A Semantic Approach to the Grammar Lesson
Lina Di Ciocco, Thessaloniki, Greece
It is a personal hunch that grammar has a semantic root or that associations, in the form of metaphors, can provide clues to understanding grammatical concepts. Hannabuss (1996:46) claims that metaphors help us understand by associating the unfamiliar with the familiar and further suggests that "understanding is sight, arriving at a metaphor". The importance of imagery in children's thought processes is clearly apparent in the amount of personification or "anthropomorphism" (Hannabuss, 1996) found in children's literature. The distinguished psychologist, Carl Jung, who described himself as having "good visual memory" also made a strong case for the relevance of metaphors. In relating some of his own anxieties as a young learner in studying Maths, he painstakingly attributed a great deal of his frustration to the fact that "numbers were nothing that could be imagined" as they could not be referred to his surroundings. "They were not flowers, not animals, not fossils," Jung (1995:45) argued. This humble, subjective evidence is strongly supported by Sutton and Leondar (in Hannabuss, 1996), declaring respectively that metaphoric language is a "major cognitive aid in learning and teaching" and that "we might need metaphors to explain all new learning, at least at the start."
The Relative Pronoun is a Relative Concept
That aspect of grammar which responds well to analogy, but often ignored in the language classroom, strangely enough, is at the lexical level. Grammatical terminology often gives clues to the role or function of a term within its grammatical framework. For example, just as active / passive voice is a power issue in the sentence involving the doer (subject) versus receiver (object), with the more powerful of the two gaining a privileged first place in the sentence; similarly, it is of no coincidence that the relative pronoun was meant to be a relative. After all, it shares a neighboring place, lives in the same neighborhood, so to speak as the noun it refers to. In certain cultures where there are strong family ties, as in Greece, relatives often live side by side or in close proximity, so the relative pronoun as a neighboring relative can be quite an endearing and welcoming thought among learners. Moreover, the relative pronoun is not only spatially related, but shares common information, often of a personal or confidential nature connecting it to the noun it refers to. This information can be vital and identifying or extra, irrelevant and non-identifying, which can be bracketed, set off by commas.
A topic discussion on real relatives (family members), their geographic location, and even their roles (those that lend a helping hand, offer support, companionship, who contribute to gossip, arguments, run errands, etc) can be very helpful in introducing and reviewing relative pronouns for the following reasons:
- it lures learners into the grammar lesson;
- it facilitates in accommodating and assimilating the relative concept and role of relative pronouns;
- t provides a real-life context that they can all relate to. They can own it by making individual contributions to it;
- it allows the lesson to branch off from grammar to vocabulary development and oral practice;
- it forms a valuable bond (mental picture) they can easily refer to.
This "picture" will eventually be part of a series of inner conceptual icons placed in a grammar "album", which the teaching-learning process will gradually add to. In other words, the relative pronoun is identified, with role and purpose established, but like in real life, relatives function as a group, as family members, but individually as well in other units of society. Therefore, "who", "which", "where", "whose", etc. share a surname "Wh-words", but do not always function as relatives, unless they are bound by a relative clause. They can have the role of question words (e.g. Who's there?), act as nouns (e.g. Where one chooses to learn is a fundamental human right). Furthermore, these words can coexist as a unit or word chunk to serve another purpose, as is the case with "what, how, for whom?" forming a definition for Economics. The point is that learners will need to be gradually sensitized to the realities of wh-words and of the relative pronoun as a relative and relational concept.
"He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how" Nietzsche
or the learner and teacher alike, the grammar lesson might turn out to be a unique human experience, offering him/her an opportunity to focus and reflect on their own family relations. Depending on the level of both teacher and learner, reflecting on the relative clause in terms of meaningful (identifying) and meaningless (non-identifying) can be beneficial in making them see that in the journey of life, we have to learn to put aside, set off by commas, so to speak, the unnecessary information in relationships and focus on the essential if we are to find meaning. Finding meaning is a sound teaching strategy to insist on rather than an initial obsession with accuracy. This shift of focus not only leads to faster identification of the noun in question, but builds learner awareness of the role of the relative clause. The relative pronoun, after all, is a mere substitute for an existing noun, therefore, not a high focal point for learners. The perspective of the grammar lesson should be on the steps (process) leading up to or down the formula or rule. The "staircase", however, cannot be suspended. It needs to be grounded or housed (contextualized) in a particular setting, reflecting the cultural experience of the learner and authenticity of purpose in order to fulfill "Widdowson's signification and value criteria (Harmer, 1983). Moreover, the grammar lesson could provide option, flexibility of expression and a permissible, homely environment where learners will comfortably take risks. The teacher has to generate different ways of motivating the learner to embark on a journey of discovering how to find and express meaning.
How it came home to me
From personal experience, using the approach of semantic associations in teaching grammatical concepts such as the relative pronoun helps resolve the attention problem often encountered in the grammar lesson since it is perceived as a welcome change from the usual humdrum presentations. This approach also lends itself to connecting grammar to other skills and activities:/p>
- The grammar can be introduced or followed by a reading, listening or topic-related discussion (as mentioned earlier);
- It can be accompanied with photographs of family members used as stimuli for practicing the structure (e.g. This is my relative Claus who lives in Japan / Greece / Britain, etc.
- Familiarity of topic allows learners to draw from a rich, personal information bank for them to use as a resource for a potential writing task.
Finally, the grammar lesson is personalized and raised from the level of "fragments, a focus on eliciting the right answer and the teacher's role as arbiter of correctness," which are all "hallmarks" according to Prodromou (1995) of the testing rather than teaching situation. He stresses the importance of teachers providing opportunities for learners to transform, enrich and personalize grammar exercises so that they can be means of communication rather than restrictive mechanistic ends.
On a concluding note, I would like to include a comment made by a former FCE student who had been exposed to a semantic approach to grammar as described in this paper because, in my opinion, it manages to penetrate the essence of this approach so eloquently. "Really, I feel that now I can express myself in English and that I've filled a gap in my mind. The teacher made me understand grammar not as rules, but as a way of life."
Hannabuss, S. 1996, Thinking in Metaphors, Education Today, 46:3, Pittman Publishing.
Harmer, J 1983, The Practice of English Language Teaching, Longman.
Jung, C.G. 1983, Memories, Dreams and Reflections, Fontana Press.
Prodromou, L 1995, The Backwash Effect: From Testing to Teaching, English Teaching Professional, 49: 13-24.