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.

Unity in diversity

All languages dance the same dance. For FL learners the mother tongue is the mother of all languages.Ethnographers and anthropologists have entertainedus with amusing stories of cultural practices.These practices, whichmay seem quaint to some of us, are real nonetheless, as real as the differences between languages.

 Download full text: Unity In Diversity (PDF, 28K)

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.

See also: „Schwache Englischleistungen – woran liegt’s? Glanz und Elend der Schule oder die Wirklichkeit des Fremdsprachenschülers“ ZiF (2007)