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What's your native metalanguage?

 
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lolwhites



Joined: 16 Jul 2003
Posts: 1321
Location: France

PostPosted: Tue Jan 06, 2004 9:05 pm    Post subject: What's your native metalanguage? Reply with quote

I thought I'd bring this topic up as it's come up through various threads and I think it needs tackling. It concerns some of the terminology we, and most grammar books use.

Am I the only one to have a problem with Latin terminology to describe English? The use of terms like Infinitive, Imperative and Future Tense are fine for Latin-based languages, and I use them myself when I teach Spanish. I avoid them for ELT for a number of reasons. The two main ones are:

1) Many if my students do not speak another Indo-European language. If I tell Chinese students about infinitives and imperatives when they are both the same in English I just burden them with unnecessary vocabulary and bamboozle them unnecessarily. Why not just talk about Base Form and then go on to describe its uses?

2) Conversely, speakers of Latin-based langauges are lulled into a false sense of security. Is it any wonder that so many French speakers always say *When I will go instead of "when I go" when they've been told "Will is the Future Tense"? Furthermore, since French, Spanish, Italian etc are not consistent in how they use their Subjunctive, Future Tense, Perfect Aspect etc, encouraging them to map English constructions onto their own language just leads to a greater variety of more ingrained errors. I spent years learning this the hard way as a teacher and a learner.

I'd be keen to know what others think, but please, no arguments about will as the future or Base Form being equivalent to Infinitive; it's all been said before.
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Stephen Jones



Joined: 18 May 2003
Posts: 1422

PostPosted: Wed Jan 07, 2004 6:16 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

"Latin" grammar in fact could better be described as Indo-European grammar since it applies to Greek, Sanskrit Hindi and Sinhala for example.

Robert Lado stated that the only difficulties in learning a foreign language are the parts that are different from the learners first language. I would agree with that statement, and believe that the so-called refutations of it result from inadequate understanding.

This explains the French saying "When I will go"; this has nothing to do with explaining will as the future tense; the French would make the same mistake in Spanish, even though both languages have a future tense.

With regard to this particular matter, I believe the advantages of saying that will acts as the future tense far outweigh the disadvantages. You've got the 90% of the cases where it is the same right, and then can concentrate on the other 10%.

The main problem we have with Latin terminology is that there is no generally agreed alternative. Also first language English textbooks (particularly American ones) still use it. Quirk and Greenbaum's system for English never won popular acceptance, and I believe some aspects of it are attacked in the CUP latest grammar.

Usng the imperative, present subjunctive, and infinitive when we are describing the base form in each case is another matter. The point is that the Latinate descriptions describe the function while Base form describes the structure. I think it's a question of do you find it useful.

Whatever you try you will not stop students mapping English to their target language. It is probably better if you do it, and explain where the mapping doesn't work, then let them do it themselves and get it wrong.
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revel



Joined: 06 Jan 2004
Posts: 532

PostPosted: Wed Jan 07, 2004 7:52 am    Post subject: Simplifying the terms Reply with quote

Hey guys and gals!

Depends on the students, but I don't get much into terminology in class beyond "noun, verb, subject, object, adjective, adverb" and some useful verb vocabulary such as "future, continuous, perfect, auxilary...."

Sometimes the terms used by my students are misleading. For example, I use the term "root" to speak about the base form of verbs and then build upon this root, adding pronouns, -s, -ing, auxilaries, etc....I especially emphasize the difference between the root form and the infinitive, which is the root with the "prefix" word "to" before it. This is because in some constructions I need the root and in others I need the infinitive. In their school studies of English, they are usually told that both the root and the "to" form are the infinitive, so when the teacher askes for an infinitive the kids have to choose between two possibilities. Hmmm.

In any case, I think we need, each of us, a set of vocabulary to use when we are faced with explaining structure or even grammar, or even defining words. I think that vocabulary should be limited and simple. I think it should rise out of each teacher's specialty in or style of teaching ESL. I teach through pronunciation filters and so use such terminology as "reduction, liaison, waltz, march", for example.

As far as making this set of vocabulary universal, well, I think we who study and practice linguistics already have a vocabulary to use and any moment of misunderstanding can be quickly cleared up. We know that we are using the studied subject to study itself and we know that such words as "acceptable" or "proper" carry with them added weight, and we might want to avoid terms that would confuse like "subjunctive". However, in the classroom, I don't think it is necessary to get too deep into linguistic theory with the students, since their goal is not to understand how the language works or is used, but rather to work with the language and use it.

peace,
revel.
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lolwhites



Joined: 16 Jul 2003
Posts: 1321
Location: France

PostPosted: Wed Jan 07, 2004 10:29 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Some good points, but I still feel that there are a lot of grammar terms that we would be better off without, or at least renaming.

While it's true that English is an Indo European language and its grammar originally comes form that, it's also true that no language from that family has kept everything form the original. For example, Spanish and French do not have Case systems, while German and Russian do. It's quite legitimate to introduce concepts of nominative and accusative to the teaching of German and Russian, but not for Spanish or English. I think that dispensing with the more redundant Latin terms like "Future Tense" in English just takes it one step further. Without wanting to get into a long, drawn out discussion about will as the future (it's all been said), I'm not sure there's a 90% correlation. Interestingly, it's cognate in Swedish is vill, which means want to, and that concept of speaker centred judgement rather that objective fact remains a primary semantic characteristic of will.

Nor is it particularly radical to give a structure a name that reflects its meaning in the language under study. Take the Present Perfect; that's what we call it in English because it's clearly grounded at the point "Now" in some way. The French call it Passe Compose (compound past) and that's what the structure means in French. In Italian it's called Passato Prossimo (near past) for the same reason. The Spanish call it Preterito Perfecto and Portuguese speakers call it Preterito Perfeito Composto. Isn't there a case for expending that principle?

