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Category Archives: grammar translation

>By Michael Swan

As the leader of a small team working on methods of teaching grammar at the Notker Balbulus Language Institute in Edinburgh, I have been following various contributions to the recent debate with considerable interest. In most respects, they characterise our practice with remarkable accuracy. We do indeed require our students to learn grammar rules by heart; and we not only make them recite the rules in chorus, but are training some of the students to sing them in four-part harmony. Many of the rules we teach were, as they point out, devised by mediaeval monks; we find that these have a rich deep patina which one simply cannot find in today’s rules. In this connection, we have been fortunate in discovering, in Oxford’s Bodleian Library, an unpublished manuscript containing a veritable storehouse of arcane rules relating to Middle English word order which we are currently incorporating into our teaching programmes. Labelling we regard as essential, and any of our students can identify an indefinite past progressive subjunctive determiner at 200 paces in a dim light. We steadfastly refuse to allow our learners access to comprehensible input; an account of some interesting early work using incomprehensible input can be found in the paper ‘The Use of Sensory Deprivation in Foreign Language Teaching (Swan and Walter 1983) in English Language Teaching Journal 36/3. We take very seriously the translation component of ‘grammar-translation’ (sometimes neglected in today’s permissive times), and our students spend a good deal of their time translating English texts not only into their mother tongues, but also into Latin, Sanskrit, Classical Greek and Old Church Slavonic. The one area where they are somewhat ahead of us is in the matter of etching conjugations into our students’ brains, referred to in their latest posting. This is an exciting and promising direction to explore, and we have indeed tried several approaches, using Spanish and Serbian (since English has no conjugations). However, our results have been disappointing and in some cases unfortunate, and we have come to the conclusion that, sadly, this is a technique which will have to wait for advances in neurosurgery for its successful implementation.

Michael Swan is a writer specializing in English language teaching and reference materials. His interests include pedagogic grammar, mother-tongue influence in second language acquisition, and the relationship between applied linguistic theory and classroom language-teaching practice, and he has published a number of articles on these topics. And he has a great sense of humor.


>By YD Chen

I am a Chinese teacher of English and I have taught English as a foreign language at high school, a teacher’s college and currently at a technology college.

Traditionally, Chinese students tend to consider their teachers the main source of learning, which, to a great extent, results from the philosophical foundation for education in China laid by Confucius, one of the greatest thinkers in ancient China. Even today, no one can deny his unparalleled contribution to Chinese education. Many of his wise sayings and maxims still govern the behaviour of learners in China.

Take TEFL (Teaching English as Foreign Language) for example, students are still accustomed to speech dominated education by a teacher-centred, book-centred, grammar-translation method and an emphasis on rote memory. There is little student initiative and, if any at all, little student-student interaction.

Teachers who are keen on spoonfeeding their students generally receive higher appreciation than teachers who are not. Any attempt from a teacher for simulated interactions such as games, roleplays, talk-based communicative activities, i.e., pair/ group/team work, risks resistance or even resentment from the students. The students tend to associate games and communicative activities in class with entertainment and, exclusively and accordingly, are skeptical of the use of games as
learning tools.

To make things worse, there are students who may go so far as to distinguish “good teachers” from “bad ones” solely by how many pages they can cover in their notebooks. Teachers who advocate communicative approach to teaching English are likely, though unfairly, to be considered lazy or irresponsible by some students.

On the other hand, a fairly large number of Chinese teachers of English play a crucial part in the current situation of TEFL. Although China has been on the way of opening to the outside world and many foreign experts in English teaching are increasingly available, many of these newly-arrived teachers are engaged in training Chinese foreign language teachers at the tertiary level of Chinese technology specialists.

The bulk of the English teaching is still conducted by Chinese teachers, mostly trained in a traditional way, the majority of whom have never been outside of China or talked to a native speaker. Owing to a lack of English proficiency themselves, some Chinese teachers find it a painful step to adjust to different teaching techniques and, therefore, are usually unprepared when difficulties crop up in the course of teaching.

Consequently, they often give up and resort to using outdated methods in the work. Some Chinese teachers are concerned about being unable to answer spontaneously questions about English, sociolinguistics, or culture as they arise from interactions in the classroom. It is not rare to hear teachers complain: “I can only teach English for the sake of teaching. If I am bombarded with more explanations on language and cultural differences, I may be at a loss.”

