Category Archives: English articles

From drill to discourse – handout & lecture


Wolfgang Butzkamm

From drill to discourse.

Exploiting the combinatorial power of language.

The lecture is an attempt to revitalise pattern practice methodology with concrete examples taken from various classrooms. Observations of how learners acquire languages naturally without pedagogical interventions provide a theoretical foundation. In the first part, I argue that double comprehension (understanding both functions and forms) is the most important single factor in language acquisition. I then present semi-communicative bilingual drills as an exercise type which facilitates pattern recognition, achieves fluency through oral repetition and focuses on meaning rather than on syntactical manipulation. Although the drills work with contextless sentences, these sentences can be processed as fragments of discourse and can lead right into communication, as documented in lesson transcripts. The problem of learning transfer from drill speech to real speech can thus be solved.1

This lecture has two parts. In the first part I shall talk about how we humans learn languages independent of teaching arrangements. These observations provide the theoretical point of departure for my teaching suggestions. First, analysis of natural language acquisition, second: teaching proposals.  Because we can only teach with confidence and clarity, if we understand how learners learn.

In language use and language learning, meaning is all-important, and comprehension is the key to learning. We begin to pick up the language when we identify bits of language and their meanings. Obviously, comprehensible input, usually defined as understandable messages, is the necessary condition for language acquisition. But it is not sufficient. Learners will crack the speech code only if they receive input that is comprehended at two levels. They must understand both what is meant – they must understand the message –  and how things are quite literally expressed, i.e. how the different meaning components are put together to produce the message. This is the principle of double comprehension.

In many cases both types of understanding can be conflated into one process, in others not. Children often get the meaning first before they understand the wording in detail. They initially acquire utterance wholes, fixed formulas (also called routines) which must be carved up until all their constituents and content elements can be used freely.

This learning process has been graphically demonstrated by Lilly Wong-Fillmore (1976), who observed five Mexican immigrant children in their Californian primary school, in their families and on the playground for a school year. Bit by bit the children began to break down their formulas and perceive a pattern with open slots in it allowing their language to become productive.

Lemme-see-it is at first one chunk, where my grandchild Noa would just say “gucken”; another one is I wannit, where Noa simply says  “haben”. Fillmore’s children started to break down these expressions into a fixed part (which is underlined) and a variable part:

Lemme see it the tweedle

I wannit the scissors

The structures eventually became variable in all their slots.  “Ich wieheißtdu Fathma“ is an example from German as a second language.

So children make the passage from formulas or chunks like Lemme-see-it to Let Robert see it; Let him do this etc. ; they begin to understand their internal grammar by extracting the words which they then use to build utterances of their own.

Here are examples of the pattern-finding process from L1 acquisition.

English children make mistakes such as it’s went or it’s played. French: Tu peux me taider? The model for this phrase is probably parental utterances such as Attends, je vais t’aider.  So for my grandchild Astor, who grows up in France, the verb is initially taider, not aider. He has not separated out verb and pronoun.

German:   Wenns du kommst. The force behind this are phrases like wenn’s geht, wenn’s regnet. But what about: Zerlaubst du’s?

This is a real puzzle. How does it come about? Clara & William Stern, who noted this down, suggest that the phrase comes from an incomplete  analysis of Papa hat’s erlaubt / Mama hat’s erlaubt.  I hope you‘ll never forget it. Children have to solve numerous riddles on their way to grammar. So let us keep our sense of wonder alive. Language acquisition is not an easy thing, not  just child’s play, it’s a miracle deeply embedded in our genes,  but a miracle which we slowly begin to understand.

Incidentally, at this point in first language acquisition, parents help their children in various ways. Here are two ways you are all familiar with. At the beginning, parents tend to avoid personal pronouns. „Now Mary has got the ball. Now Mummy has got the ball – instead of saying “you” and “I”. Mary and Mummy are  unambiguous, whereas the pronouns change their referents  and are more difficult to grasp.

And parents ask a lot of didactical questions such as What’s Mummy’s  name? What’s your little sister’s name? Caregivers give the child very finely tuned feedback, they restructure their own language, so that many parental utterances can be seen as mapping aids as well as segmentation aids that separate out, isolate and identify certain meaningful constituents and thus ease their children’s way into language. They make them hear certain words so that they stand out clearly – words which normally run together and blend together in a continuous stream: “Mamakommtgleich”.

All learners, not just children in natural acquisition situations, have problems in sorting out individual words and their distinct meanings, as we can see in the following examples.

A child learning English in kindergarten produced the sentence “I need three napples, please” ( as reported by Peltzer-Karpf, (2003)). He must have thought that “an apple” was actually “a napple”. The same kind of error was made centuries earlier when along with the Spanish fruit the Spanish word “naranja” was imported into England and wrongly understood as “an aranja”, which became “an orange”.  Analysis stopped half-way.

Similarly, classroom learners must break down utterances from their constituent parts in order to be able to recombine them meaningfully.  French beginners are usually taught the phrase “Je m’appelle Christophe”.  What Germans usually understand is “ich heiße Christophe”, which becomes a puzzle when they see it printed. So they should also know that the French actually say “Ich mich nenne Christophe”.  Again, double comprehension is needed. But puzzling this out costs mental resources. So why not clarify it right away by mirroring the phrase in German, as I just did?

Burmeister reports that some children in a bilingual kindergarten thought that “get your cups” meant “Trink was”, which clearly shows that understanding messages, getting the idea, getting the intention,  is only half the battle. So learners need help here, and we’ve seen that parents do help children to understand and tease apart (auftrennen) language patterns, which is just one way of scaffolding (abstützen) their learning processes. (LASS)

Teachers, for their part, can use mother tongue mirroring to scaffold foreign language learning. Mirroring the foreign construction in the native language is a natural strategy.  I remember an Australian boy who told me:

Whereas the French say “le petit poisson bleu”,” der kleine Fisch blaue”.

A Korean student of mine wrote: “A strategy I had chosen to learn a difficult structure was to compare it to Korean and then memorise a very simple sentence for illustration, for instance, what a good boy you are, where English word order is quite different from Korean.”

In my next example a pupil remembers a typical misunderstanding:  “Our teacher often demanded silence with the expression: [pikwait]. To me this was one word and I was absolutely proud when some day I learned the word „quiet“ and discovered its meaning. Although I had sensed what Herr X meant to say I could then correct the pronunciation in my mind because I had identified the isolated words.” Only from then on are sentences like be nice, be good,  be friendly within her reach. Or take the phrase See you tomorrow. German beginners who don’t see the phrase printed automatically assume this means bis morgen, which is literally until tomorrow. With this half analysis they can produce time phrases such as see you later, or see you on Monday etc., but it will prevent them from producing location phrases like see you at the gym, see you at the bus stop. Only a full analysis of the phrase such as provided by mother tongue mirroring  Seh euch morgen will do the job.  Double  comprehension is both necessary and sufficient.

Let’s change perspectives. Think of an English tourist who asks you: How do you say “What’s the time?” in German? You tell him: Just say: Wie spät ist es?  This works well from a communicative point of view. It’s the perfect equivalent, though not the only one. However, it’s good enough for tourists only. Language learners need to know more: *How late is it? That’s what the Germans say literally, which gives us the anatomy of the phrase, and the logic behind it.  That way, the German time phrase could become a recipe for many more sentences:

How old is it? –              Wie alt ist es?

How long is it –              Wie lang ist es?

How expensive is it? –    Wie teuer ist es? etc.

„Tes̜ekkür ederim“, in Turkish, means „thank you“. You’ve understood the message, which – as I’ve just said -  is a necessary condition for acquisition, because you can now use the phrase yourself.  But a formal, analytic understanding will take you much further: *”Thanks I make” or even better: “thanks make-I”. Because „I“, the personal pronoun, is expressed by the ending  -im. This kind of explanation, which I‘ve called mother tongue mirroring, is an elegant, plausible and highly satisfying way of clarifying foreign constructions. And yet it is conspicuously absent in our coursebooks, although it is easily understood and will eventually  help students to build more sentences along the same lines. They can analogise, improvise and risk sentences they’ve never heard before, which is the essence of language learning. That’s the point, the crux of the matter.

A Chinese student of mine (Tong Wu) reports:

“When we were in China I saw that double comprehension can indeed make a difference in a learner’s FL production. In those cases where my German friend only knew what a Chinese utterance meant, he could hardly be creative in terms of making new combinations out of what he just understood. In contrast, when he knew not only what it meant but also how it was constructed, he could easily create new expressions of his own to fit into different situations.”

And that’s precisely what children do. They want to say their own things. They  actually take risks, and sometimes go too far, and so they produce their well-known overextensions or overgeneralisations,

Hocher, vieler, die vielsten

Omnibussen, Anoraken; Onkels, Apfels

German past participles such as *aufgehebt, *ausgezieht, *ausgesteigt

plurals like mouses and foots,

past tense forms like sticked, bringed, putted, hitted.

All these forms which they can’t have retrieved preformed from memory, show that they are well on their way to grammar even if they overshoot in these cases.

Peter, between 2 and 3 years old, also produces his own forms with which he communicates successfully:


  • Das-zu-Dranmachen = Häkchen
  • Das-zu-Schmeißen = Luftballon
  • Das-zu-Bouillon-Reintun = Suppenkelle
  • Das-zu-Eier-Rausnehmen = Schaumlöffel…

Very useful, if you don’t  remember the names of things. – Similarly, my grandchild Olivia who grows up trilingually in France uses a mixed French-German sentence pattern which she can’t have heard before:


veux runter (want down)

veux Haus (want toy house)

veux anziehen (want to get dressed)

veux kuck (want to look)

veux Ilse (= she wants to talk to her aunt on the phone)


Language acquisition is innovative and creative.  It is not the acquisition of a growing repertoire of ready-made phrases or formulas with which tourists try to operate. Children not only imitate –initially this is all they can do – but then they go beyond what they’ve heard. They generate language, and through language, new ideas. This happens all the time, but we can only be sure that they don’t just reproduce what they’ve heard if they produce unconventional and ungrammatical language.

One last point before we come to teaching techniques: Children sort of  practise, or play with,  sentence patterns in non-communicative situations such as pre-sleep monologues. Witness the kind of unsolicited verbal play that Weir (1962, 109) recorded when her son was left alone in the dark before he went to sleep:

What colour

What colour blanket

What colour map

What colour glass

Here is a monologue from my own child: Papa pommt / Mama pommt / Auto pommt…

(pommt = kommt)


And, as I’ve just pointed out, playing with language is playing with ideas, as Natasha shows us who explores the counterfactual:


(Natasha is playing with Natasha; to herself, fast):

(pointing to her nose)                                         this is my foot

(pointing to her eyes)                                         this is my nose

(pointing to her foot)                                          this is my eyes

(pointing to her mouth)                                      this is my neck

(pointing to her bottom)                                     this my head

(pointing to her ankle)                                       this is my wrist…

Let me conclude this part by insisting that only with double comprehension can learners bring the basic and exclusively human property of language into play, its combinatorial power. It’s the core property of language, according to Chomsky, the core capacity which in our teaching methodology is referred to as the generative principle. In Humboldt’s famous words: We can make infinite use of finite means.

Denn sie (= die Sprache) steht ganz eigentlich einem unendlichen und wahrhaft gränzenlosen Gebiete, dem Inbegriff alles Denkbaren gegenüber. Sie muss daher von endlichen Mitteln einen unendlichen Gebrauch machen, und vermag dies durch die Identität der Gedanken- und Spracheerzeugenden Kraft. (Humboldt 1963, 477)


Notice the two aspects of the combinatorial power of language: the inexhaustibility of what is sayable and thinkable.  By manipulating the building blocks of language we produce new thoughts.  Language is not just for communication, it’s for thinking as well as for communication, it’s our thought organ.  This trick, so to speak, of combining and recombining, accounts for the vast expressive power of language. Is grammar the motor of thought? Does grammar make us smart?  Smarter than all the other beings on earth? Question mark!


What follows from this for teaching? What shall we do, as teachers?

The sentences pupils encounter in their basic texts such as dialogues, stories or songs must not remain encapsulated in those texts but must be varied and become productive sentence patterns. For instance, the line “What shall we do with a drunken sailor”, i.e.  the shall I / shall we construction  must not remained enshrined in the well-known sea shanty, but must be made available for other ideas such as:

What shall I do with my hair? What shall I do with my back (it hurts)?

What shall we do with our maths teacher (too much homework!)?

What shall I do with my wife? What shall do with my life?

We have thus opened up completely new dimensions and are miles away from drunken sailors.