Finally, while students will always be tempted to map English structures onto their target language, doesn't a lot of the terminology encourage, rather than discourage this practice? And what about the students who don't speak an Indo-European language?
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Stephen Jones



Joined: 18 May 2003
Posts: 1422

PostPosted: Thu Jan 08, 2004 10:43 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

You seem to have an obsession with "will" as the future tense. The fact that will also has a lexical meaning of its own in Swedish, as indeed it does in Englsih is irrelevant. So does the word "do" but we don't pretend there is no such tense as the Present Simple.

The trouble with using roll-your-own terminology is that you will have students who have been taught by another teacher with his own, quite possibly cranky and inaccurate version, and you won't even understand what rule the student has been given that is causing all the confusion.

I suggest sticking to the terminology they use in Murphy or Swann, and if you don't like it too much, don't use it, but avoid giving alternative abstractions.

And, if you want to rail against inadequate terminology, how about a full scale nuclear attack on the ridiculous idea that there are first, second and third conditionals.
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lolwhites



Joined: 16 Jul 2003
Posts: 1321
Location: France

PostPosted: Fri Jan 09, 2004 1:56 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

I think you misunderstand me, Stephen. I''ve just been using will as an example, and I'm not going to be drawn as to the inadequacies of calling it the Future Tense as it's all been said before.

A full scale nuclear attack on First, Second and Third Conditionals? I can think of no better way of using up our nuclear stockpiles! Let's napalm must for strong obligation, and if we find the word Imperative skulking in a hole somewhere in the desert, arrest it and parade it on TV.

Seriously, though, my frustration with the terminology used in Murphy or Swann is based on my experiences of student who start treating these tomes as if they were gospel. All too often I have students arguing grammar points with the ferocity of lawyers defending a client. Why? Because not only have they been using inappropriate terminology, but they've been taught the stuff as inviolable fact, rather than as guidelines. They end up saying "How can you say X? That's the Future/Conditional/Infinitive...."

If a well meaning teacher has shown them "cranky terminology", I see that as a problem that needs to be rectified; I'm not going to allow them to carry on barking up the wrong tree. Of course, I'd much rather not have to do that, which is why I argue that our terminology is overdue for a rethink.
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LarryLatham



Joined: 16 Jan 2003
Posts: 1195
Location: Aguanga, California (near San Diego)

PostPosted: Sat Jan 10, 2004 12:04 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Hear, Hear!

Larry Latham
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revel



Joined: 06 Jan 2004
Posts: 532

PostPosted: Sat Jan 10, 2004 9:12 am    Post subject: I must agree.... Reply with quote

Good morning all!

I must agree with lol, especially on the destruction of the three conditionals. There I have found true obsession....in three different job interviews I have been asked if I would be able to explain these three conditionals. I was not asked if I could help my students get over the fear of using English with native speakers, I was not asked if I could help them improve the fluidity of their speech, I was not asked if I could help them even get better grades on their school tests, I was asked if I thought I could effectively explain the three conditionals. Naturally, I lied and said "yes" the first time, though I had little idea just what was meant by the three conditionals and had to let my students fill me in on what they had been taught up to then. The third time I was asked I also said yes, though I never bother to teach the three conditionals. I certainly explain them when asked, but, naturally, just when you have given that nice clean explanation to the students, you then have to explain that other side bar in their grammar book that gives all the wonderful exceptions to the rule. I tend to teach when rather than how these combinations of words should be used, and always when that when appears in the material, not when a grammar book deems correct to explain it.

I get frustrated with books I have to use that teach gerunds and the use of can before teaching the seven personal pronouns and the use of the verb "be", but that is because I like the structural nature of English and believe in building on strong foundations. So I have kids who can perfectly ask me "Can I go to the toilet please" or "Can I have a sharpener please" but who have no idea what "they" means. On one hand, the can question is useful in the classroom, and they are using English to communicate. On the other hand, they don't know what "I" means in that sentence, so that when they see it in another sentence, they don't realize that they are talking about themselves. And not knowing that makes substitution difficult to make new sentences based on the same structure.

On the other hand, teaching "Would you like a cup of coffee" as a complete utterance instead of getting into complicated "conditional" explanations has worked better for me. My challenge is always getting the student to say "I'd rather" instead of "I---would---prefer", getting the student to pass over if that "'d" is would or could or should and instead simply use the sounds to communicate such and such a message. For all the hours of explanation that most of my students have had on the three conditionals, none of them have a clear idea what that is or how to use it.

I am not obsessed with the three conditionals, thank goodness. I am obsessed with word-for-word pronunciation, with grammar over communication, with rules over usage. But then, I have been hired specifically to break those molds, where I work we already have two teachers who do best their best work when explaining such grammar and rules. My job is to get those students on their feet and make them use the language to communicate. The students spend an hour listening to grammar explanations because that is what they expect from their ESL class, but then they spend two and a half hours improvising in controlled situations, out loud, without books or notebooks or blackboards.

This is why I suggested earlier that maybe the terms we use might need to be developed by each one of us. That another teacher says that there are two or four or six infinitives in English, while I maintain that there is a root to which we add pre and suffixes does not concern me too much. I'm American and so teach "garbage, trash, waste" while my co-teacher, who is Brittish, erases those words from our shared exam because he only uses "rubbish". I teach "have" alone, while he teaches "have got". In school the kids pass their tests with a 50%, while in my class I don't let them get away with less than 85%. Should all this be standardized? Uff, I don't think so! Variety is the spice of life, they say.

peace,
revel.
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