Grammar is still important! or, What I wish students would know

Yet another Language Teaching post.   This time I explore another difficulty with teaching foreign language in America: Grammar.  Grammar is very much an important part of learning a language, knowing vocabulary is great, but if you can’t put those words in the proper order the sentence still has no meaning, or worse, has a completely different meaning.  Grammar shows us how to form sentences, it is the glue that holds language together, where vocabulary is the blocks.

The problem with teaching grammar in a foreign language classroom is that most of the time the students have no clue what you’re talking about.  If I were to ask you what the subject, direct object and indirect object are in a sentence could you answer?  If I were to ask you the difference between Nominative and Accusative case, would you know it?  Probably not. Because we don’t talk about these aspects of grammar in our English classes, how can we expect students to understand these concepts in a foreign language?

It is increasingly  becoming the foreign language teacher’s job to teach students English grammar first so that they have a basis from which they can learn a foreign language’s grammar.  We don’t diagram sentences in English class anymore so students don’t know the different parts of a sentence in their native language.  And learning this not only helps them understand a foreign language, it helps them understand their native language.  People are complaining about seriously sliding standards when it comes to language and communication among teenagers.  Text messaging and IM and internet forums without spellcheck are certainly a factor, but I believe it can also be traced to the fact that they are not being taught the structure of language and the importance of grammar.  There is at least one area of grammar I wish my students understood before they entered my German classroom.

Cases:  A lot of foreign languages have multiple cases, German has four, and English has three.  The difference is that in German case affects nouns as well a pronouns, but in English case only affects pronouns.  Since this only affects pronouns in English, we tend to ignore cases, but they are still very important both for a proper understanding of English and for an understanding of foreign languages.  Case in point (no pun intended) — What is the difference between I and me? When do you use which in a sentence?  The general rule that we were all told in elementary school is that you never say “Joe and me”, you always say “Joe and I”.  This is unfortunately incorrect.  There are plenty of times when it is correct to say “Joe and me” and incorrect to say “Joe and I”. The difference is what case the personal pronoun should take.  In English the three cases are Nominative (subjective), Accusative (objective), and Genitive (possessive).  When the pronoun is functioning as the subject of the sentence (Joe and I went to the store) it is in Nominative case, and we use I, or he, as the nominative pronouns.  But, when the pronoun is acting as the object of the sentence (He threw the ball to Joe and me) the pronoun is now in the Accusative case and we use the accusative pronouns me or him.   The simple rule of thumb is to remove the other person and just use I or me.  Would you say ‘Me went to the store’?, or ‘He threw the ball to I’?   No, we seem to be able to tell instantly which is correct when it is only one pronoun, but adding another throws us off completely.

Having this understanding of the difference between subject (doer of action) and object (receiver of action) in a sentence and the different cases would help students to know how to speak English better and prepare them to understand foreign languages.  A lot of foreign languages use cases to help distinguish different parts of the sentence.  In English we use word order to tell us what is happening. “The man bites the dog” is not the same as “The dog bites the man”.  But in German, you could say “The man bites the dog”, and by putting each noun (man, dog) in the proper case, with the appropriate ending for that case, we would still know which is the subject (the doer of the biting) and which is the object (the receiver of the biting).

If this were explained better in our English classrooms then students would not be so confused when they tried to learn a foreign language.  They would know the difference between subject and object and direct object, Nominative and Accusative and Genitive cases.  We teach about the difference between nouns, pronouns, adverbs, and verbs.  Why can’t we teach a little more about grammar?

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