In other words: A sentence must become a recipe for many more sentences, a germ cell for numerous other sentences. But watch out! Sentence variations must be experienced as sense variations, not just as syntactical manipulations, as Humboldt reminds us. We may safely assume that children who permutate sentences even in non-communicative situations are interested in the novel ideas which they generate, and not in syntax.

The problem is that pattern recognition, our innate instinct for analogy, comes only into play after a fair amount of concrete linguistic material has been learned (Tomasello 2002, 98).

So as teachers of 3hpw learners who don’t receive the massive language contacts of natural learners we cannot simply rely on the pattern-finding skills of children. This would be a sort of didactical Rousseauism, the naturalistic fallacy: Just make yourself understood and leave them alone with the language. No, we must find the right methodology to accelerate the learning process:

1. We must shorten the process of pattern recognition

2. We must practise a construction so it can take root and learners feel encouraged to risk something new on the analogy of what is familiar.

The solution I propose are semi-communicative bilingual pattern drills. They ought to be a cornerstone in our teaching methodology.  I shall spend the rest of this lecture to show how they work in practice.

How to proceed

1. Select a sentence that can be easily turned into a productive pattern from a basic text that has been studied carefully. It could be song, a story, a dialogue. The sentences are thus anchored in well-understood situations, but must now be freed from their embeddednes in a specific situational and linguistic context.

Here are two dialogues performed by my primary school children who I teach once a week, in the last lesson of the day: English is cool & Black eye sketch.

Wrong World is another such basic dialogue which the children have to act out: The very first sentence contains an important construction: Will you make me a sandwich?

2. Make sure the sentence is doubly understood. Learners should know what it means and how it means.

3. Begin with easy substitutions

  • Machst du mir mal bitte n Brot?
  • Machst du mir mal bitte zwei Brote?
  • Hilfst du mir mal bitte?
  • Hilfst du mal bitte deiner Mutter?…
  • Spielst du mal bitte mit deiner kleinen Schwester?
  • Wollt ihr mal bitte stille sein!

Now make your own sentences.


4. Every bilingual drill is turned over to the students and thus becomes monolingual: Now make your own sentences.  Don’t give too many prompts, but leave space for the learner, so that they can come up quickly with their own sentences: Will you please help your father / big sister/ friend  etc.

5. Use your voice, mimes and gestures to support meaning: „Wollt ihr mal bitte stille sein!“ That’s what makes oral MT cues effective.

Or take another sentence from the same dialogue:

  • Etwas stimmt nicht mit dieser Welt.
  • Etwas stimmt nicht mit meinem Computer.
  • Etwas stimmt nicht mit unserm Lehrer.
  • Etwas stimmt nicht mit ihm.
  • Etwas stimmt nicht mit meiner kleinen Schwester.

Now make your own sentences, English sentences.

6. So here is yet another point: We need to explore the communicative potential or reach of a given construction. So notice the mental leap from computer to teacher, i.e. from things to persons. Incidentally this little leap from things to persons is a big leap for retarded children. It seems that intellectually alert pupils make these semantic leaps by themselves and readily change topics whereas others keep within given domains, for instance animals or food items. But all learners must learn to generalise across various domains of experience. With older learners you could risk a sentence like there’s something wrong with our democracy. Notice the big shifts in terms of content in my next example, which is the line ‘All I want is a room somewhere’ from Eliza’s song in the musical My Fair Lady. Before starting, we make sure the learners understand both the message and the construction. We then elicit sentence variations from our class:

All I want is a nice cup of tea

All I want is a quiet class

All you want is love, but all you get is video.

The teacher’s idea is to practise the formal device of a ‘contact clause’ where the relative pronoun is left out. But in the minds of the pupils, these are variations on the theme of wishes and dreams, rather than a structure drill. The teacher asks himself how he can show his pupils through interesting substitution possibilities that this construction is suitable for their own needs of expression. His job is to probe the communicative radius of a construction, explore its semantic potential.

The exchangeable sentence elements become of greatest importance.

The next example is taken from the dialogue Home sweet home.

This is a wonderful opportunity for students to experience the function and form of present progressive constructions.

T: Ich mache einen Kuchen, bin dabei, einen Kuchen zu backen. In English?

S: bake a cake.

T: I‘m baking a cake.

S: I‘m baking a cake.

I‘m baking a cake.

T: Ich mache grad ne Pizza.

S: I‘m…

T: making

S: I‘m making a pizza.

T: Ich mache grade Sandwiches…

The example shows that repetition and easy substitutions are necessary for the learners to establish the specific sound structure of a construction and to get into the rhythm of it. Mistakes will be made, but will be ironed out, or practised away, through repetition of correct constructions. Part of language learning is habit formation, and this takes several successful repetitions, perhaps up to a dozen.  Repetitions are necessary for new constructions to take roots.

Naturally mother tongue cues don’t always succeed. It can happen that the mother-tongue words rather than the idea expressed functions as the mental trigger. In other words a pupil begins to translate, constructing an English sentence word for word analogous to the German wording. We need experience to effectively deal with or forestall interference errors. Most of the time errors can be prevented through appropriate cueing and sequencing or immediate prompts (schlichtes Vorsagen).

Aber ich mach doch grade meine Hausaufgaben. Use: doing.

  • But I‘m doing my homework.

Und ich spiele grad Geige. Aufpassen…die Geige!

  • And I‘m playing the violin.

The aim is of course for the pupils to operate at the content level and de-verbalise the mother-tongue cue, as conference interpreters do (deverbalisation hypothesis, see Butzkamm 1993, 57). In traditional monolingual pattern drills the pupil solves a formal problem: a word or word group has to be substituted at the right place. Bilingual drills run along different mental tracks. With mother tongue cues the pupil expresses an idea, as we do in normal speech. Where the idea comes from is of course important, so we always switch from teacher’s cues to sentences generated by the students themselves. The drill presents or exemplifies constructions instead of describing them, and simultaneously reveals their communicative range or radius. The rules are caught rather than taught.  No analytical and terminological overkill, as is often the case in the teaching of grammar..

We can help students to get into the rhythm of a construction and maximise language turnover through reciprocal pair work. Here is the dialogue  Head Boy / Head girl adapted from the Peanuts series.

In this short dialogue  the ‘ll construction occurs three times:

 I’ll help you / we’ll vote for you / I’ll do it and so it suggests itself for practice.  The teacher starts the drill as usual but then hands out a worksheet with German-English parallel columns. One partner gets the sheet and acts as the teacher who gives the mother tongue stimulus sentences.

Okay, ich mach’s. – Okay, I’ll do it.

Whenever his partner hesitates, he will prompt him with the correct answer.

Double comprehension again:  Because before the drill starts, the teacher explains: „We say: Ich mach’s. But the English say it differently: Ich werd’s machen.“ So the pupils notice the contrast. With MT cues, we don’t shy away from the contrast, we take the bull by the horns.

Habit formation again: Through repetition + variation the foreign construction becomes less foreign and begins to sound natural. Learners start developing  some kind of Ohrgefühl / Bauchgefühl for this construction. Only recently a Realschul-teacher pointed out to me, that good pupils could be trusted to write these exercises themselves, then be the teacher and practise with the class. A classical example of Learning by teaching (LdL).

With this activity learners can experience a sort of language explosion, because the number of sentences made available to them is rapidly increasing, and chances are that learners could eventually use some of them for personal communications.

I also suspect that bilingual drills are particularly useful if we can bring the FL and the  MT into sharp contrast: How long have you been doing this? Wie lange schon…? Learners must make the equation: the German wie-lange- schon-phrase is associated with the English have-been-doing construction.

The crowning glory of bilingual pattern drills is when the teacher succeeds in giving sentences, i.e. ideas that relate to problems of the day, in other words, when he can personalise, individualise or localise his sentence cues.

Here’s an example (grammar school, 2nd year English) where the teacher alludes to an impending general election in Germany in 2005: Schröder vs. Merkel. The class had been practising  somebody needs somebody or something.

Teacher                                                                      Student

Angie (Merkel) braucht Hilfe.Sie braucht Hilfe von ihren Freunden.Angie braucht Hilfe von den Wählern. Say: voters.Herr Schröder braucht auch Wähler.Sie alle brauchen unsere Stimmen. Say: votes.



Angie needs help.She needs help from her friends.Angie needs help from the voters.Herr Schröder needs voters, too. 

They all need our votes.

Everybody needs somebody to love.


And you could end up with: Jeder braucht einen zum Liebhaben.  Everybody needs somebody to love. It’s a pity I didn’t remember the phrase at the time.

This distinct focus on meaning would be impossible without L1 cues – which shows that the controversy about the use or non-use of the students’ native language is not to be solved with the banal advice to use it “judiciously”.

Results: from drill speech to real speech

Admittedly, a drill series cannot focus on meaning in its full force, because here language is not used in social encounters. So never have pattern drills been meant to replace truly communicative activities.  But can they prepare for them? Yes, they can.

The stage is set for a bit of real communication when the students are asked to make up their own sentences. When they do this, most of them are not performing language operations in a void. Some students may play it safe and give easy examples, but others will feel tempted to vie with the teacher, take risks and produce “loaded“ sentences. Be that as it may, the teacher can always ask a pupil: Is this sentence true for you? Or he can jump in directly, like the teacher in the following example. The class is practising the present continuous, and a pupil comes up with this sentence:

Pupil:     “My sister is doing a test in class 9b.”

Teacher. “Is your sister a pupil of this school?”

Pupil:      “Yes, she is.”

Teacher:   “What test is she sitting?”

Pupil:      “A maths test.”

Teacher:  ”So she is sitting a maths test right now? I hate maths. Do you like maths?” (Silke H.)

The teacher can always step out of grammar practice, he can do as if the pupil meant it seriously and can thus build small communicative islands in a sea of language practice.

Here is an example from a fifth form in their very first year English in a German secondary modern school of the 1980s (Hauptschule). The teacher (Stefan Eschbach) takes the sentence I’ve got a good idea from a previously introduced dialogue and starts with a bilingual pattern drill.


T:         Ich hab’ einen phantastischen Einfall.

P:         I’ve got a fantastic idea.

T:         Wir haben eine wunderbare Idee.

P:         We’ve got a wonderful idea.

T:         Er hat immer gute Ideen.

P:         He’s always got good ideas.

T:      Ehm… Ich hab’ ‘ne grüne Idee.

P:      I’ve got a green idea.

T:      Ich habe ‘ne blaue Idee.

P:      I’ve got a blue idea.


Stefan’s pupils had only a few adjectives available for substitutions. The teacher therefore makes a virtue out of necessity by presenting these comical sentences – just one of the means of shifting the focus from form onto sense. There is sense in nonsense!

Eventually he produces a loaded sentence and breaks out of the drill with a question:

T:      Ich habe einen dummen Lehrer. –  Okay, Jenny.

P:      I’ve got a silly teacher.

T:      Have you got a silly teacher?

P:      Yes.

T:      Ehm… Would you … ehm … be so kind as to tell me his name?

P:      Mr. Morrison.

PP:    Hahaha

T:      You’re laughing, hm?


Naturally the teacher receives an immediate answer which he was in fact expecting: he himself is called Mr. Morrison in his English lessons. This is a very brief communicative exchange, but we all start small, don’t we.

As a final step, the class can be instructed to write their own dialogues in groups, i.e. to change basic dialogues by using the sentence variations just practised. Remember the dialogue Home sweet home?

This is a dialogue written by pupils and based on Home sweet home. It was sent to me by someone who was then a trainee teacher with Marco Hoppe:

Belling? Yes, learners must take risks…

Here is another example of a dialogue written and performed by my pupils in the 1980s. But first the original Peanuts dialogue

  • Lucy: What‘s going on here?
  • Charlie Brown: I‘m helping Snoopy to bury a bone.
  • Lucy: Good grief!

Can‘t he do that himself?

  • Charlie Brown: He hates getting his hands dirty.


The teacher enters the classroom.

  • What‘s going on here?

We‘re playing football.

  •  Sorry, but who‘s playing football?

Peggy, Mary, Betty, Ann and I.

  •  Girls playing football? What are the boys doing?

They‘re playing with dolls.

Good grief!

And after a group presents their play, there is an opportunity for the class to ask questions, to comment on the play and even suggest how to improve it.  The teacher helps to clarify  what was perhaps unclear. This allows for some spontaneous messsage-oriented communication which is, ultimately, what we need. Because, as we all know, we learn how to communicate by communicating. So we are getting the results.

