Why Learners Find English Grammar Difficult
Gabriela Lojová works at Comenius University in Bratislava. As well as teaching courses in English grammar, her research and educational activities are focussed on the psychology of language learning and teaching and FL teacher training. Her work aims at the humanization of FLT and looking for more effective ways of teaching English. She has published five books, numerous research papers and professional articles. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
“English grammar is not as difficult as the language and educational environment, textbooks, and teachers may make it!”
The article tackles the problem of the underdeveloped ability to use learned grammar rules in real life communication. We point at some more general causes that may underlie teaching and learning strategies, such as differences between Slovak as a synthetic language and English as an analytic language, diversity of linguistic descriptions, lack of learners´ ambiguity tolerance, transfer of teaching and learning strategies, and the underestimation of tuning in a teaching / learning process.
When pondering the outcomes of developing communicative competence in English as a foreign language (EFL) in Slovakia, one of many problems is the underdeveloped ability to use learned grammar rules in real life communication. This opinion is based not only on empirical evidence and teachers´ experience but also on research findings (Lojová et al 2015, Lojová 2016). In other words, secondary school graduates achieve a relatively high level of knowledge of English grammar but their ability to use the knowledge in communication is much lower. As a result, learners have a tendency to consider English grammar more difficult than it really is. Why is this so? What is wrong with the grammar teaching methods?
What can make English grammar more difficult than it really is
This issue triggers many questions about how to teach English grammar more effectively. In this article, we are not going to join the never-ending professional discussions on the role of grammar in foreign language learning and teaching. Neither are we going to discuss various basic questions functioning as a springboard for making sound recommendations for classroom teaching (What is language? Which of current SLA theories determining the entire methodology of grammar teaching should be applied? etc.). Nor are we going to present effective methods or teaching activities. Instead, we will shed light on more general issues underlying approaches to grammar teaching that teachers (and learners) should be aware of before they start to teach or learn English grammar. It is our belief that by being aware of such issues teachers can change their mind-set and develop more effective teaching approaches and strategies.
The most general factor influencing the perception of grammar is the fundamental difference between the mother tongue of our learners and English. Slovak, as a typical synthetic language, is rich in affixation and governed by strict and relatively stable grammar rules. However, English is a much more analytic and dynamic language with higher flexibility in the usage of grammar rules. This important difference is also reflected in pedagogical grammars: In Slovak when describing grammatical characteristics, expressions like “always, never, must / cannot be used” are most frequently used, unlike in English grammar where expressions such as “normally, usually, there is a tendency to use it” are much more frequent. This difference has a significant impact on the ways of understanding the usage of grammar rules. It means that the application of grammar structures in Slovak depends dominantly on rules that are relatively stable, clear, unequivocal and which sometimes require memorization. However, the application of English grammar rules and the functions of a given structure can often be ambiguous, subjectively determined (what a speaker wants to express or emphasize) and more dependent on a given context (linguistic, textual or situational). It is obvious that mastery of English grammar requires a tolerance for such ambiguities so that the rules can be effectively integrated into the system of learners´ grammar knowledge. In other words, it requires a higher level of ambiguity tolerance and flexibility in metalinguistic (grammatical) thinking, which is possibly lacking in Slovak learners. NB. Some research findings even suggest that ambiguity tolerance may be a significant factor in learning EFL (Brown 2007). This may be due to the interference of the above-mentioned features of the Slovak language as well as the methodology of Slovak grammar teaching in our schools. As a result, Slovak learners often find the functional variability of English grammar structures frustrating and tend to be cognitively or affectively disturbed by their ambiguity and uncertainty. When asking about the proper usage of any structure, they expect unequivocal answers. However, the frequent answer ´It depends … (on the context, on what you want to emphasise, etc.) ´ is frustrating. Eventually it may lead to the subjective perception of English grammar as more difficult than it really is or the belief that “In English grammar there are so many exceptions”. Actually, this is not connected to exceptions, but to the flexibility (or functional variability) of the rules.