Last but not the least, the current CET-4/6 (College English Test Band 4/6), started some ten years ago, has led students to a false belief that written English is more important than spoken English. As a result, it is not unusual to see a holder of band 4/6 certificate very weak in spoken English, so much so that he/she often fails to speak a complete sentence. The two examples given at the beginning provide food
for thoughts, don’t they?

>By Richard Hughes

My first TEFL job was teaching English majors at a university in Shandong, so I became familiar with teaching Chinese students who had just finished the high school system. Later I moved back to the UK and taught in a language school in Cambridge with smaller classes and obviously a very different teaching environment: i.e. multilingual classes with students from all over the world and a general acceptance of TEFL-style active learning of the language.

I am now back in China, teaching in a private school in one of the big cities to well-heeled local kids and businesspeople, and am back in the thick of dealing with the problems of teaching English here. And my experience of teaching in the UK has given me a new perspective on these problems.

Grammar Translation – the traditional approach

The emphasis in China is on teaching grammar, and most foreign teachers here are probably familiar with the horrified feeling you get as you look through one of your students’ ‘Intensive Reading’ coursebooks and wonder how this relic from the Dark Ages of language teaching has survived. Another obsession is vocabulary, with many Chinese people rating their English level by the number of words they are adjudged to know (“My lexicon’s bigger than yours….”).

It is sometimes truly terrifying to experience the gulf that lies between the level of grammar and lists of vocab that Chinese students are expected to recognise and the levels of what they can actually reproduce themselves; I have an elderly Chinese colleague who has written three dictionaries/guides to English idioms, who is incapable of holding a simple conversation with me unless I resort to Chinese.

I don’t think I am exaggerating too much when I say that China’s many enthusiastic students of English are looking at ending up in much the same way unless something fairly radical is done to help them. But what?

The first part of the problem lies in ideas here in China about what a language is and how it should be taught. Basically in all but perhaps a few pockets of enlightenment at the odd Teaching University, what we have is a system of teaching English that was initially developed many years ago with the emphasis placed on the wrong things. The first part of this is that English, inferior barbarian tongue that it is, could surely be taught in the same way Chinese is. Hence the emphasis on grammar, learning by rote, and vocabulary size. I believe the obsession with vocabulary may well lie in the idea from the Chinese language that the number of characters one can read is a mark of one’s education. In my experience, the way in which these ideas have been applied to English are counter-productive and usually sap the life out of the students.

Intensive reading classes are usually lectures by uninspired teachers to bored students, and so English keeps on seeming like a dead language like the Latin I had to learn at junior school. Reading and listening comprehensions encourage the students to merely find the relevant section of the text and reproduce it exactly in order to hopefully cover the correct answer. And active reproduction, the element of language learning which is reenforced by thought and inward digestion of the structures of the language, is usually totally ignored; in fact, it is actively deadened, and it is left to the foreign teacher to try and restimulated some of those withered synapses.

Lack of emphasis on speaking

We should not forget that the first opening up of China to the world, and the drive to teach more English that accompanied it, the emphasis was on technical training and technological expertise; learning English to be able to build car plants better. So reading and vocabulary were prioritised, and speaking and listening were, initially at least, more or less completely sidelined. This might sound a bit too much like ancient history, but, as with many things here in China, it set the roots of an attitude, and attitudes are very slow to change. What’s more, I’ve had plentiful explicit evidence that this is what people think, such as myriad students telling me that they are learning English in order to be able to translate foreign technical manuals for their companies, so why all this emphasis on speaking?

I don’t think I’ve ever had a student express to me the importance of learning languages for their own sake or because they are ‘interesting’. Fair enough, I suppose, given that most Chinese students’ primary reason for learning English is job-related. But there should be an awareness that becoming proficient in all aspects of English, from the ability to chat comfortably to reading and writing ability, is not only worthwhile for its own sake, but feeds into and improves whatever specific technical skills a student might be interested in acquiring.

The old attitude that speaking does not count may have recently shifted a little; ‘oral English’ is now taught in most schools, and younger students are aware of how important it is. However this does not mean that there has been an underlying change in thinking in how English is taught. What schools do is bring in a foreign teacher to do the oral classes, but only as a addendum to the ‘real’ business of cramming people’s heads with grammar rules and lists of words.

The TEFL idea of speaking being the essential component of a student’s acquistion of the language is still lightyears from being realised here. Given more time, maybe 50 years, perhaps speaking might get to be even more important in language courses, and could even (whisper it) gain parity with grammar, but with the WTO joined and the world knocking on China’s door, can it really afford to wait?