In my language teaching philosophy, however, the generative principle, which targets at the productive  power inherent in language  and puts it to use, is as important as the communicative principle. Sadly, it has been grossly neglected in mainstream thinking.  Teachers can harness these natural skills with semi-communicative pattern drills as I’ve just shown.  The drills proposed are grammar at work, grammar in action.  Yes, walk the walk from drill to communication and self-expression. Here is an example of pattern practice which my pupils made meaningful and enjoyable through intonation, mimes and gestures. I taught these phrases bilingually, but now the pupils no longer need the German: „No parroting“


Carl Sagan said: „When you are in love, you want to tell the world.“  Yes, and when you really have a message, you also want to tell the world. I feel I have a message to put across, because what I’ve just told you is far from the mainstream, and I feel passionately about this.

With regard to MT use in the L classroom, John Caldwell, Guy Cook and others think that „the way is open for a major paradigm shift in language teaching“ (Hall & Cook 2012, p. 299).  So let us do away with a MT taboo which is only self-crippling. Foreign language teaching must be based on a new foundation, the pupils‘ native language.  Millions of average language learners in average schools, and taught, on average, for 3-5 lessons per week, would be just a wee bit better off if teachers knew how to use the right kind of monolingual as well as bilingual techniques. Let me end by quoting from the epilogue of our book The bilingual reform. It is called „Capitalising on a priceless legacy“. This priceless legacy is our mother tongue, and FL teachers must make it their ally. Here are our concluding lines:

„Believe in the power of teaching. Experience the excitement of teaching. Teach with MT support. Teach with the wind beneath your wings.“

1. Sources

Wolfgang Butzkamm,  Lust zum Lehren, Lust zum Lernen (32012), chapter 9: „Richtig üben: das generative Prinzip“ (pp. 237 – 274)     

Wolfgang Butzkamm & John A. W. Caldwell, The bilingual reform. A paradigm shift in foreign language teaching (2009), chapter 6: „How to teach structures the bilingual way“  (pp. 120 – 141)

Wolfgang & Jürgen Butzkamm, Wie Kinder sprechen lernen (32008), chapter: „Das Jahr der Grammatik .“ (pp. 238 – 264)

Why Make Them Crawl If They Can Walk? Teaching with Mother Tongue Support  In: RELC Journal 42/3, (2011), 379-391.



From drill to discourse.

Exploiting the combinatorial power of language.

Wolfgang Butzkamm (

The lecture is an attempt to revitalise pattern practice methodology with concrete examples taken from various classrooms. Observations of how learners acquire languages naturally without pedagogical interventions provide a theoretical foundation. In the first part, I argue that double comprehension (understanding both functions and forms) is the most important single factor in language acquisition. I then present semi-communicative bilingual drills as an exercise type which facilitates pattern recognition, achieves fluency through oral repetition and focuses on meaning rather than on syntactical manipulation. Although the drills work with contextless sentences, these sentences can be processed as fragments of discourse and can lead right into communication, as documented in lesson transcripts. The problem of learning transfer from drill speech to real speech can thus be solved.

Natural language acquisition

  • Children hear complete utterances, not just individual words.
  • They understand messages, i.e. what is meant, and later produce messages.
  • But the input they receive must ultimately be comprehended at two levels: They must also detect / extract the recurring patterns behind the utterances, they must free the words. Why?
  • Because they must learn to recombine the meaning components in new ways  in order to say things they’ve never heard before.
  • They try new sentences & novel ideas and thus make infinite use of finite means.

Foreign language teaching

  • Double comprehension is the most important single factor in language acquisition and foreign language learning.
  • 3hours-per-week learners don’t get the amount and type of exposure necessary for both understanding the messages and finding the patterns all by themselves.
  • But they all have a naturally acquired language – a huge cognitive capital  accumulated over years – which is used to crack the code of foreign constructions.
  • Teachers must work with this capital rather than ignore it.
  • Sentences taken from well-known texts must be perceived as sentence patterns and become a recipe for many more sentences / ideas.
  • Bilingual pattern drills with a dual focus both on fluency and on content can be processed as fragments of discourse and lead right into communication.

Study questions and tasks

Do it yourself! Choose a productive pattern and devise your own bilingual structure drill along the lines laid down in the text. Try it out on your group. Can you adjust your sentences “to the moment”, to the needs and preferences of your fellow students?  Can you spontaneously involve them in short communicative interludes?

Compare bilingual drills with the standard monolingual exercises of schoolbooks. Discuss strengths and weaknesses.

Rivers notes in her learner’s diary (1979, 77): “It is very important to try out in new sentences what you have just learned, if not to others, at least in private talk to yourself”. Do you agree? Have you observed yourself doing this?

“Drill work before free work. This is perhaps the most important of the precepts to be observed” (Palmer 1921, 74). Discuss.

When is explicit grammatical knowledge needed, when not?  When do we need a rule along with grammatical terms?  Or is a mirrored version enough for learners to immediately see the point?  Give examples.

At the beginning the teacher analyzes the construction for the pupils and makes sure learners understand both function and form of the new construction. Should we rather rely on self-discovery?

How can we guard ourselves against persistent errors which echo the students’ own language (interference errors)?

The following objections could be raised by adherents of the communicative approach:1.Producing new sentences on one’s own is still far away from real conversation.

2. One should not practise with isolated, disconnected sentences because they are non-communicative. Discuss.




How to improve foreign language teaching significantly

After visiting hundreds of classrooms I often feel that, on average, modern languages today are not taught better than in the 1950s when I went to school. There are exceptions, of course,  real improvements mostly in connection with the digital revolution and in online courses. There is a spirit of experimentation and innovation, and I venture to say that with the internet, the golden age of language learning has only just begun. But, in my view, foreign language teaching in public schools is stagnating, especially when it comes to teaching beginners and laying the foundations.  One of the reasons for this stagnation are fundamental flaws or omissions in the language teaching theories of the mainstream. The three areas in which significant improvements can be achieved concern the communicative principle, the bilingual principle, and the generative principle.

1. We are born and bred to communicate. It is our social talent that makes us smarter than all other living beings. Preschool children already have the expressive means for a magnificent array of speech intentions, using their voice, mimes and gestures, i.e. linguistic and paralinguistic means. And they bring all these communicative competencies to the task of foreign language learning. It follows that utterances, not words, are the primary reality of language, and dialogues, for which we need a partner, are the ideal basic texts for foreign language teaching. They define a specific situation and constitute a total communicative event. So let us teach learners to enact these situations in face to face communication as naturally as possible. If rightly taught, they perform them with verve and gusto no matter whether they are children, adolescent or adults, slow or fast learners. With our social brains we are naturally born performers and masters in make-believe. Most modern coursebooks are peppered with colourful pictures, but don’t contain enough short, actable and sophisticated dialogues with which learners can enjoy team work and create moments of excellence for themselves and their audiences.

2. Sophisticated dialogues are possible from the very beginning because we teach them with systematic mother tongue support, via the bilingual sandwich-technique. In a laudable effort to make teachers conduct classrooms in the foreign language, mainstream philosophy has thrown out the baby with the bathwater. However, a naturally acquired language is the greatest pedagogical resource that learners bring to foreign language classes, as it lays the foundations for all other languages we might want to learn. Two thousand years of documented language teaching, as well as modern brain research, have shown that foreign language learning is fundamentally a bilingual endeavour. Because, in a deep sense, we only learn language once. In a common effort to make sense of  the world, all languages dance the same dance. All humans can talk about persons and things, time and space, past and future, basic event types like give & take, possession, number, instrument, agent, obligation, condition etc. etc.  In our first five years we have accumulated a huge cognitive capital for the rest of our lives, usually via the mother tongue. It would be sheer madness to cut learners off from what is the very foundation of language. It follows that it is not just a more flexible and less rigid attitude towards own-language use which is needed, but the well-targeted, systematic exploitation of the explanatory potential of learners’ own language(s), however with the foreign language still being the working language of the classroom.

3. In language, we make “infinite use of finite means” (Humboldt). A finite stock of words or word groups can be recombined again and again to produce innumerable novel sentences – and thus, new ideas. This is the core capacity of all human languages. It means that the words and constructions of the basic dialogues, stories or songs must not remain encapsulated in those texts, but must be extracted, recombined and varied in order to fit new situations and personal communicative needs.  (What shall we do with the drunken sailor? => What shall I do with my hair? => What shall I do with my life?). Children are excellent pattern detectives, which is visible from the two word stage on. But 3- hours-per-week learners must be helped to shorten the process of pattern recognition – by mother tongue mirroring, for instance -  and by repetition cum variation of basic constructions, which is also evidenced in child language. The practical solution proposed are semi-communicative bilingual pattern drills as stepping stones towards communication – so mother tongue support again. Constructions are fully understood, they can take root  and learners feel encouraged to risk something new on the analogy of what is familiar. Bilingual pattern practice ought to be a cornerstone in our teaching methodology. It is conspicuously absent in our coursebooks.

After forty years of working with foreign language learners and observing them in a great variety of classrooms I have come to the conclusion that we must free ourselves from two dogmas which have harmed, and not helped, the teaching profession: The monolingual dogma tried to banish the learners’ native language from the classroom. The communicative dogma led to the wholesale rejection of pattern drills. Let us re-orient ourselves and make a significant step forward.


Denial of assistance-Language lessons for migrants come too late and could be more effective

In Europe, asylum seekers are taken care of by state agencies. They get accommodation and food, but that’s about it. Some of them have been living here in Germany for almost a year and they are still waiting for a final decision about whether they can stay or will be sent back. When I first met some of them, I found that even after several months of being in my country some knew only about a dozen German words and phrases. That means, there had been only very little contact with their German neighbours.

However, church communities and other people are now becoming aware of the problem and people like me who are retired and have some time on their hands have arranged regular meetings where they try to talk to them and teach them some German.

But here lies another problem. What is the most effective way of teaching real beginners who often come to us with mother tongues which nobody knows, for instance Twi and Tigrinya? There is absolutely no doubt about it that, for beginners, a bilingual approach where the teacher can use the learner’s mother tongue (or another language the learner is somewhat familiar with) is much more effective than a monolingual teaching-learning situation where only the target language can be used. Unfortunately the latter situation is often the case as present-day immigrants often speak only one of the lesser known “little” languages of Africa. So it seems that a monolingual German-only approach (also: direct method, Berlitz method) is the only possible way. So far as I can see, this has been the policy of the German courses sponsored by the government for those migrants who were granted asylum.  Learning German this way is an arduous task and painstakingly slow. It is a sink or swim method, leaving many learners frustrated in spite of coursebooks peppered with colourful pictures.

However, the situation could be effectively remedied, even in multilingual classes. Experts would simply have to agree upon, let’s say 30 dialogues of the type found in almost every coursebook and create an internet site for each of the European languages concerned. Then an appeal should be launched to those bilinguals well integrated in their respective host countries and ready to provide the same texts in their home language, perhaps even free of charge. Teachers, voluntary or professional, could study the dialogues with their classes and act them out in groups. This would be comparatively easy, because every client could fully understand what he is doing and saying. With our social brains and our emotional expertise we are naturally born performers. Learners can enjoy team work and create moments of excellence for themselves and their audiences. Moreover, reference to the learners’ mother tongues implies an appreciation of indigenous languages and cultures.

Meanwhile, we have started a website called  Carefully selected Bible stories are presented in easy, modern German and in a special bilingual format. The aim is twofold: (1) To help migrants from various language backgrounds with some knowledge of German to continue making progress in German; (2) to introduce them to the common European Christian heritage.  The texts should carry the Christian core message of love but should not preach Christian dogmas and are not intended to proselytise.  Instead, we hope to build bridges between various cultures and languages and foster understanding between them. Knowledge creates understanding, and understanding begets sympathy.

The translations should be provided by former migrants who have lived in Germany and have become fully bilingual. Migrants should help migrants. It is hoped that in this way translations in various “rare” or “small”  languages will be made which have so far been neglected in terms of learning materials.

Comprehensible input is precisely the basic condition for language acquisition. But the outmoded pedagogic approach à la Berlitz, which is still the rule in many language courses worldwide, is an outright denial of assistance. See Butzkamm & Caldwell, The bilingual reform.  A paradigm shift in foreign language teaching (2009).


Neanderthal practice? On the teaching of grammar and the slaughtering of sacred cows

(Poznan 2013)

My lecture falls into three parts. I shall explain (1) the principle of double comprehension as the prime requirement for language acquisition to take place.

I shall move on to (2) a re-evaluation of the role of the mother tongue in foreign language teaching, which, rather than be ignored, can be made our most powerful ally. I shall explain (3) the generative principle and demonstrate bilingual semi-communicative pattern drills as a way into the grammar of a foreign language.

The time is ripe for slaughtering two sacred cows of our mainstream philosophy:  1. L1 is not a last resort when nothing else will work. It is indispensable for a quick and complete grasp of new constructions, one which leaves no questions unanswered.