For example: A Slovak simple sentence ´Bývam v Nitre. ´ can be translated in four different ways: ´I live in Nitra. / I am living in Nitra. ´ (a speaker communicates whether he/she considers it a permanent or temporary stay - subjectively determined), I have lived /I have been living in Nitra for / since … (if a time adverbial is expressed – linguistic context). Usually learners are aware of all four possibilities, however, they are confused about which one to use properly in which situation.
Another relevant aspect seems to be the problem of the diversity of linguists and their approaches. In Slovakia, despite the co-occurrence of different approaches of various linguists, the rules of the standard Slovak language are codified by a national institution (Jazykovedný ústav Ľudovíta Štúra Slovenskej akadémie vied) in a document Pravidlá slovenského pravopisu (2000). Any pedagogical grammar must be derived from it, which results in standardized terminology and explanations of grammar phenomena in all grammar books and textbooks; naturally, they are adjusted to the level of learners´ cognitive or metalinguistic development. As for English, controversially, there is no unifying institution or unified description of the grammar. Various recognized linguists and linguistic schools approach and analyse English differently. They use different terminology, definitions, classifications, and thus they analyse and describe the grammar in their own ways. These differences are then transformed into pedagogical grammars for teachers and learners. The result is that the terminology and explanations of the same phenomena in various grammar books and textbooks may differ considerably.
For example: The English translation of the Slovak technical term ´plnovýznamové sloveso´ may be ´main / meaningful /full /content verb´, which is usually confusing for learners when learning from different textbooks.
Thus, it may be said that even English textbooks written by qualified native speakers may make English grammar more difficult than it really is. Language learners usually use different textbooks, workbooks and additional materials from various resources during their educational career. In so doing they encounter diverse classifications, terminology, definitions and explanations of the same grammatical phenomena, their functions in particular. However, for learners it is usually too cognitively demanding to analyse and compare the differences in the descriptions and to construct their own proper understanding. This, along with the transfer of learning strategies from Slovak language lessons (e.g. memorizing strict grammar rules) often results in learners accumulating different redundant definitions and rules without realizing that they refer to the same phenomenon. Logically it must lead to chaos, confusion and subjective overestimation of the difficulty of English grammar.
For example: If various descriptions of the functions of the present perfect tense from different grammar books and textbooks were compiled, a relatively long list of explanations would be created. To analyse and compare them may be beyond learners´ cognitive capacity, so they might just memorize them or abandon them as too difficult. Eventually, since they are not able to use them properly, they feel insecure, frustrated and consider it more difficult than it really is.
Needless to say, in many situations it may be easier and more effective to use the mother tongue equivalent that enables learners to immediately comprehend the function of a structure than to struggle with these confusing explanations.
For example: One of the meanings of the present continuous tense is explained as ´… it refers to an activity around the present´ (What is around the present?) or ´wider present´ (What is the wider present?). Can learners fully comprehend this function? Or even a more complex explanation like ´… an activity you started in the past, you haven´t finished, you are not doing at the present moment and you are likely to continue´. To understand this explanation is cognitively too demanding. All of these confusing descriptions of the function can be replaced and very easily understood if the Slovak equivalent ´Čo teraz čítaš? ´ is used.
Furthermore, textbooks are written by native speakers for learners of all nationalities. Understandably, attention cannot be paid to the transfer and interference of native language grammar structures and their functions. Utilizing the positive impact of transfer, where possible, and warning about interference may have a considerable impact on the comprehension of English grammar and make grammar learning much easier.
A good example is the epistemic (intrinsic) meanings of modal auxiliaries in sentences like: John may be at home.… might be / could be / will be / must be / should be / can´t be. When explaining the different meanings in textbooks, words like possibility, probability, certainty, necessity are usually used. However, comprehending the differences between the meanings of these words (possibility, probability, certainty, necessity) may be more demanding for students than the grammar itself. As in Slovak, the epistemic meanings in the present tense are expressed in the same way, it is much easier to provide learners with the Slovak equivalent which they will immediately understand. Needless to say, due to the transfer from the mother tongue, some learners subconsciously use the epistemic functions correctly without any explicit knowledge of the rules. Moreover, the additional learning of the rules may sometimes be counterproductive and contribute to the opinion that English grammar is so difficult.
