousands of times) in a friendly in environment, recycled sometimes in the same sentence structure, and at other sometimes in new ones over a period of many years. (Ok, really broad, not even near exhaustive, painting of how we learn our first language…)
But here’s what I think is valuable to remember from that time: Our first language was learned in the midst of engagement. We were deeply involved in the process on a number of high impact levels: emotionally, physically, and mentally. I wonder how engaged in grammar you were when you ratted on your brother or sister for something he/she DID or was DOING to you. Or when you were just putting words together to ask for stuff, like when you were hungry or thirsty. You felt the need to use what you had heard and learned, and so you just did it, mistakes and all.
Grammar development, even as children, takes a few years to get ironed out. My son is 4. Today he speaks with only minor grammar mistakes in his first language, which is Spanish. 4 years. That’s f-o-u-r years of listening to the "grammar" around him. Of interacting and getting correction and encouragement to try again. No rules memorized. No awareness of present, past, or future tense. No verb lists memorized - yet the boy speaks better Spanish than me most of the time. (And I’ve been at this for 8 years!) My vocabulary is much bigger than his (for now), but he surpasses me in fluency and grammar complexity.
I’ve been pondering why this is, and I keep thinking about that "e" word. Engagement. He’s easily way more engaged than I am in the learning process, and the results speak for themselves.
So my point is this: We can increase grammar transfer the more we find ways to "suck students in" - to engage them with what we’re trying to teach. I’d just like to point you toward a great example of how to make grammar more interesting for students (and teachers) of all ages. Check this out…thanks to Katie over at TEFL Logue for sending me here: GRAMMARMAN
After I enjoyed a few Grammarman cartoons, I found a gem: Roadrunner Grammar
I’ll be using this one in my class tomorrow to help reinforce some of the work we’ve been doing around the present and past continuous tenses. But the idea is that Grammarman is a fun way to work on grammar. You actually enjoy the process….for sure an ally in making grammar work more exciting for our students don’t you think?
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