2. Grammar practice need not always be situational or contextual so as to lead the learner gently into communication.There is a place for pattern drills with  disconnected sentences. However, drills must be presented as sense variations rather than syntactical manipulations.

 1. Double comprehension

What are the basic conditions for language learning to take place? What are the prime requirements that have to be fulfilled? There are two. Language acquisition begins when people speak to us in ways we can understand. Comprehended input is the single most important factor in language acquisition. It is the essential precondition for our own participation in dialogue.

But learners must understand more than messages. We also have to understand not only what is meant, but how the messages are put together, how they come to mean what they mean, in other words how things are quite literally expressed. So let’s distinguish these two types of understanding. On the one hand understanding what is meant: Let’s call it situational or functional or communicative understanding: We get the full message, we get the idea as precisely as possible so that we can react meaningfully to it. This understanding is something that a good, idiomatic translation can provide. The second type of understanding refers to the way the message is structured. Let’s call it structural, or formal, or operational understanding. This is something that in most cases a word for word translation can provide us with.

As native speakers, once we understand the message, we also understand how the meaning components interlock to create that meaning. But this is not true for infants learning their mother tongue, and it is not true for FL learners. Here, the distinction is important because languages often express the very same idea in different ways which are not immediately transparent to beginners but remain cryptic for a while at least.

I claim that a kind of double comprehension – situational and structural – is needed for all types of language acquisition, including L1 acquisition. Admittedly, to acquire a mother tongue, it seems that all a child needs is to be talked to in understandable ways, i.e. to understand messages. Okay. But as infants receive more and more comprehended input in recurring and often only slightly changing situations, they do not only understand the messages in a global way so that situations and intentions become clear, they also begin to figure out various parts of the messages, and they notice how the situations change along with, more or less in synchrony with, parallel changes in the language: “ball” might change to “balls”, if there is more than one of these bouncing objects around. With more and more speech contacts, they will break the messages down and work out the syntax all by themselves, which, to me, is one of those miracles of evolution, one of those evolutionary feats.

Parents feel that here is a problem for the children.  An intuitive understanding of the French phrase “maman t’aime” (which, when pronounced, could be heard as one word, a three-syllable word) is not enough. Ultimately, the child must not only understand that this is an expression of love (easy), and that it is “maman” who does the loving or where this love comes from (again easy), but the child must also detect where she herself, i.e. the loved person / the person spoken to is hidden in that phrase and must separate it out from the idea of loving. This is difficult because she only hears a continuous flow of language and does not see this phrase in print where the meaning components are clearly separated. It is also difficult because the person talked to is only represented by just one sound, the consonant t. So parents intuitively help the child. Instead of “I love you”, she says “Mama loves you”, or even “Mama loves Mary”, which makes it easier to relate event components to message components, to make a form-function connection and crack the code.

Parents do quite a lot to make the child’s job easier, but it’s the babies themselves who contribute the lion’s share. Little by little researchers begin to understand that babies’ brains make complicated calculations with the conditional probabilities of languages which they are constantly revising to figure out how the language works.  Now in order to do their statistics they need massive amounts of input over many years and they get it. This is the critical mass hypothesis.

But, for a foreign language taught at school there is simply too little input, too little exposure, there are too few meaningful interactions  for learners to make these form-function connections and extract the patterns all by themselves. Teachers must actively and comprehensively support the process of double comprehension and pattern recognition.

Let us look at the French s’il vous plaît. From an English point of view, real meaning and literal meaning differ. When someone hears s’il vous plaît for the first time, they might think that, like its equivalent “please”, it is a single word, only with three syllables instead of one. Only when they see it in writing does it become clear that the word for ‘please’ consists of four parts:

s(i)      il       vous                    plaît

*if       it       to-you                  pleases; or:

*if       it       you (Dative)        pleases

if       it       pleases                 you

Do we need to know this? Yes, we do, if we want to acquire the FL instead of just making ourselves understood for a moment. Knowledge of the structure not only helps us understand why the phrase means what it does, it equips us with a key phrase we can draw on in the future. We can risk new, analogous utterances such as ‘si l’hôtel vous plaît‘, ‘if you like the hotel’; ‘si le vin vous plaît‘, ‘if you like the wine’. And we can understand similar, as yet unfamiliar utterances when we hear them from others.

Let us consider an example from a less known language. In a bookshop on the island of Malta I recognized the image on a book cover – and the author’s name Saint-Exupéry” made it clear: “Il-princep iz-zghir” meant “The Little Prince.” With that we can not only understand the title but we have also half analysed its structure. “princep” must be “prince”. We need a full analysis, though, to move on: “The prince the little” is how the Maltese put it. Now we can also understand phrases like “il-bahar il-mejjet”, “the sea the dead”, i.e. “the Dead Sea” and we might try to construct (or: generate; generative principle) expressions along the same lines:

il-princep  iz-zghir           the prince the little                  The little prince

il bahar     il-mejjet          the sea the dead             The Dead Sea

il bahar     l-ahmar          the sea the red               The Red Sea

A mere situational understanding from the context does not help the language learner very much. He also needs to understand how the foreign language operates, i.e. identify words and recognise patterns in order to be able to make “infinite use of finite means” (Humboldt 1836 / 1963, 477). (Language  … confronts … a truly boundless area, the scope of everything conceivable. It must therefore make infinite use of finite means.”) Without this analysis, learning a formula such as “s’il vous plaît” would remain mere vocabulary drill.

Here is another pattern from the same language, one that a tourist might need:

Fejn hu l-katidral            Where’s the cathedral?

Fejn hi l-knisja?              Where’s the church?

Fejn hu l-ktieb?               Where’s the book?

The printed text seems to give away most of the structure, and the tourist may wonder why there are two words “hu” and “hi” for the one word “is”. Without the literal translation the phrase remains a half-opened package, and we are not yet on the way to grammar. But once we are told that the Maltese actually say

* Where he the cathedral?

* Where she the church?

* Where he the book?

omitting, like many other languages, the copula “is”, it all makes sense in a satisfying rush of insight, and we feel ready to ask our own where-is-questions.

We love it when we get the trick, don’t we, when we get the hang of it.

Put yourself in the place of a beginner. An English tourist looks up his phrasebook. He wants to ask for the time of the day. “Wie spät ist es bitte?” That’s the German phrase for “What’s the time, please?”.  But this knowledge is a linguistic dead-end, unless he can disembed the linguistic elements from the whole. *”How late is it?” – That’s what the Germans say.  Formulas must be unpacked, words must be freed. Only then can we improvise more sentences such as “Wie groß ist es?” or “Wie alt ist er?”

Only after recognising the component parts for what they are, after understanding both what is meant and how it is said, can we analogise on the basis of this insight and acquire a productive sentence pattern. So the generative principle comes into play.

Or take a visitor to China who wants to be polite and picks up the greetings phrase: “Ni hao”.  But only if he can break the phrase down (= *You good), will it become a stepping stone to other phrases such as “wo ai ni” (= I love you), where “ni” reoccurs.

A German teacher, who teaches monolingually, at the end of the lesson often used the phrase “See you tomorrow”, a phrase that the kids didn’t see printed. Most kids got the idea. For them it meant “Till tomorrow” since that’s the natural German equivalent. It’s a time phrase.  But only if the phrase was mirrored in German: *”Seh euch morgen”, countless location phrases such as “see you in the playground”  would also be easily accessible.

Excuse me for multiplying examples for what may seem obvious. But I need to insist here on the generative principle which is largely ignored by the communicative approach or other recent methodologies. It refers to the human capacity to generate an infinite number of utterances from a finite grammatical competence. It reflects what Humboldt thought was the crucial feature of human language, wich is sometimes called compositionality. Meanings are built out of parts and from the way these parts are combined. A finite stock of words or word groups can be recombined again and again to produce innumerable novel sentences ( – and thus, new ideas).

Telling the time of the day provides illustrative examples of how differently languages operate to express the very same ideas. It’s a lesson popular with teachers because the meanings are crystal clear and the lesson can be easily conducted without resorting to the MT.  I remember a French teacher who was practising telling the time in French with a toy clock. The pupils used the time  phrases correctly, but as an observer, one couldn’t help having the impression that some of them had no idea of how the French expressed the phrase “five minutes to eight“  = “huit heures moins cinq”, i.e *eight hours minus five,  which  means five  minutes missing, five minutes to go until it is eight o’clock.  I think they would have welcomed this information of how the French actually construct this idea. Likewise, English learners of Polish would probably welcome a mirrored version of the Polish phrase.

I also observed that learners spontaneously use mirroring all by themselves. In a school in Geneva I overheard a French speaking boy saying: “En allemand on dit ‘le petit bleu poisson’”. The boy was actually trying to make sense of the German phrase, and to make it legitimate, so to speak. Why has this largely been overlooked by our textbooks?

To sum up: Simple understanding from the context of the situation does not lead the language learner far enough. Multi-word utterances must be broken down for us to understand their internal grammar. Only to the extent that we understand both meaning and form can we turn input into intake which can be processed syntactically. Only then can we make utterances of our own which we have never heard before.

2. Re-evaluation of the role the mother tongue

So much for the fundamental principle of double comprehension. Now what have I done? I  have given you FL examples and clarified them via English, a well-known language to you. If I knew Polish, I would have used it instead of English.

Because the perspectival flexibility of a naturally acquired language to elucidate the form-meaning constructions of an unknown language is without equal.

The best window on the logic of a foreign language is a naturally acquired language – usually the mother tongue -  for which we have developed a real intuitive feel.

I‘ve used English here in two ways: idiomatic translations for message comprehension, and for structural comprehension I have used a kind of literal translation which I have called mirroring. The  foreign phrase is imitated in the native language. The native language is bent and twisted and pressed into service to reveal the FL structure.  With your mother tongue, you usually know how far you can go in twisting and bending and adapting it to a foreign structure before it in itself becomes incomprehensible.

These two types of translation don’t figure much in modern textbooks.  Bilingual devices are not mainstream philosophy, not yet.  There is a mismatch between what research tells us and what textbooks do and what  teachers are told  to do. Here’s  just one example. The Internet course Rosetta Stone explains the approach chosen like this: „It essentally means  that you learn German in German, without translations, like you picked up your  mother tongue.“

No, no. no. If this sounds like nonsense, well, it is. We can never duplicate L1 acquisition in the classroom.

Okay, then, Let’s have a fresh look at the role of the mother tongue. Theoretically, it’s all very simple. You don’t learn basketball when all you do is play volleyball. So we can’t learn English by constantly using Polish . We only learn English to the extent that we actually use it. This is blindingly obvious.

But there is another side to the coin. We all must start from where we are. We can only learn a new skill by building upon existing skills, by making the connection. This, too, is common sense, this, too,  is self-evident. It‘ s also what brain research tells us. We‘ ve got to use established neural pathways and then extend and  modify them. So the opposite notion equally carries conviction.

It follows from the first premise that a language has to teach itself. It follows from the second that we must engage the language skills acquired and promoted by the MT.

The allergy to the presence of the MT in the FL classroom undoubtedly comes from its all-too-frequent misuse. „One obvious explanation for the pervasive L1 use in FL classrooms is the low proficiency levels of teachers.” (Krista S. Chambless, in Foreign Language Annals, June  2012). This is not happening way back in Siberia or with underpaid teachers in the African bush. It’s about language teachers in the USA. Well, yes, it’s a real fiasco when less skilled and less proficient teachers simply succumb to the ease of conducting the class in the MT. I can’t go into this here. But the counterproductive, haphazard, inconsiderate and time-consuming  use of the MT in FL classrooms has certainly been a barrier to the true understanding of the issues involved.

Because years of daily encounters with a first language have given the children foundational skills which they need for school. Because years of MT input and interactions have shaped our minds in ways that are overwhelmingly helpful for the acquisition of new languages.

By the time they start with foreign languages at school, children know a lot about language. As they grow into their mother tongue (1) they have learnt to conceptualize their world and have fully grasped the symbolic function of language; (2) they have learnt to communicate, and combine language with body laguage; (3) they have learnt to articulate and use their voice; (4) they have acquired an intuitive understanding of grammar; (5) they have acquired the secondary skills of reading and writing. In acquiring a first language, they have in fact constructed their selves. The MT is therefore the greatest asset any human being brings to the task of FL learning, it is the sharpest tool to cut into the FL and reveal its anatomy. It provides an indispensable Language Acquisition Support System. If learners did not use this support and make the connection all by themselves, in their minds, FL teachers wouldn’t get anywhere. In a nushell: We only learn language once.

In the following, I shall restrict myself   the problem of grammar.

