When Alexander the Great was busy expanding his empire, he discovered not everybody understood Greek. In order to communicate, he needed his subjects to learn his language. And fast. And so the Greek language was analysed and a logic system of rules was created: grammar. The theory behind this was: when you understand the grammatical structures of a language, you can build correct sentences.
But how important is grammar these days? We communicate with people from all over the world, thanks to social media. We travel a whole lot more than we did 50 years ago. When we are, for instance, in Bhutan, we are able to communicate with the locals. Even if we don’t know anything about the Dzongkha grammar. Knowing just a few words is often enough to get around.
After all, if somebody says: “Me want bread”, you are just as able to understand what this person needs as if s/he said: “Could you give me a sandwich please?”.
If we find ourselves in an online conversation in a language we don’t master, we simply use Google Translate. And even though Google does not always give the correct translation – especially not when it comes to grammatical correct sentences – we still understand each other. Google Translate can even do the talking for you. Just take your smartphone with you wherever you go, and you can communicate with everyone.
Knowing that, one might argue that teaching English as a foreign language isn’t necessary anymore. But people don’t want to learn English just to be understood. People want to do better than Google Translate. If someone really wants to speak English, “Me want bread”, simply doesn’t cut it. This shows that teaching English is all about how to build grammatical correct sentences.
Student or teacher centred?
So how does one teach English? Early teaching methods were mostly teacher centred: the teacher used to be the authority figure in the classroom, and s/he decided what the student needed to learn.
Nowadays student-centred teaching models have gained popularity. This method advocates that teachers and students play an equally active role in the learning process.
Dogme language teaching
One of these student-centred models is Dogme language teaching. This teaching philosophy focuses on conversational communication among students and teacher. Resources aren’t brought in by the teacher, but provided by the students.
The language strictly has a communicative purpose, and therefore should be ‘real’. The teaching is supposed to be textbook-free. Grammar is taught in this method, though only when it arises naturally during the lesson: it is not the most important thing the lesson. The method is completely student-driven: the teacher can enter the classroom asking the students what they would like to learn that day. The responsibility in learning lies completely with the students. And lastly: there is no distinction made between the levels of the students.
Humanistic language teaching
Teachers who think Dogme ELT goes a bit too far (especially the ones who like to control whatever they are teaching), might be more attracted to the Humanistic language teaching. As opposed to other teaching methods, this approach focuses on the student as a whole person, instead of only appealing to the student’s brain. Emotionally and socially, the student needs to be engaged in learning. That means a teacher won’t just look if a student’s work is grammatically correct, but s/he also responds to the content: what is the student really about?
In other words: Humanistic language teaching is close and personal. This requires an empathic teacher who is able to pick up and handle possible personal issues of a student.
Like other modern approaches, the Humanistic language teaching is student-centred. To some extent, the learning process is even handed over to the student. For instance, a teacher might start his/her lesson by saying: “Today we’ll talk about [subject]. But it’s up to you to decide what we should begin with”.
The idea is that the content of a lesson is taught from the point of view of the student. In that way a student feels more involved in the lesson than s/he would be if the teacher decides what the content of the lesson should be. It also gives the student a lot of responsibility.
In the Humanistic approach students can even have a say in the learning material: whatever subject lies close to their heart.
Both the Dogme ELT and the Humanistic approach respond to the needs of the student. So what does a student need? If s/he needs to get talking in English as soon as possible, grammar may be less important. Teaching the simple aspects and the right word order (SVO) might be just enough.
However, it is safe to assume that adult non-anglophone students are interested in more than just conversational English. They usually need to learn English because of their profession. Therefore, knowing about the different verb tenses in the English language is essential.
Moreover, with 765 million English speakers world-wide, it is important to know the difference in the meaning between “I had a sandwich”, “I have had a sandwich” and “I have been eating a sandwich”.
I believe teachers shouldn’t bore their students with lexical terminology like “past continuous” and “present perfect continuous”. It is important, though, to know the difference between a verb and a noun. Just as it’s important to know what the difference is between a subject and an object.
Many students say they hate grammar. That’s not only because grammar the hardest thing when learning a new language. It also has to do with their perception when it comes to grammar: it often feels as if knowing grammar isn’t relevant.
It’s a teacher’s job to show students that grammar is important. After all, grammar is a a logic system of rules. If you know the system you are able to use a new language correctly.
Alexander the Great was not wrong about that.
I wrote this article as part of my education as an ESL-teacher (English as a foreign language). So it’s ok if you found this piece boring. There’s enough fun on this website, though! Such as a secret spot just outside Amsterdam where you suddenly find yourself surrounded by nature.