Grammar or lexis? A wedding cake metaphor

cake-937234_1280In her latest post, Zhenya Polosatova presents a bunch of very interesting questions from all walks of our profession. Here are two examples which immediately captured my attention:

  1. Which mistakes are more likely to lead to misunderstanding – grammatical or lexical ones?
  2. Which do you think is more important – advancing vocabulary or teaching grammar? 

These are two questions I often ask myself throughout the academic year. Thus I’ve decided to explore them a bit in this post of mine.

To be able to solve riddle Number 1, it’s useful to explain the difference between a grammatical and a lexical error. Grammatical errors involve faulty structures which may include wrong verbal tenses, incorrect verbal forms, and syntax problems. They are also called usage errors. More specifically, these can include agreement errors (subject-verb and noun-pronoun agreement), tense errors (present, past, progressive, perfect, future), number (singular-plural) errors, prepositional errors (missing prepositions, redundant use of preposition, wrong use of prepositions), and articles errors (missing articles, wrong article use, redundant article use).

Lexical errors, on the other hand, are mistakes at the word level, which include, for example, choosing the wrong word for the meaning the user wants to express. Inappropriate lexical choices may lead to misunderstanding of the message. In writing, some lexical errors are a result of misspelling, others are caused by the student’s lack of knowledge (i. e. semantic errors). Based on my experience, in speaking, it is pronunciation which also comes into play, i. e. the speaker knows the word but mispronounces it, which may subsequently lead to communication breakdown.

The following example is a grammatical mistake Czech students tend to make:

They say: a) How long are you staying?

but they actually mean: b) How long have you been staying?

According to this paper and the results of a study it presents, grammatical errors are more frequently committed than lexical errors. More specifically, tense errors are the most frequently committed grammatical errors among second language learners of English. The above set of sentences is an example of this but it is primarily a result of a student transferring their grammatical knowledge from their L1. In Czech, we don’t have the present perfect tense and to express option b, we would simply use the present tense, i.e. option a. Such a grammatical error may lead to a major or a minor misunderstanding, depending on the situation. One way or the other, a respondent not used to dealing with Czech learners of English will probably maintain that the Czech is asking about the future, while, in fact, they are asking about the past up to the present.

I remember I once talked to a teacher from Canada. It was at an English summer camp. We were at a swimming pool and I asked her: You’re not going to swim? She replied: No, I can’t. I still remember my bafflement; I just couldn’t figure out whether she couldn’t swim because she didn’t have the ability or whether she was on her period. I was too young and stupid enough to keep inquiring. I asked ‘why?’ and was surprised I didn’t get a definite answer. She shrugged her shoulders and said: I just can’t. Then she went on reading her book, probably thinking I was an idiot. Now that I think about it, it was not merely a lack of lexical (or possibly grammatical?) knowledge on my part; it was also about cultural differences accompanied by my social immaturity. Provided she didn’t have the ability to swim, my why must have sounded pretty stupid and redundant. Provided she had a personal reason for not wanting to go for a swim, the why question must have sounded totally unacceptable.

I’d say that there is a thin line between grammar and lexis so it’s sometimes difficult to decide what is a grammatical and what is a lexical mistake. John’s uncle has much money. Is this a grammatical or a lexical error? It’s clearly the case of choosing the wrong word but also the case of violating a grammatical rule stating that much is used in questions and negative statements. One way or the other, this little flaw certainly doesn’t impede understanding. Take prepositions, for example. Although prepositional errors are listed among grammatical errors, to my mind, they are actually mistakes at the word level. But this is a question of perspective and it’s not something to lose sleep over because normally, these neither do too much harm to the flow of communication. What does it matter if someone says in the weekend?

Enough of useless babbling. The question I really wanted to find an answer to was: Which mistakes are more likely to lead to misunderstanding – grammatical or lexical ones? Well, it depends. Intuitively, I’d say that it’s a matter of frequency. In other words, before familiarizing myself with the results of the study mentioned above, I would have guessed that lexical mistakes are more abundant simply because there are many more words and lexical chunks than there are grammatical rules. But L2 learners are cunning; they make do with little lexis if they need to. They use circumvention if necessary and thus avoid making lexical mistakes. They also have dictionaries. It’s more challenging to cheat grammar-wise, though. Anyway, as I showed above, one specific lexical mistake can cause as much misunderstanding as a grammatical mistake. But it’s also important to say that there are various degrees and types of misunderstanding. I mean, if a student chooses the word cooker instead of cook to talk about the profession, it will cause amusement and/or embarrassment rather than communicative breakdown.