Many grammatical features are directly available for incorporation into the L2 system. However, the path breaking power of L1 grammar is not dependent on the fact that both languages share some grammatical features. MT grammars have paved the way to foreign grammars in ways which are often overlooked. Let us be quite basic here, for the sake of clarity. What could you do with learners who didn’t have the concepts of ‘before’ and ‘after’ in space and time? How can one expect students to understand the essence of the continuous aspect if they didn’t have the notion of duration? Children do have problems with handling time sequences when the second event precedes the one mentioned first: “Before he left, he had another beer”. This is misconstrued as “he left and then had a beer”.  Consider that complex structural areas such as tenses or passives are acquired step by step. In the beginning, children’s strategy of taking the first noun in the sentence to be the agent leads them astray when confronted with passives. In L1 English or German this is gradually sorted out, firstly through cases of semantically irreversible passives such as “The girl was bitten by the spider” which then spreads to semantically reversible passives.  Their  knowledge of the world helps the children  to re-interpret the sentence. However, by the time the child comes to learn a FL, most of these difficulties have been overcome and we need not go the same long way to grammar a second time.

We may, for instance, take it for granted that we can say “my head” and “my father” as well as “my garden”. But we are also mentally prepared to use a different possessive for “my garden”, as some languages in fact do – because it makes sense to distinguish between ‘alienable’ and ‘inalienable possession’. Even if there is no conjunction  “if” in a language, that language can express conditions, and our mother tongue has the means of clarifying these if-less constructions. It is because all languages have evolved means of expressing abstract ideas such as possession, number, agent, instrument, negation, possibility, condition, obligation and a host of others, no matter how they do this, that one natural language is enough to open the door for the grammars of other languages.  It is because “all languages are cut from the same cloth” (Pinker 2002, 37), it is because all languages dance the same dance.

To sum up. It’s all there already. The challenging engineering problems that children have solved as they learn to speak  are coming to light more and more. It has taken children years to obtain the cognitive,   communicative and grammatical  competencies which make instruction possible in the first place, be it maths, geography or another language. Many skills and knowledge sources are available at the FL initial state. They are the base camp from which we all set out to conquer new language territories It makes excellent biological sense for a new language to piggyback on this open channel of communication. All this has been largely ignored by the monolingual teaching philosophy.

3. The generative principle and bilingual pattern drills

Comprehension and explanation are ways of knowing. But speaking is a skill, so knowledge must be turned into a skill. Comprehension must be followed by practice.

I’ll now move on to a particular teaching technique, i.e. to  bilingual pattern drills and show you the generative principle, with MT support,   works in practice. Remember that pattern drills were designed precisely to help the learner make infinite use of finite means, to help him build new forms according to known forms, to use a model sentence as a slot-and-frame pattern for countless other sentences.

In the sixties and seventies pattern drills were all the rage, mostly in the USA, literally filling hundreds of pages with substitution tables and transformation drills. But an error was made. Linguists, i.e. structuralists and their audiolingualist followers claimed that structures were all important and,  in comparison, words were negligible: “Vocabulary comes and goes. It is the least stable and even the least characteristic of the three components of language.“  True, in a way, but there is a misunderstanding.

This becomes clear when we look at how Humboldt conceived this energeia, this quintessential property of language,  its productive potential or creativity. So let me quote Humboldt again, but more fully than before:

‘Language  … confronts … a truly boundless area, the scope of everything which can be thought. It must therefore make infinite use of finite means, and it achieves this through the identity of the power to generate both thoughts and speech.

According to Humboldt then, combinatorial grammar explains the inexhaustible repertoire of language and thought. Sentence variations must be experienced as sense variations, as variations on meaning. Since language has the power of producing “both thoughts and speech”, we do not just generate novel sentences, but new ideas at the same time. After all, this is what language is for: to communicate  thoughts and ideas from one person to another.  Words are not there  just to play around with, but to convey intentions and ideas.   If words are unimportant, pattern drills can easily turn into a self-contained language game, a mere manipulation of forms, with little relation to the world of ideas and events: In traditional pattern drills, meanings were there, but weren’t   focused on.

The problem seems to be that Humboldt’s energeia is usually only familiar in its abbreviated formulation ‘making infinite use of finite means’ and is thus interpreted in syntactical terms only, and not in semantic terms.

This is probably why pattern drills frequently turned out to be mechanical and monotonous. How could practice on disconnected sentences further communicative competence? To transfer or not to transfer – that was the problem. Audiolingual theory was patently wrong in treating words as mere gap-fillers, a convenient device to avoid the monotony of overlearning the all-important sentence patterns. Instead of re-thinking them, pattern drills were dropped like a hot potato. But pattern drlls, after all, tried to capture what for Humboldt and many researchers is the quintessential property of language, which makes it so extraordinarily powerful, namely our ability to use a finite set of symbols which we combine and recombine to create new meanings.  So they should never have been dropped, but re-designed. That’s precisely whatwe have tried to do. Bilingual pattern drills use oral MT cues, and this makes all the difference, because this ways we start with ideas which have to be put into FL words. There is a dual focus, on content and on fluency.  Ideas, not just words,  are played with and structures are manipulated accordingly,  and the semantic potential of a given structure is explored. Unlike conventional pattern practice, lexical substitutions are not regarded as mere fillers.

Without further ado, let’s jump into teaching practice.

This is how I proceed

  • Look for the productive patterns in the basic text
  • Clarification: double comprehension + visual support
  • L1 cues: easy variations / substitutions/ permutations
  • Interesting variations
  • Over to you!   (and pair work)
  • Interludes /creative writing

(Examples of semi-communicative bilingual pattern drills – and further analysis -  are contained in Butzkamm & Caldwell, The Bilingual Reform, pp. 124ff. This lecture draws heavily on this book)

Another objection raised against pattern drills is that they work with isolated sentences, which would be ineffective in principle. But even in the absence of a context of situation, disconnected sentences, if understood, inevitably take on meaning because the listener can immediately imagine fitting communicative contexts. Can’t you imagine those contexts on the spot, spontaneously? Wouldn’t we all know without giving it a moment’s thought when, where and to what intents and purposes we could use these sentences? This is because the sentences express common concepts familiar to us via the MT. All dictionaries operate with illustrative disconnected sentences because we can make those sentences real for ourselves. That’s why our students are not performing language operations in a void. It is high time the myth about ineffective isolated sentences be dispelled. The successful completion of step seven is also evidence for the fact that isolated sentences can lead directly to a context of situation. A bridge is built between pattern practice and creative message delivery.

The bilingual pattern drills which are proposed here meet five different needs:

• The need to spot the pattern or regularity of a sentence, to see the slots into which different words may be plugged.

• The need to find new, analogous items to fit the perceived pattern, thus learning how far one can ride a given pattern and establish its limits.

• The need to entrench and to automatise a given sentence pattern, achieving fluency(these three needs have been met by traditional pattern practice ).

• The need to probe the communicative radius of a structure and explore its communicative potential, i.e. the need for the proper words.

• The need to integrate the new pattern into the existing language repertoire and to employ it freely in conversation.

Here is some more advice:

• Use productive patterns of wide applicability, which give the learner a lot to learn from.

• Give insight into the patterned nature of both the source and target language. Students

recognize the common grammatical thread.

• Begin with simple, easy sentences in rapid succession; move on to interesting sentences.

The MT cues are supposed to trigger abstract concepts which in turn trigger the FL construction. This is the psychological pathway we normally follow when we say anything: from concept to expression. The drills should provide plentiful exposure to the relevant linguistic forms in the shortest possible time. Drills should be followed by creative and more communicative activities as explained and documented by Butzkamm & Caldwell.

Monolingualism: Yesterday’s dogma

I’ve tried to explain and demonstrate to you an activity based on two ideas which were frowned upon, well, condemned as Neanderthal practice, by the mainstream philosophy. The monolingual dogma tried to banish the learners’ native language from the classroom. The communicative dogma rejected pattern drill and disconnected sentences.

Free yourself from these ill-conceived prejudices which have harmed, and not helped, the teaching profession. Try them out yourself, these contrastive, bilingual, semi-communicative drills, experiment with them and find out for yourself in a process of trial & error. As Pawel Scheffler points out in his recent contribution to the journal Applied Linguistics: “Neanderthal teaching often actually works.” 

What has kept the monolingual dogma alive for so long?  To my regret, I have found that a change of opinions is rarely observed in elderly academics. They have committed themselves to the monolingual idea and hate to admit that they’ve been wrong. So far as I know, there is only one well-known expert, Mario Rinvolucri, who has openly professed a change of mind.  The epiphany he describes is revealing. This is what he writes:

“Thirty years ago I was so much part of the Direct Method orthodoxy of the day that I frowned on bilingual dictionaries and one day found myself miming the word ‘although’ in an elementary class! There were brilliant people in the class: one student whispered to another, ‘He mean “but”?’ When I learnt Spanish academically at secondary school, I wore out a couple of bilingual dictionaries in my keenness to launch from the mother tongue into the unclear waters of the target language. In my teenage foreign language work, mother tongue was the semantic bedrock that all my explorations built up from. How had I managed to exclude my real experience as a language learner from my practice as a language teacher for so many years?” Thanks, Mario, for being so frank.

A pragmatic, face-saving compromise, i.e. a relaxed monolingualism with small concessions to some MT support, has only muddled the issue. It is no longer acceptable. The MT, or the language which has become dominant in a learner’s life, is the very bedrock indeed for the learning of FLs. Because it’s the best window into the logic of another language. The MT, the mother of languages, as an 18th century author put it. What is needed is a paradigm shift which, in any academic discipline, almost resembles a change of government or power. The proponents of monolingualism would lose influence. That’s why we can only count on a new generation of scholars to clean up this mess. But we can start now and free teachers from a self-defeating dogma. My hope, my utopia is to see foreign language teaching and learning made much easier than it is now.

A new way to teach grammar: The bilingual option

 This is a how-to-do it article which was first published in Juergen Kurtz’ blog Language teaching in the 21st century. The theory and research behind it can be read up in Butzkamm & Caldwell, The  bilingual reform…( 2009, pp. 120ff.)

I have chosen the for +noun / pronoun +  infinitive construction. Though it is eminently useful and transparent to speakers of many languages, I believe it is not much used by intermediate learners  - admittedly I have no evidence for this- , simply because German and other languages prefer other constructions to express the same idea.

 Step1. Lift the construction from a text the students have read and ask them to translate the sentence, for instance:

For human rights to flourish, religious rights have to come second.

For this to happen, we must act now.

For this to work well, we need to know more.

 Here, the for-construction is a means to express purpose. For this meaning  German normally uses a subordinating conjunction, “damit”. In order for the students to associate the infinitive construction with the familiar dependent clause introduced by “damit” , we need to practise:

 Step 2

Teacher                                                     Students

Damit dies passiert,

Damit dies funktioniert,

Damit dies gut funktioniert,

Damit die Märkte gut funktionieren,

Damit die Schüler fleißig arbeiten,

Damit dies möglich ist,

Damit dies nicht passiert,

Damit dies kein Problem ist,

For this to happen

For this to work

For this to work well

For (the) markets to work well

For (the) students to study / work hard

For this to be possible

For this not to happen

For this not to be a problem

 The open contrast between German: dependent clause, and English: infinitive works as a kind of inoculation against unthinking transfer of mother tongue habits. If the students hesitate, for instance with the negated version, the teacher simply gives the English sentence himself and asks the students to repeat it.

 Step 3. Perhaps the above examples are  enough for a good class. The teacher has set the class on the right track and hands the activity over to the students: “Now make your own sentences along the same lines.” Alternatively, the teacher can allow a few minutes of silence for the students to jot down their ideas. This step is a must. The students must get the chance to experiment with the new construction, and the activity becomes monolingual. The mother tongue drops away.

 Since the construction does not only express purpose but is also widely used in slightly different forms and contexts, these should be practised too:

Es ist schon okay, dass du das sagst.

Ist es okay, wenn ich das sage?

War es okay, dass ich das gesagt habe?

Es wäre falsch, wenn wir jetzt gingen /

…falsch von uns, jetzt zu gehen.

Ist es normal, dass das passiert?

Ich hätte es liebend gern, dass dies passiert.

Ich hätte es liebend gern, wenn er käme.

Ich wollte nicht, dass dies passierte /

Das habe ich nicht gewollt.

It’s okay for you to say that.

Is it okay for me to say that?

Was it okay for me to say that?

It would be wrong for us to go now.


Is it normal for this to happen?

I would love for this to happen.

I would love for him to come.


I didn’t mean for this to happen.

The students will now find it easy to come up with their own meaningful ideas, using different adjectives and different pronouns: easy for us to…, unusual for them to…, not uncommon for him to…, important for her to….

