Vocabulary of Grammar

There is, perhaps, no greater derelict of duty in the teaching profession than to leave the student dependent on the teacher for his education.  If the idea of teaching is not to excite the imagination and stimulate one’s students to logically disciplined, independent thought, than would it not be better to turn our schools into the military training camps or kindergartens for adolescents that they, for many a student, eventually become?

A scattergram of various words of the vocabulary of grammar
Just a few of the many words that constitute the vocabulary of grammar.

Second language teachers who do not provide their students with the ability to wield reference materials, such as dictionaries and grammar books, on their own leave their students dependent on others for eternal guidance.  There is no good dictionary that does not explicitly address the difference in form, use, and meaning, and there is no good grammar book that does not organize its contents based on the primacy of the vocabulary of grammar — the very notions that are downplayed by the modern CLT approach to the teaching of a second language!

Although it is surely the desire of both the student and the teacher that the student learn to speak and write the language that he is seeking to acquire; it is also necessary that both the student and teacher acquire the vocabulary necessary to talk about what it is the student may wish to learn.  In fact, the ability to talk about what one is trying to learn makes the endeavor more interesting and the student more willing to make an effort.  It is just as important for the student, as it is for the teacher, to know the difference between a transitive and an intransitive verb and the importance of each on the formation of passive voice.  To think otherwise is wasting the student’s time!

Knowing what is correct and knowing why something is correct are two very different levels of comprehension.  In short, what is intuitive to the first-language learner through tens of thousands of hours of trial-and-error experimentation completely escapes the second-language learner who can count the hundreds of hours that he spends in an English language classroom on one and for most, at most, two hands!

Not only is learning the underlying concepts of language crucial to the understanding of the material that the second-language learner is seeking to learn, but also the symbols that the language profession assigns to them.  For with these symbols in his grasp the student can cut his own way through the morass of confusion that makes learning a second language so entertaining on the one hand and an infinite source of frustration on the other.  No language is not mathematics and the symbols of language are not nearly so well-determined as their mathematical counterparts.  This said, language is structured and orderly, but only if one knows the rules and the concepts well enough to prioritize them properly.  The step-by-step grammatical approach that underlies the organization of most language textbooks clearly recognizes this order, but leaving it to the intuition of the second-language student to figure out, as were he learning his first language is not only unproductive, but it is an insult to the student’s intelligence.

Language is language, and spoken language is a human trait that is acquired by nearly every member of our species.  Indeed, if a child can sort through the morass of grammatical forms and use in his own native language and achieve this seemingly daunting task nearly entirely on his own, then surely there is no grammar that an older child or adult cannot learn equally as well.1   Both the first- and second-language learners have plenty of role models whose ability to serve as such can vary greatly, but what makes the first- and second-language learner almost universally different is the amount of time for experimentation on the one hand, and the ability to exploit reference books (prior knowledge) on the other.  To fail to train students in the use of these books is a failure to provide the student with the tools he needs to master his subject matter independent of his teachers.  And, in order to effectuate this training knowledge of the vocabulary of grammar is essential.

  1. Obviously enough perhaps, the child could not learn his first language without the help of others, but these others, so vital as they are in the child’s trial-and-error experimentation, serve more as reflective, bounding boards, if you will, in the child’s own relentless pursuit of his native tongue.