And Which do you think is more important – advancing vocabulary or teaching grammar? Since grammar is inherently present in lexis, i. e. there are certain syntactic rules, such as the one that adjectives usually go before nouns and the usual word order in English is SVO, it’s not really clever to separate these two rigidly. You know, it’s like a wedding cake. You may ask: what is it that keeps the structure of a tiered cake? Is it the corpus or the filling? Well, I’d say that both are equally important once the cake cools down.

The threat of becoming obsolete

IMG_20190624_121057These days, English learners (and L2 learners in general) can get as autonomous and independent as they wish. There is a plethora of mobile apps, movies, games, songs and books for them to learn English from. So I often ask myself what’s there left for us, L2 teachers? And, most importantly, to what extent does the feeling of uselessness influence the teachers’ performance and ultimately their attitudes towards their job?

I’m not a pessimist but sometimes, I can’t help feeling threatened. It’s not merely because I personally believe that language teachers may soon become obsolete, but because I fear our students start realizing this possibility too.

I’m now talking about the state system of education, namely here in the Czech Republic. The expected outcomes in English have become very low recently. To say the least, they definitely do not match the knowledge and skills students can or could realistically achieve if they were motivated to do their best. Quite ironically, I believe that the lower the expectations from the school system, the more threatening the environment becomes for the teachers.

What do I mean by this? You may have heard of the Pygmalion effect – the phenomenon whereby others’ expectations of a target person affect the target person’s performance. A corollary of the Pygmalion effect is the Golem effect, in which low expectations lead to a decrease in performance. I simply fear that if students believe there’s very little the teacher can offer, there will be very little the teacher will feel they can offer. Eventually and inevitably, this will decrease their motivation and effort to come up with something valuable. It’s like offering somebody a locally produced apple (which you know is juicy and healthy) when there’s a table full of colourful exotic fruit anyone can grab a piece of at any time.

Don’t get me wrong; there will still be lots of learners who will need us – those who don’t find it easy or possible to learn independently and those who see the teacher as a door to obtaining certificates and degrees of all sorts. The former will probably find the current state of affairs more and more frustrating since they will become the outcasts of the system. Actually, they already are; often very talented in other subjects, they are laughed at by their peers who, unlike them, find learning English to be a piece of cake. The latter lot will probably dump us as soon as they pass their high-stake exams.

This brings me to a hasty conclusion. I said I’m concerned that English teachers will become obsolete, mainly at the secondary level of education. Every teacher probably feels there is a threshold. Past this stage, it gets more and difficult to offer something useful and meaningful to everybody in the class. You can’t start teaching C1 language to satisfy your best students and leave the A2 students behind, can you? Well, yes, you can try personalization and differentiation and whatnot but why would you even do it when your job is to primarily prepare your students for their final B1 exam?

This isn’t to say that I believe teachers, in general, will become obsolete. As far as ELT is concerned, we’ll probably need to closely look at and possibly follow the example of Finland, for instance, where the focus is on work across school subjects, including English. This is something that is already done at some schools here in the Czech Republic. However, it will probably need to become more large-scale than this if we, English teachers, want to keep our jobs and find them meaningful and satisfying.

An enthusiastic teacher of English

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A while back I published this post summarizing an interview with Milan Šácha, a freelance Czech teacher of English. Recently, on the same website, there has been another interview on an ELT related topic, this time with Bronislav Sobotka, an English and methodology teacher, a popular YouTuber, and a busy conference presenter. This ‘enthusiastic teacher from Brno who helps people to fall in love with English‘, as Bronislav likes to call himself in his YouTube videos, also shares his views on teaching English in the Czech Republic.

There are many similarities between what Bronislav and Milan say in their interviews, but I sense a big chasm between the ways they present themselves and their views on teaching. The former interviewee seems much more humble and also more mindful about what he says. For example, he doesn’t explicitly say that what others do is deficient or wrong in some way. In other words, he doesn’t claim that his teaching style is the best. To the contrary, he believes in a variety of teaching styles, which should primarily suit the students’ needs.

He’s a truly nice fellow (I once had an opportunity to meet him in person) and the crowds (read: female conferences attendees and his YouTube fans) love him, which actually makes me pretty biased right from the start. So don’t expect any harsh criticism from me this time. Seriously, I can’t really disagree with anything he says. So, let’s start singing the praises …

What I really appreciate about this person is the fact that he is so terribly optimistic and enthusiastic but still pretty serious. This is something you discover when you see him in action (I attended one of his workshops) or when you carefully listen to what he has to say. Also, his honesty is disarming. He claims to be so excited about teaching because he has a dream job – probably the best job he could ever get. And I totally believe him because, based on my own experience, it is possible to feel this way about one’s job. By the way, his definition of a dream job is ‘something you would like doing even if you didn’t get paid for it’. Sweet.