 Repetition is habit-forming , and believe it or not, part  of language learning is habit formation. For correct speech habits to be formed, we need plenty of language turnover in comparatively little time (The for-construction again!). This is what the exercise provides. Count the number of sentences the students have heard and produced and compare with other exercises which take the same amount of time.

 Bilingual drills will be new for most teachers, who will have to learn, through trial and error, how to use mother tongue cues effectively, what cues work best and what cues are likely to cause interference errors from the native tongue.  Let me say it again: Should the students hesitate (searching for English equivalents), the teacher simply translates his own sentence and makes his pupils repeat it. This is a simple way of avoiding interference errors. Another way of making it easy for the students and allowing them to get into the habit of the foreign phrase is changing only little things as you go from one sentence to the next:

Es war richtig, dass sie weitermachten / weiter zu machen.

War es richtig, dass sie weiter machten?

Es ist richtig, dass sie weiter macht.

It was right for them to continue.


Was it right for them to continue?

 It is right for her to continue.

This is a way of playing it safe. But it can easily become boring unless the pace is rapid.

 Well, yes, this is pre-communicative practice, but see Butzkamm & Caldwell to show you how this kind of drill can lead a class right into message-oriented communication. There is no way to skip the groundwork.

 Just one more example. Years ago, I tried what follows with grammar school kids in their first year of English. The textbook introduced the past tense rather cautiously, restricting the new forms in a first step to was / were / had. Okay, this is grammar, but for the pupils was / were / had are simply new words with a clear meaning, just like bread or butter.

Die Party war fantastisch.

Die Party war wunderbar.

Die Party war großartig.

Betty war da.

Tim & Tom waren da.

Sie waren da.

Alle meine Freunde waren da.

Ich war in der Küche mit Tom.

Wir waren in der Küche.

Wir waren hungrig.

Wir hatten Würstchen.                  

Die Würstchen waren gut.

Die Getränke waren gut.

Ich hatte ne Cola.

Einige waren im Garten.

Es war ne warme Nacht.

Betty war nett / freundlich.

Sie war nett zu Tom.

Aber Tom war nicht nett.

Tom war schlimm / schrecklich.

Aber du warst da.

Ich war glücklich.

Es war 11 Uhr.

Die Partie war vorbei.

Zu schnell.

The party was fantastic.

The party was wonderful.

The party was great.

Betty was there.

Tim & Tom were there.

They were there.

All my friends were there.

I was in the kitchen with Tom.

We were in the kitchen.

We were hungry.

We had sausages.

The sausages were good.

The drinks were good.

I had a coke.

Some were in the garden.

It was a warm night.

Betty was nice.

She was nice to Tom.

But Tom wasn’t nice.

Tom was awful.

But you were there.

I was happy.

It was 11 o’clock.

The party was over.

Too soon.

Mother tongue stimuli here work better than anything else,because of their flexibility. We can even construct drills that tell a story, sort of.

I remember leaving the classroom in almost a state of euphoria, firstly, because the students obviously enjoyed the activity and were able to make their own sentences, and, secondly, because it confirmed a long-standing conviction of mine: the monolingual approach, which has been talked up for more than a century, is a fundamental error.


A paradigm shift in language teaching – at long last!

Goodbye Berlitz, goodbye Helen Doron, goodbye Rosetta Stone…

The fact that small children grow into their native language without the help of another one, has inspired countless reformers. Charles Berlitz proclaimed himself the inventor of the direct method (which he wasn’t), and in his schools any use of the learners’ native language was taboo. In our times Helen Doron schools similarly claim to be using „the only internationally acclaimed early English learning method that allows children to absorb English in exactly the same way they learn their mother tongue”, which is downright nonsense. A first language will always influence whatever language comes next.  The central idea, the exclusion of the children’s own language, has also been adopted by many public school systems and official guidelines for teachers, although in a less strict and dogmatic manner. A methodological monolingualism became the mainstream philosophy, as evidenced in many textbooks. The use of the mother tongue was invariably cautioned against, generally downplayed and rarely recommended, as a last resort only when nothing else will work. English-only became almost a badge of honour, and, admittedly, in the case of advanced learners quite rightly so. We don’t learn a language by using another one. Conducting a class through the medium of the foreign language is undeniably an aim all teachers should strive for – but one which many fail to achieve, in spite of long-standing official policies to enforce a monolingual classroom . Why?

Consider this: Commercial self-instructional courses today are curiously divided. There are computer courses which make “no translation” their central selling proposition (e.g. Rosetta Stone: “It essentially means that you learn German in German, without translations – like you picked up your mother tongue” – that very nonsense again!), and there are others which make regular and systematic use of their learners’ native language in various ways (Assimil; Birkenbihl; Michel Thomas…), thus making the very opposite their central selling proposition.  In suggestopedic courses pupils are regularly provided translations of basic dialogues containing the new material. The complete absence of the pupils’ own language on the one side, and the controlled positive use on the other – peaceful co-existence?

For more than a century this most vexing issue has been discussed and has often generated more heat than light, and it has certainly generated an immense literature by now.  Although in many countries monolingual teaching with some modifications carried the day, a number of researchers continued to question the monolingual assumption radically. Interestingly, some of them started out as „monolingual“ practitioners (the students’ native language being only a last resort), but changed their minds over time. This is also my own case. As early as 1976 I pressed for a „paradigm shift“, building on C.J. Dodson’s Bilingual Method, a book which opened my eyes when I was a young teacher of modern languages. On reading Dodson I could put the new bilingual techniques immediately into practice, and thus came to understand them by experimenting and observing their effects in the classroom. (See above  “Something of myself”)

In many ways what is now happening fits Thomas Kuhn’s description of a paradigm shift (in The structure of scientific revolutions), a significant change  away from the monolingual doctrine  in favour of a modern bilingual approach.  Over the years, more and more researchers have challenged the settled view of their predecessors, and it seems that a paradigm shift is just around the corner:


„Drastic re-thinking of  foreign language methodology is called for“ (W. Butzkamm, „We only learn languag once. The role of the mother tongue in FL classrooms: death of a dogma“, Language Learning,  No 28, p.29).


“Making the mother tongue the corner stone in the architecture of FLT is a true paradigm shift.” (W. Butzkamm & J. A. W. Caldwell, The bilingual reform. A paradigm shift in foreign language teaching, p. 15)


“We live in interesting times: having lived through one paradigm shift, I now have the feeling this book marks the start of another.” A. Maley, Review of Translation in Language Teaching: an argument for reassessment by G. Cook. ELT Journal 65.2, 192–193.


„If their proposals are implemented, it will be a true paradigm shift.“  P. Scheffler, Review of The bilingual reform. A paradigm shift in foreign language teaching by W. Butzkamm  &  J. A. W. Caldwell.  ELT Journal 66/1, 2012, p. 119).


In the influential journal  Language Teaching  – (listed both in  the  Arts & Humanities Citation Index and in the  Social Sciences Citation Index ) authors  G. Hall & G. Cook come to the conclusion:  „The way is open for a major paradigm shift in language teaching and learning“ (state-of- the-art article „Own language use in language teaching and learning“ , in Language Teaching, 45/2012,  pp 271-308).  With this authoritative review one can safely say that a century old tenet has been overturned. A dogma has been toppled.

According to Butzkamm & Caldwell the learners’ native language is ‘the greatest pedagogical resource’ that they bring to foreign language learning, as it ‘lays the foundations for all other languages we might want to learn’. While language teaching in many countries had to be officially monolingual with small concessions, modern brain research has shown that foreign language learning is a fundamentally bilingual endeavour. Thus it is not just a more flexible and less rigid attitude towards own-language use which is advocated today, but the well-targeted, systematic exploitation of the diagnostic potential of learners’ own language(s), however with the foreign language still being the working language of the classroom. What is now needed is the knowledge and dissemination of those carefully crafted and highly effective techniques in which the L1 is essential – techniques which are yet to filter into mainstream pedagogy (i.e the sandwich technique, L1 mirroring, bilingual pattern practice…).

Caution: A sophisticated bilingual approach is always a combination of both bilingual and monolingual techniques and does not give licence for the lax, unthinking or indifferent use of L1.  It is a highly purposeful, focused tool to promote L2 learning and communicative use in the classroom. We must at long last resolve the apparent paradox that with systematic mother tongue support (or the support of other languages lived and acquired early like the mother tongue) an authentic foreign language classroom atmosphere can be created much more easily than in classes with a mother tongue taboo.

And one more thing to soothe the doubters: In foreign language teaching, we translate in order to get rid of translation. The mother tongue “reduces its own usefulness as the course progresses. The bilingual method is a self-destructive approach which in time develops into a foreign-language medium approach.” (C.J. Dodson)

Positive side-effect: in favour of cultural diversity:

A bilingual approach might even help to keep threatened languages alive, for a while at least. The mother tongues will be made use of in the teaching of national languages rather than being ignored and despised. Admittedly, I don’t have personal, first-hand experience with dying languages and with the situations the indigenous speakers and their children find themselves in. But it seems likely that some acknowledgement of indigenous languages in the schools and by the authorities might be a help and stave off total language loss. It is such a pity that so many small languages along with their unique windows on the world are dying out.

Get it right at the beginning

My foreign language teaching philosophy

“The difficulty lies, not in the new ideas, but in escaping  from the old ones.” (John Maynard Keynes)

I make four basic assumptions. First, languages are best learned when we act out situations and communicate face to face. There is eye contact, movement , body language. From very early on we can feel and think ourselves into other persons.  This is our social talent and our lifelong occupation. Pretend play is a way for young children to cope with situations, to gain experiences and better understandings of the world around them. Language is part and parcel of these situations, whether banal and every day, or critical, dodgy and delicate, serious or hilarious. Emotions are omnipresent. That’s why dialogues / sketches are our basic teaching texts, and they must be acted out face to face. Our learners, if rightly taught, perform them with verve and gusto no matter whether they are children or adults, slow or fast learners.  With our social brains we are naturally born performers and masters in make-believe.

School-We love it (Soundtrack)

English is cool (Soundtrack)

Sleeping in class (Soundtrack)

My second assumption is that our mother tongue – or another naturally grown and acquired language – provides  the foundational skills for foreign language learning. Years of mother tongue input and interactions have altered our brains and shaped our minds in ways that are overwhelmingly helpful for the acquisition of new languages. Here is an enormous capital that must be unlocked, freed up, and worked with cleverly rather than left aside.  Without mother tongue support, beginners couldn’t cope with the kind of linguistically demanding and eminently actable sketches needed to engage their interest. Future- or past-tense forms, if-clauses, passives, i.e. constructions usually offered later in the course, can be used right from the beginning. (They can be systematised and summarised at later stages). From the very first lessons, we can tap the communicative creativity and sophistication which we all possess in our mother tongue. Authentic songs are equally available from early on. My primary school kids learned to sing Sam Cooke’s Wonderful World and even the word famous Yesterday (which indeed proved a bit difficult). Weak learners need not fail.

The third basic assumption concerns compositionality as an essential feature of language: in language, we make “infinite use of finite means” (Humboldt). A finite stock of words or word groups can be recombined again and again to produce innumerable novel sentences – and thus, new ideas. This means that the words and constructions of the basic texts must not remain encapsulated in those texts, but must be extracted, recombined and varied in order to fit new situations.  (What shall we do with the drunken sailor? => What shall I do with my hair? => What shall I do with my life?). Unfortunately, bilingual techniques as well as the generative principle  have been largely ignored by recent methodologies.

The fourth assumption concerns the fact that the printed text can be an aid to listening rather than an interference factor.  Again, if  rightly taught,  the mutual support of script and sound outweighs possible interference effects.

These assumptions lead to four techniques that teachers should master:

  • The sandwich technique (see Wikipedia)
  • Mother tongue mirroring
  • Oral, bilingual semi-communicative pattern drills
  • The simultaneous reading technique  (Mitlesverfahren)

Complete mastery is never easy and must be attained through intensive practice. But learners are highly rewarded. The dialogue sentences will flow easily from their mouths.  It’s even more satsfying if they can vary the sentences to suit their own personal communicative needs. And giving the sketch a personal voice and a personal presence by acting it out is highly enjoyable.

Teaching grammar bilingually

“In my teenage foreign language work, mother tongue was the semantic bedrock that all my explorations built up from. How had I managed to exclude my real experience as a language learner from my practice as a language teacher for so many years?”  Mario Rinvolucri

FL teachers often complain that their pupils have “no grammar”. But central categories like verbs, nouns, adjectives etc. are only profound mysteries to the pupils in the sense that they cannot define them adequately. Given a few MT examples, perhaps a phrase with a slot for adjectives, they will correctly fill the slot with many more adjectives. Grammatical categories live in the minds of school children, they know them in a functional, can-do way, even if they cannot define them properly.