Limits on teachers

The most worrying part of this attitudinal problem is the way that it is entrenched politically. I mean that schools here, even joint venture private schools such as mine, are obliged to limit the numbers of foreign teachers that they have. The bulk of my school’s staff are Chinese teachers who are either retired or were unable to get employed by anyone else. So at what should be the most cutting edge example of English teaching in China, the majority of teaching is done in the most old-fashioned and in some cases incompetent way.

I recently had a elementary class confidently inform me that saying “listening music” was correct because their ‘real’ (Chinese) teacher had told them so. And quite apart from whether the individuals concerned are competent enough, in what other country in the world would a private foreign language school be 90% staffed by non-native speakers?

Companies who can splash out on English teachers only employ native speakers, and although this might come from the misguided belief that a native speaker is automatically better teacher than a local, it shows that organisations which have the money and, more importantly, the freedom to employ who they like, do not choose to take on incompetent Chinese teachers. But because of outside pressure, no schools are able/inclined to change the way in which they teach and design courses because it might mean having to lose some of these less than dazzling limpets.

This is not to suggest that only foreigners can make good teachers, and Chinese cannot. I know several younger Chinese teachers in my city who are passionate advocates of the speaking-based approach to teaching. It is people like this who need to be pushing for change in China’s language teaching, but until there are enough of them to go round, schools need to look to qualified foreigners if they are serious about offering a modern approach.

And that’s the point: this is just the best modern approach, in my opinion anyway. It is not, as several Chinese dinosaurs have suggested to me, a ‘western’ way of teaching that they can just hope to happily ignore while they plod along. What is boils down to is this. If Chinese students are serious about learning English, or indeed any foreign language, they need to rid themselves and their schools of all the dead weight which is holding them back.

I suggest…

Firstly, get rid of the electronic dictionaries and any bilingual paper dictionaries, and start trying to learn independently in a way which involves using the active part of the brain and not just the memory.

Next, junk useless tests like CET Bands 4 and 6, which only perpetuate the idea that using language is a series of gap-filling exercises. Then stop fretting so much about speaking English – you’ve learnt it throughout Middle School and often college, and it isn’t brain surgery, so open your mouth and let it come. And schools need to help students to do all this; get rid of the bad teachers (Chinese, foreign, whatever), and start thinking about how you want students to be taught and not just about making money out of them or shuffling them off to graduation.

Tear out all that ‘Intensive Reading/Extensive Reading/Oral’ rubbish, and look at how modern TEFL-style teaching all over the world is producing students who are confident in all aspects of communcation in a foreign language. Have courses in which reproduction – speaking and conversation, along with writing – are the overriding priority, and make speaking the medium through which all other aspects – grammar, reading, vocabulary – are taught. And above all, stop muddling around and get serious.

Only Chinese teachers can teach Chinese students?

A final anecdote to illustrate my point. When I arrived at my current school, I was told that the class of lower intermediate adults I was teaching would have me as their ‘oral’ teacher, but had two Chinese teachers to teach the “important” things like grammar because “Chinese students at their level need a Chinese teacher to explain things to them in Chinese”. Now, I had spent the previous six months teaching class after class of mixed language adults in the UK who started with basically no English, not even the benefit of six years of English at Middle School. I had been their only teacher, had taught a course based on a TEFL-style text book supplemented with the usual fun things, and I had taught English grammar from near-scratch speaking only English the whole time. In two months, I saw student after student go up to Intermediate level or beyond and become hugely confident in using everyday English. And now I was being told that Chinese students have ‘special needs’. Why? Are Chinese people more stupid than people from other countries? No.

For a start, this isn’t just a Chinese problem – my parents tell me that they were taught French at school in this ‘traditional’ way fifty years ago, and were never able to speak, only recite grammatical rules. But thankfully things changed, and sadly I think that the lack of change here is damaging China and its language students. In schools here, English levels are lower than they were in my school in the UK – an intermediate student here is about equivalent to a lower intermediate student back there – and it is distressing to see the way in which students here can labour away for years and still be incapable of holding a conversation with their teacher. Chinese students are no different from students from any other country, but they need to be taught in a modern (n.b. not ‘western’) way. For this to happen the newer generations of people involved in language teaching in China need to strip away the dead weight and have a re-think.


By George Rosecrans

The stark reality is that the Chinese know technical English grammar better than we do. It’s been drilled into them. A Chinese colleague once observed that “We know grammar so well we can’t speak.”