It comes as a shock when he calls himself a dummy with lots of learning disabilities. Yes. But this, he says, is one of his strengths as a teacher because he can easily put himself in his students’ shoes. In other words, he understands what they are going through during the learning process. What is also interesting is the fact is that he started learning English at the age of twenty, which, I reckon, must be quite motivating for all those people out there who feel too old to take up another language. It’s never too late, is it? Actually, now that I think about it, I was a late bloomer too; I started my English lessons when I was 15, which by some is considered too late if you want to acquire a near-native level of English, especially in terms of pronunciation. But this is not what Bronislav is promoting anyway – his aim seems to be to help his learners communicate fluently and efficiently (and to fall in love with English).

There’s no doubt that Bronislav is a very supportive teacher. Through his videos, he tries to make people feel more confident about learning English. I’ve never met any of his students but from what I’ve seen and heard, I bet they adore him. This is probably due to his generally optimistic mindset; he subscribes to the hypothesis that anyone who has acquired an L1 has the capacity to acquire an L2 provided they make the necessary effort and are motivated enough to keep going. He acknowledges, however, that some people just can’t help giving up along the way.

He also adds that learning (and teaching) must be enjoyable. Later on, in the interview, he describes what happens in his lessons: through challenging and fun games and tasks, he tries to lead his students into the flow state. During speaking activities, some music is usually on so that people don’t get distracted by the fact that what they say is heard and possibly judged, and thus they may feel more relaxed and comfortable. The best-case scenario is when the students don’t even notice that the lesson is already over. He adds, however, that it’s important to explain to students why they are doing what they are doing. This is a way of reassuring them that the lessons are not a collection of random activities but carefully planned units. Also, it’s essential to ask students what they want to learn. This way the students feel that they matter – that somebody takes into consideration their needs.

The most interesting point in the interview is when Bronislsav courageously but respectfully disagrees with the alleged claim of a highly regarded linguist Josef Jařab (a former rector and professor of American literature at Palacký University, Olomouc in the Czech Republic) that the best way to learn English is through reading. Bronislav’s response is that people who love reading will indeed learn best through reading – simply because they enjoy it. But those who hate reading will probably give up once they are told that reading is the only way to learn English. He mentions more suitable alternatives, such as learning through mobile apps, movies with subtitles, and PC games. He adds that to him, being able to use English means feeling comfortable in those situations when you need to use it. According to him, the fear of making mistakes is the main reason why so many people fail to learn to communicate fluently.

At one point, the interviewer, playing the devil’s advocate, is a little doubtful about Bronislav’s enthusiastic methods and their place in the state sector of education, particularly in regard to assessment. Also, according to the interviewer, not every secondary school student is highly motivated and wants to learn. Bronislav is not easy to discourage though; he strongly believes in positive feedback and lots of encouragement on the teacher’s part and step-by-step improvement on the student’s part. In his mind, Bronislav tries to picture all students as motivated. He always imagines the best possible future ‘version’ of a particular student which, he believes, they will gradually grow into. At this point, he mentions The Golem effect (a psychological phenomenon in which lower expectations placed upon individuals either by supervisors or the individual themselves lead to poorer performance by the individual), which is something he wants to avoid in his teaching.

What I also appreciate is the fact that he doesn’t dismiss coursebook completely. This, to me, would be just another publicity stunt (which there are so many of out there) and possibly over the top, given the fact that he is also a secondary school teacher.

Towards the end of the interview the reporter, in a futile attempt to find some weak spots in Bronislav’s theories, suggests that it may actually be him, the teacher, who is the weak spot since it’s clearly not possible to be enthusiastic all the time. Well, as I said before, it’s not easy to shake Bronislav’s convictions; he maintains that upon entering the classroom, it’s his obligation to take on the role of an enthusiastic, supportive teacher. This is how it should be in other professions too. So, if you have a bad day, it doesn’t mean your students (or customers) should have it too. It’s not faking it – it’s only professional.

Anyway, I was glad to hear that his students are doing well and have passed the standardized final exams (which is the ultimate proof that alternative methods and approaches work – even in the state system of education).

Congratulations! 🙂