This knowledge, slowly acquired over our formative years, makes the MT the magic key to foreign grammars  – regardless of whether the grammars share the same surface features or not. Because they do share an underlying common logic which we have assimilated through our first language, even though all languages vary in the details of their expressive mechanisms.

Let me give just two examples.

School children, unlike infants, can handle pronouns like I, me, my, you, your, which are difficult because they shift their meanings according to who speaks. When I say I, I mean me; when you say I, you mean yourself, that is a different person from me. So, at an early stage, infants may say you, when they mean I, and vice versa. These difficulties have long been mastered by the time they come to school. The MT has paved the way.

We also take it for granted that we can say “my head” and “my father” as well as “my garden”. But we are mentally prepared to use a different possessive for “my garden”, as some languages in fact do – because it makes sense to distinguish between ‘alienable’ and ‘inalienable possession’. “My head” and “my father” will remain mine as long as I live, but I can sell my garden.

All languages have evolved means of expressing core concepts such as possession, location, direction, number, countables vs. uncountables, action, the doer of an action, the instrument of an action, negation, possibility, causation, condition, and a host of other concepts. It’s because of this, no matter how languages actually express these concepts, that one naturally acquired language is enough to open the door for the grammars of other languages. We are ready for these categories. Readiness is all. We have gained access, through the MT, to an overall logic found in all languages. To put it in a nutshell: two or more languages, but one mind.

So it’s all there already. Most of these concepts are available at the FL initial state. They are the base camp from which we set out to conquer new language territories. It has taken children years to obtain these competencies which make instruction possible in the first place, be it maths, geography or another language. It makes excellent biological sense for a new language to piggyback on, or plug into, this open channel of communication. All of us who are fluent in our mother tongue (or, additionally, in a second language acquired naturally) have a gift for foreign languages as well. My optimism here is quite realistic. However, monolingual orthodoxy ignores the very foundations on which FL learning is built.

Pedagogic research has shown that successful learners capitalise on the vast amount of linguistic skills and world knowledge they have accumulated via their own language – whether the teacher skilfully supports these processes or not. Brain research clearly says that learners must make this critically important connection – until the FL has established an ever-more powerful and complex network for itself.

Our job is to assist them in this task instead of ignoring, bypassing or suppressing what goes on in the pupils’ minds. We can use the MT as a rapid conduit (or pipeline) to grammatical meaning and conceptual understanding, and at the same time provide the necessary language bath.

The scandal of foreign language teaching is a double scandal. Some teachers use the MT too much, haphazardly, at the cost of the FL; others don’t use it at all, or sparingly, i.e. they never systematically use any of the highly efficient bilingual techniques, which are well-founded short-cuts to understanding that have stood the test of time.


Avoiding abstract terminology through idiomatic translations.

In textbooks sold around the globe to teach the world the grammar of English you can find explanations like: “Together with the perfect infinitive, needn’t assumes past meaning, thus negating, or questioning, the necessity of an already-completed action.” That’s as clear as mud to most learners, even if it was explained in the learner’s native language. Of course, it all starts to make sense with an example. But it makes even more sense if examples are accompanied by idiomatic translations, in turn making the rule superfluous:


You needn’t have said anything.You needn’t have come.You needn’t have gone to hospital. Du hättest nichts sagen brauchen.Du hättest nicht kommen brauchen.Du hättest nicht ins Krankenhaus gehen brauchen.

Translations provide a spontaneous intuitive understanding without recourse to language analysis.

Or take the following explanation: “If there is no question word in the direct question, we use if or whether in the indirect question.” Translation will do the job without further ado:

German                                                    French

He wanted to know if … Er wollte wissen, ob… Il voulait savoir si…

Just one more example: „We use the imagined past conditional when we want to talk about something which might have happened but didn’t happen, and the imagined consequences.” Correct as it is, it is gobbledegook to many learners. However, an idiomatic equivalent is likely to clarify things, as in the following:

German                                                   French

If it had rained, we would have stayed at home. Wenn es geregnet hätte, wären wir zuhause geblieben. S’il avait plu, on serait resté à la maison.

We don’t need terms like “imagined past conditional”, do we? The translation is already the grammar. It is the difference between slinging around technical jargon and offering immediately accessible insight. Real-life examples, well understood, are unwritten, silent rules which reflect language behaviour directly. People can learn foreign languages even if they are out of their depths when it comes to language analysis. Our minds were specially designed to learn languages, but not to do the mental acrobatics of linguistic analyses.


The mirroring technique

Here is another bilingual technique which can be extremely helpful but is never used in English-only teaching contexts. We have called it mirroring, and it is a kind of literal translation adapted for teaching purposes. It is optimal when learners have difficulties in parsing and processing foreign sentences correctly.

In our MT we see through the words to the meaning so automatically and effortlessly that we normally don’t pay attention to how things are said. But a FL often confronts us with bizarre, unheard-of, unthought-of ways of organizing thoughts. Here we need the clearest possible understanding not only of what is meant, but of what is actually said. We need to identify the meaning components and where they appear in a foreign language sentence, and mirroring is an elegant and highly time efficient way of just doing this. An excellent way of making foreign constructions immediately transparent. Let us suppose you’ve come across the following questions in Chinese and know what they mean:


nán bù nán?        难不难?hǎo bù hǎo?        好不好? Is it difficult?Is it good?

Now – is knowing what it means really enough? For a tourist, perhaps, but not for language learners. For them, making a global form-meaning connection is necessary, but not sufficient. They must also know how this idea is expressed in Mandarin. A double comprehension is both necessary and sufficient: a normal, situational understanding of the phrase and a formal, structural understanding. The latter can be smoothly provided by mirroring the phrase in English: Difficult, not difficult? Good, not good? This is the way the Chinese say it. Only now can we make our own questions even if we have never heard them before:


guì bù guì?           贵不贵?yuǎn bù yuǎn?     远不远? Is it expensive?*Expensive, not expensive?Is it far?*far, not far?

By making the MT dovetail with the FL construction, we achieve an uncomplicated clarity which grammatical explanations seldom have.

In German we don’t say “How long have you been teaching English?”, but *How long teach you already English? *How long work you already for this company?  *How long attend you already this course?

German phrase mirrored in English                                 German

*How long teach you already English?*How long work you already for this company?*How long / since when attend you already this course? Wie lange unterrichten Sie schon Englisch?Wie lange arbeiten Sie schon für diese Firma?Wie lange / seit wann besuchen sie schon diesen Kurs?


Idiomatic German                                  mirrored in English

There are two solutions.There were three speeches.There were two popes. Es gibt zwei Lösungen.Es gab drei Reden.Es gab zwei Päpste. *It gives two solutions.*It gave three  speeches.*It gave two popes.

For English learners of French:

Idiomatic French                                                                   mirrored in English

Il y a deux solutions.Il y avait trois discours.Il y avait deux papes. *It there has two solutions.*It there had three speeches.*It there had two popes.

What about German word order? Let’s mirror a basic German construction in English, and nothing can be so plain:

German phrase mirrored in English

Ich kann das Wort nicht finden.Ich kann viel Geld verdienen.Ich kann nichts hören. *I can the word not find.*I can a lot of money make.*I can nothing hear.

The very oddity of the construction will make it stick. Mirroring works as a kind of inoculation against unthinking transfer of mother tongue habits.

For Anglophone learners of German we can even imitate the fact that German adjectives take endings like nouns: Germans don’t say “green apples”, they say something like *”greens apples”. The MT analogy is a perfect mental tool to grasp foreign constructions intuitively. Mirroring can make “odd” constructions legitimate in the eyes of the learner, and the understanding that comes with it can be deeply satisfying. It is a shame that this central technique of unravelling the puzzle of foreign expressions should be so little used in classrooms.

Admittedly, mirrored versions are unnecessary if a new structure is readily transparent for the leaners, which is often the case in closely related languages. But let us take a really exotic language, for instance one where kinship terms are not expressed  by nouns but by verbs. Just imagine how long it might take one to figure this out. Mirroring is the solution, because what is actually said is something like:

I’m Jack’s  mother.I’m Jill’s  mother. *Jack sons me.*Jill daughters me.

In Turkish, ‘teşekkür ederim’ is the usual way of saying ‘thank you’. But only the mirrored version *thanks make-I’ will help you to build your own sentences.

All constructions, no matter how remote or exotic they may seem at first sight, will in this way find some echo in our linguistic consciousness.

Don’t we all know it in our bones: When we encounter a new piece of language, we want to know straight away what it means precisely and how it functions in a sentence, so that we can put it to use immediately, work with it and make the most of it? Or are we content with linguistic jargon and inaccurate guessing? Are we prepared to wait perhaps for weeks until the penny drops? Is the slow struggle for comprehension with a teacher miming and arm-waving and drawing little stick-figures on the board really preferable? – Let us do what comes naturally – it is all so blindingly obvious.

There are more of these clearly defined and brain compatible bilingual teaching techniques which we recommend using alongside proven monolingual activities. Their combined use can change both teachers’ and students’ lives for the better. If you ask me, the English-only orthodoxy is outright denial of assistance. Well, yes, a criminal act, when it comes to teaching beginners and intermediate learners.


Monolingualism: Yesterday’s dogma

What has kept the monolingual dogma alive for so long?  To my regret, I have found that a change of opinions is rarely observed in elderly academics. They have committed themselves to the monolingual idea and hate to admit that they’ve been wrong. So far as I know, there is only one well-known expert, Mario Rinvolucri, who has openly professed a change of mind.  The epiphany he describes is revealing.  So let me take up the quote at the beginning of this article:

“Thirty years ago I was so much part of the Direct Method orthodoxy of the day that I frowned on bilingual dictionaries and one day found myself miming the word ‘although’ in an elementary class! There were brilliant people in the class: one student whispered to another, ‘He mean “but”?’ When I learnt Spanish academically at secondary school, I wore out a couple of bilingual dictionaries in my keenness to launch from the mother tongue into the unclear waters of the target language. In my teenage foreign language work, mother tongue was the semantic bedrock that all my explorations built up from. How had I managed to exclude my real experience as a language learner from my practice as a language teacher for so many years?”

Thanks, Mario, for being so frank.

A pragmatic, face-saving compromise, i.e. a relaxed monolingualism with small concessions to some MT support, has only muddled the issue. It is no longer acceptable. The MT, or the language which has become dominant in a learner’s life, is the very bedrock indeed for the learning of FLs. Because it’s the best window into the logic of another language. The MT, the mother of languages, as an 18th century author put it. What is needed is a paradigm shift which, in any academic discipline, almost resembles a change of government or power. The proponents of monolingualism would lose influence. That’s why we can only count on a new generation of scholars to clean up this mess. But we can start now and free teachers from a self-defeating dogma. My hope, my utopia is to see foreign language teaching and learning made much easier than it is now.

Here is the book which deals in depth with this issue and describes a variety of well-documented bilingual techniques to extend your practice opportunities and enrich your teaching repertoire.

Wolfgang Butzkamm & John  A. W. Caldwell

The Bilingual Reform. A Paradigm Shift in Foreign Language Teaching. Tübingen: Narr Verlag, 2009

It ends with these words:

“Believe in the power of teaching. Experience the excitement of teaching. Make the FL the predominant medium and working language of the classroom. At the same time, teach with MT support. Teach with the wind beneath your wings.”

Inside foreign language classrooms


 I. The monolingual approach: the view from the pupil’s desk

The mother tongue taboo – still the didactical correctness in many countries of the world -  is a patent absurdity.  There are practices bordering on the bizarre, which have been repeatedly reported in the literature. Personally, I have heaps of anecdotal evidence to support my claim. Here are just a few episodes taken from retrospective self-reports collected over many years from German university students of English who wrote about themselves as pupils and language learners.