For over fifty years the Chinese followed the Soviet model which was primarily memorize every grammatical rule no matter how arcane. Their examinations usually consisted of being presented a complex sentence and being asked to identify the grammatical structure in great detail, or they were given a set of grammatical rules and expected to compose a sentence around them.

The rest of their English education was to essentially memorize dictionaries. The problem was, and still remains, that even though armed with a complete understanding of grammar and a vocabulary exceeding twenty-thousand words, they still can’t order a meal in a restaurant or engage in casual conversation.

I am not a grammarian. Although a published writer with a pretty decent list, I avoided the English department while in school. I was fortunate to test out of English Comp. All that aside, I believe one should seek out and split infinitives whenever and wherever possible. The purpose of language is to communicate. Grammar Nazis not withstanding, if one is able to communicate their message, needs or ideas, that is sufficient.

The L2 level needed by most folks is related to their needs and roles. The higher the role the higher the level required. Jin Zhemin’s interpreter must speak at a higher level than a tourist trying to buy a coke in Disney World.

If one’s L2 is good enough to meet their needs and maybe pass on a little culture that is sufficient. After who know show many years of study, most people will only be able to retain and actually use enough L2 to function at their normal level. Especially if they are not in an L2 setting everyday. Personally, I’m not concerned with my students ability to parse a sentence. My concern is that they be able to communicate as clearly and concisely as possible.

I am morally opposed to political and linguistic facism. Frankly, I don’t care if one speaks with grammatical perfection. The reality is that most people don’t. Listen to the common language user, be they English, (American, Australian, British, Irish, New Zealander, or Scot,) French, German or Chinese.

Most people rarely if ever speaking perfect grammatical English, especially at the emotional level where one’s real command of the language is revealed. Still they manage to get their message across and get things done. Ultimately it is communicative competence that is important. Eloquence is always nice but not always required.

How eloquent and grammatical does one need to be to order a hamburger or, for my more closely Anglo rooted brethren and sistern, fish and chips.

> By Dick Tibbetts, University of Macau, China

Ming-Shen Li’s study is not wrong but only looks at one aspect of the problem. Students who are used to one way of teaching find it difficult to change. Grammar translation and the dissection and analysis of intensive reading can be comforting because they lead to more content based teaching. Grammar facts are quantifiable. Things can be memorised. Chinese students start intensive rote learning at a very early age and it is dunned into them that this is the way to learn. So this is the way they learn English and it is also the way they are taught English (generalisation but fair enough).

There was the same resistance to communicative methodology in the west in the 70’s but not quite so strong as we were never quite so much into rote learning in our general education. Though one might look at the blind alley of audio-lingual pigeon drills and see how it held back EFL teaching in the USA. In general, Chinese students are comfortable with rote learning and traditional methods but it is not an effective way to learn a language and most students end up with a knowledge often language that they are unable to put to effective use except in passing the TOEFL test.

All sorts of reasons are advanced as to why Communicative methodology is not suitable out here. “We are Asians, our method is best for us”. But of course the traditional method is not Chinese or Asian, it is, if anything, a rather old western import. There was no large scale language learning in China in the past. It was discouraged for cultural and political reasons.
In my own experience, my Chinese students enjoy learning a language rather than a set of rules.

I know this because of the anonymous feedback I get from the end of semester course questionnaires. So why didn’t the subjects of Ming-Shen Li’s survey like communicative teaching? Sorry, I know it sounds big headed, but if you want to teach communicatively you have to be good.

Anyone can wander in with a grammar book and a set of exercises with answers and keep the class busy, but communicative teaching is deceptively difficult. It has tended to be confused with conversation classes and there has been a feeling that any native speaker can teach communicative English. This has been detrimental to the teaching of English in China. Native speaker teachers have not been chosen well and have been constrained in what they can do.

Read Alan Maley in Valdes, Culture Bound. Look at the comments of Native Speaker Teachers on the NET scheme in Hong Kong. Look at the way Chinese Universities judge the qualifications of native speaker teachers.

Basically, teaching for communication and through communication, if done at all decently, is going to give better results than teaching about the language and teaching for straight jacket examinations. Stay communicative. Teach grammar for communication or whatever but the communicative tradition is so wide and eclectic that you have plenty of options.

It has been felt that it places too much emphasis on transmitting and receiving information but that was largely because the other aspects of communication – language play, word play etc. were ignored. They are still communication and can still figure in communicative teaching. Grammar too needs to be taught. You need it to communicate effectively. But teach it for communication, not for memorisation.