As mentioned above, the interference of Slovak grammar teaching and learning strategies may contribute to problems in learning English grammar. From approximately 9 years of age, pupils learn Slovak grammar declarative knowledge (relatively strict, clear, unequivocal and often memorized). In so doing they develop their metalinguistic awareness and grammar learning strategies which tend to be subconsciously transferred to learning the grammar of a foreign language. However, these learning strategies as learners´ inner conscious or subconscious “equipment”, may not be very effective or may even hinder the proper comprehension of English grammar rules. As explained above, learning English grammar requires a higher level of flexibility in structural-functional thinking. In addition, developing the skill to use grammar correctly and fluently, i.e. to automate and tune learned grammar, requires effective practice in (quasi)real-life communicative activities, unlike mother tongue grammar which is subconsciously acquired and used correctly. Theoretically speaking, procedural knowledge in the mother tongue is followed by declarative knowledge. However, the opposite holds true for English grammar instruction in secondary education, i.e. declarative knowledge must be followed by developing procedural knowledge.
As for the methodology of grammar teaching, we would like to emphasize only one particular aspect: When learners learn declarative grammar knowledge (rules), understanding the structure is not a problem. However, fully comprehending the functions of a given structure in varied contexts is much more difficult. A teacher must keep in mind the fact that learners cannot master the functions immediately, no matter how hard they try. In other words, learners may understand how to create a given structure but they are unsure how the structure functions in changing contexts, i.e. when and how to use the structure appropriately to communicate an intended meaning. It is even more confusing when they are supposed to choose from two or more structures which are possible in a given context and which may change or modify the meaning (e.g. On Sunday I will have a party / I am going to have a party. / I am having a party.). Learners need lots of practice to be able not only to use the structure fluently and automatically but to tune. It means to fully comprehend how the structure functions in various contexts and situations. Tuning is of essential importance as t Therefore, learners cannot be expected to immediately comprehend the rules and use them correctly. They need time to allow the learned grammar knowledge to “mature”. Teachers should be empathic and understanding of learners´ confusion and facilitate their learning by appropriate learning activities leading to the gradual tuning of learned grammar structures (Lojová 2017). What makes this process demanding is the fact that it is an ongoing process that becomes more complex as learners have to tune more and more structures simultaneously.
Furthermore, the communicative and productive activities needed for effective tuning are much more time-consuming, which poses a real problem for many teachers in their endeavour to stick to their syllabi. Another restricting factor may be teachers´ tendency to rely on learners´ tuning outside school, which does not often happen. In addition, teachers have a tendency to overemphasise the importance of declarative knowledge and its practice in focussed exercises to the detriment of contextualised and productive activities needed for effective tuning. In other words, there is a tendency to overemphasise the importance of correctness to the detriment of fluency and the ability to convey an intended message. Logically, these teaching strategies can also subconsciously mould learners´ opinions on the importance of declarative knowledge and correctness. An obvious consequence of such approach is that learners may suffer from communication barriers (“I should know that, as I´ve learnt the rules.”); it undermines their self-confidence and self-esteem, which considerably hinders their communication in English.
Having all these aspects in the background of their methodological thinking, teachers can use any methods, activities and techniques to help EL learners create their own inner representation of the system of English grammar and develop their communicative competence effectively. However, this assumes that the teachers have interiorized the principles of the learner-centred approach and the communicative methodology of teaching EFL.
Lojová, G., et al (2015) Deklaratívne a procedurálne vedomosti vo výučbe anglického jazyka, Bratislava: Vydavateľstvo Univerzity Komenského
Lojová, G., (2016) Súčasný stav skúmania vyučovania gramatiky anglického jazyka na Slovensku. Xlinguea, vol. 9 / 3, pp 70-80
Lojová, G., (2017) Application of selected principles of the Learner-centred approach to English grammar teaching. XLinguea, vol. 10 / 4, pp 278-286
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