 ♠  I really hated the fact that the teacher we had in grades 7-9 refused to explain English words we didn’t know in German. She just wrote the word up on the board, but only a few pupils understood her English explanations. Even when we asked her nicely if she could give us the German equivalent she became angry. But I’d better stop talking about her, as it makes me angry. Sonja

 ♠  He very often demanded silence with the word (as I grasped it): [pikwait]. To me this was one word and I was absolutely proud when some day I recognized the words “be” and „quiet”, although I had already sensed before what he meant. Only then could I correct the pronunciation in my mind because I had identified the isolated words. Vanessa

 ♠  Mrs. [...] tried to explain the meaning of “tall” and “small” to us, by having a little girl standing next to a big boy. We all had no clue what she wanted from us. She repeated “Henrik is taller than Carina. And Carina is smaller than Henrik.” In addition to this she waved about with her hands. These actions confused us even more. Corinna

 ♠  When someone dared to ask for an equivalent, he/she was reprimanded for not paying attention. He strictly rejected the use of the mother tongue, we were forbidden to use it; if we did, we had to do some extra homework. There never was a relaxed atmosphere in his classroom. Nicole

 ♠  He tried to teach us by means of the direct method. I say he only “tried to” because it did not work. This became obvious whenever he tried to explain new words, especially adjectives which described emotions or someone’s character. As certain emotions are difficult to describe, we often had only a slight hint of what he could mean and still could not grasp the real meaning of the word. Bettina

 ♠He practised the direct method in an orthodox form. That meant from the very beginning our mother tongue was excluded […] we did not have the possibility of talking about real interests, but about those things we had learned before. We did not ask real questions to get real answers, we just imitated the phrases we learnt from the teacher or from the textbook. Dagmar

She stuck to the direct method, as did most teachers at that time. She insisted on explaining new vocabulary in English and we weren‘t allowed to look up the German meaning in our books or to open our books while listening to a new dialogue. I remember that I found this very irritating and often didn‘t get the correct meaning. Everyone looked up the new words in the dictionary after the lesson was over. Svenja

This is madness. And it’s scandalous.  Instances of ideological rigidity. Robert L. Allen once wrote: “I discovered that even though dragging an elephant into the classroom would undoubtedly make the lesson more lively, the students would still associate the word elephant with their own name for the animal.” So nothing is gained by withholding the mother tongue phrase.

          Even “easy” phrases may be misunderstood when they are first introduced. The pupils concerned are mortified so that they remember these incidents many years after:

“One day the new phrase to be learned was „How old are you?“. Mrs. B. asked the questions „How are you?“ and „How old are you?“ alternately to three pupils. Then it was my turn to answer the question „How old are you?“. I had not yet understood the question. Nevertheless I had to answer and I promptly said: „I‘m fine, thank you.“ I only noticed that I was wrong when all the other pupils and my teacher began to laugh. It was embarrassing for me. I blushed and felt deeply ashamed. But only after having asked my neighbour for the German translation could I understand what was wrong with my answer.” Petra

If pupils feel their learning problems are systematically ignored, this will seriously harm student-teacher rapport: “In my eyes, this is the greatest drawback of a strict direct method because it disregards the negative emotions (loss of self-esteem, feelings of inadequacy, shame, anxiety) that will easily arise in pupils who feel unable to understand what is going on.” Tanja

Note that the positive use of the mother tongue should not be restricted to meaning-conveyance. It should also be used to make foreign language constructions transparent. The technique of “mother tongue mirroring” (as I prefer to call it) is a great way of making grammar learning fast and simple: *’We must bread buy’. That’s how the Germans say it.

We must be ready to fight a war on two fronts: against the teacher who conveniently lapses into the MT, which he shares with his pupils, simply because he is not fluent and flexible enough in the language he teaches; and against the native speaker with little or no command of his pupils’ MT.  Both groups of teachers are unlikely to know effective, well-crafted bilingual techniques.

 If we set things right here, millions of language learners will be positively affected.

II. The misuse of the mother tongue

“He only spoke English with his pupils when we worked with our books lying in front of us.” Vlado

“Since the pupils’ English was so poor, Mrs. X made almost no use of it, and the predominant language during the lesson was German: a vicious circle.” Claudia

“The one unforgivable mistake our English teacher made, no matter how nice she was, was that she never spoke English in class…She used German to explain English grammar, she spoke German when we had a discussion about an English topic and she used German for organising the class. english was never a means of communication until we got a new English teacher.” Sonja

“From small daily routines such as determining who should have cleaned the board, who did or did not do one’s homework , or who was ill, up to bigger events like planning a school party or oganising the next class trip – some teachers do it all in German. ..Even in the upper forms where it would be easily possible to do it in English, whole lessons are wasted on discussing organisational matters in German.” Tanja

“One thing was quite unacceptable about our lessons. That was the little amount of contact with the foreign language most pupils had during a lesson. We hardly ever got the chance to say something in class, let alone the opportunity to express  our views or needs independently.” Christina

“In my first four years at the Realschule, English was never taught as a means of communication, because the whole lesson was conducted in German. Most of the time there was a dull mood because we always proceeded in the same way. Only later, with a different teacher, English was no longer a language you were drilled in. ” Michael

There are cases where young trainee teachers try very hard to use English in class, but are boycotted by their pupils who are are not used to this and do not want to see things changed: “Again, most of the answers  were given in German. After a few attempts to convince the pupils to use the foreign language only, the teacher gave up.” Ulrike

This, too, is madness. So I’ll say it again: If we set things right here, millions of language learners worldwide will be positively affected.

III. German as a foreign language in English schools

The following are quotes from former students of mine who worked as German teaching assistants in English schools.

 1. All a waste of time?

 Message-oriented communication was virtually excluded from the German classroom. Norbert

 Although the students were expected to speak German all the time, it was next to impossible to divert them from asking all their questions in English. Patricia

 I had to take the pupils to another room and ask questions such as: “Wie heißt Du?”, “Hast du irgendwelche Geschwister?” etc. Some of them were not able to answer these simple questions on which they had worked for weeks as the teacher told me. Sonja                                                     

 The first and second years were very eager to say something in German, but starting from the third year, they did not like anything about school. The reason why the students spoke German so poorly was because the teachers conducted their lessons in English and only spoke German when they read a German text. Questions on the text were asked in English, so that they only tested reading comprehension. Sandra

 I was not introduced to the class, instead the students were asked to prepare questions concerning my person beforehand, which  they would then have  to ask me in class. Not a bad idea, but from the first moment I had the impression that most of the students neither understood the questions they were asking me nor were they able to comprehend my replies.

Only a fractional part of the students take German as a major in the sixth form. So classes are quite small, and the students higly motivated:  

The A-level pupils were super right from the start. I needed to speak very little English and at the end of our nine months they were able to talk about everything they wanted to. It was an absolute pleasure to teach them as they were so motivated and curious. They all loved German.  Claudia

 2. Teaching to the test

“One reason for the pupils’ poor German is to be found in the teachers being made accountable for their progress. In England, more so than in Germany, the pupils’ poor performance reflects on the teacher. Low test scores can lead to drastic cuts in money for the schools or even to a teacher’s dismissal. The pupils are fully aware of this and actually expect the teacher to relieve them of their school work. I witnessed  how the pupils in advanced classes took advantage of the teachers’ plight. Only very few pupils had prepared their exam topics in detail, and the teacher did for all the others and handed everything out  – nicely formulated and printed out – for them to memorize it. When I asked what the point was of an exam in which the pupils merely recite what they have memorized – sometimes even without really understanding what they were saying – the teacher responded with resignation: “What am I supposed to do? They will all fail if I don’t do it for them.” Nora

Most pupils I helped with the preparation for the exam were not able to handle the required tasks. As a result the teachers rehearsed the GCSE questions and role-plays by simply giving out model sentences, which had to be learnt by heart. This type of lesson was actually once called ‘mind killing’ by one teacher, as the lessons lost all real significance and were very repetitive.” Dagmar.

“Students are allowed to prepare their presentation before the exam. I was extremely surprised, however,  to learn what it meant in practice. Students start to write little essays months before the exam. Very often, they even combine several old texts they have written in Years 9 or 10 to a new whole instead of presenting any new work. Those texts are collected in by the teachers, corrected and handed back. Then students devote very much time to learning their texts by heart and reciting them. Even more surprisingly, the teachers‘ questions as well as the students‘ answers, are prepared in advance. As a consequence both the presentation and the question and answer session sound everything but spontaneous and there is a great danger involved, too. When candidates are nervous and forget just one line of their text, the probability of ruining the whole exam is high. “Eva

“Personally the most frustrating moment was the final GCSE exams. Under pressure to bring as many pupils as possible through the exams, the teacher provided them with a question sheet of twenty questions covering the most important curriculum topics. These questions were answered in class with the aid of the teacher and myself and they were also written on the board so that every possible spelling mistake was ruled out. Apart from that I tested each individual pupil before the exams. Moreover, the teacher and I even recorded the model answers on a cassette which every student was allowed to copy. Basically all they had to do was be able to recognize the questions and learn the answers by heart. It was ridiculous how many students still failed or did not gain enough points. They did not even understand what the questions really meant, as they only concentrated on the order of questions. Changing the order of the questions caused confusion and put them off.” Katja

Language lessons do not aim at teaching the students how to actually use the target language, but their only purpose is to teach them enough to pass the final exams.” Kirsten

“My pupils were horrified at the thought of going to Germany. Those who had been in Germany already felt very much frustrated as they realised how limited their German was.” Katja

3. ‚No grammar‘ policy

It can well be that in the not so distant past there was an overdose of grammar teaching. Nevertheless I find it odd that a country that produced excellent language teaching experts with balanced views such as Harold Palmer or Eric Hawkins (I had the pleasure of getting to know Eric personally)  should have issued counterproductive ‘grammar-free’ guidelines for teachers and should have adopted a kind of didactical Rousseauism, a back-to-nature stance, as it were. Centuries of experience and discussion were ignored. Three hours per week learners need grammatical instruction from their teachers.

“A boy had written about his best friend and one of the sentences was “Er blätter haus acht uhr.” It took me a while until I found out that he had intended to say: “Er verläßt das Haus um acht Uhr”. I tried to explain to him that there are different word classes. He did not understand that verbs and nouns are not the same and kept declaring that he had typed “leaves” and the computer had given him the translation “Blätter.”, i.e. the noun instead of the verb he meant.”  Nicole

“The pupils had no notion whatsoever of grammar, neither of German nor of English grammar, that is. I first got suspicious when I reminded a class to spell their nouns with capitals and no one had a sufficient idea of what a noun is. Needless to say that it is extremely difficult to explain and teach pieces of German grammar when the students do not even have a basic grammatical knowledge of their own language. As a result, a kind of vicious circle evolved: already in the early stages of language acquisition pupils learn items by heart rather than first questioning and then understanding them, which makes it later impossible to explain more complex items.” Eva

“German did not become a real means of communication but only a “provider” of specific phrases. The German lessons were far too concentrated on language as a medium than as a conveyer of messages. Their conversations always seemed to be very artificial as no one was able to respond or react to an individually made statement. To give you an example: the “greeting ceremony”: The pupils were taught to say: “Wie heißt du? – Ich heiße x!” These phrases were repeated in a very automatical way. One had the impression that the speaking persons were machines and not human beings. When I changed these phrases into: “Wie ist dein Name? – Mein Name ist xy!, which is closer to English, complete confusion arose. I personally found this sad as no language is spoken in such a standardized and limited way. It was no surprise to me that many of the pupils were horrified at the thought of going to Germany.” Katja

My school  primarily used a book called “Deutsch Jetzt” by Rosy McNab (Heinemann Educational, 1987) which didn’t contain any grammatical explanations but provided only pattern sentences which the pupils had to learn by heart. It  turned out during the exercises that the pupils hadn’t understood the structure of a sentence. It wasn’t possible to use grammatical terms to help explain the concepts because the pupils didn’t recognize them. A teacher told me the school believed the teaching of grammar to be superfluous and that in any case it was not a grammar school. In my opinion, it would have been beneficial to have at least made use of basic grammatical explanations as an additional help in learning to use the foreign language.” Helga

“Being only taught a specific set of phrases with a very limited vocabulary the students  naturally  stuck to these phrases. I was alarmed and shocked at how incapable many students were to think of alternative words, let alone sentences to express their thoughts. The FL did not become a real means of communication but was just a closed set of  phrases. A fifth form had to work out answers for different questions, such as ‘Wie sieht dein Schlafzimmer aus?’ or ‘Was hast du in den letzten Ferien gemacht?’. It was my task to discuss those questions in groups of three pupils who had been taken out of the classroom. The pupils, however, were not able to respond to my questions without reading the answer from a sheet. Going more into detail, e.g. asking why somebody’s favourite subject was maths, the students got stuck because they had not learned this part of the conversation. Changing the order of the questions caused confusion and put them off. This obviously showed that the pupils had not even understood the questions. After five years of learning a foreign language I can only regard this as a complete failure and I can understand that pupils tended to forget  their German within a sadly short time.” Iris

“I was never taught grammar…You learn how to say a sentence: I am going to the cinema. And you would never learn the verb. It would just be parrot fashion…You could never change the phrases round because you never actually learned the verbs” (A-level pupil, quoted by Fisher 2001).

 “It was probably our middle class arrogance – believing that comprehensive kids can’t cope with abstract concepts – that led us to make the third fatal mistake when we killed the teaching of grammar. (The Modern Languages Adviser who tells you with a condescending smile: ”But you learnt your own language as a child without knowing grammar, didn’t you?” should be answered with a straight right to the chin.)” (Leman 2000, 24).  No comment.