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Dienstag, 26. Februar 2013


Vocabulary versus grammar.


As a trainer in Germany, a problem on more than one occasion is a student who wants to „learn all the grammar“;  they are typically at a high English level, are intrinsically motivated, and feel that if they can learn the grammar then they have mastered the language.


Should I agree to this approach?  Experience tells me the result of this approach is someone who has a very good theoretical understanding of various aspects of English grammar, yet still makes the same errors in using the language as when they began.  So what do I do?


The first step is to have an open discussion with the participant; is their goal to have an excellent, explicit, theoretical understanding of the grammar of the English language, or is their goal to be competent in communicating with others when using English and “get the job done”?  


Following on from this discussion, it is worth asking what carries more “meaning”; vocabulary or grammar.  Putting both on the scales, it is clear that vocabulary carries more meaning than grammar.  Unless you really mangle a sentence grammatically, the recipient can generally figure out your message despite a few mistakes here and there with tense or subject verb agreement.  Get the vocabulary wrong however, and you will be as understandable as George W. Bush was for example in this quote - "Families is where our nation finds hope, where wings take dream”*.


So let’s take a “lexical approach” to the whole thing.  Focus on vocabulary as the priority, and not just individual words, but chunks and phrases of lexis where the grammar is “built in”.  No long discussions about the “3rd conditional”, but simply introduce and reinforce the phrase “If I had known…”.  We can deal with the finer points of the grammatical structure at a later date, when people get curious and start asking why it is the way it is.


In conclusion, I think it would be better for higher level students to focus on their vocabulary and look for collocations, phrasal verbs and set expressions that are useful to them, along with their equivalents at different registers.


*LaCrosse, Wis., Oct. 18, 2000


Mike Hicks

Mittwoch, 09. Januar 2013


“Can I please have an apple”


My daughter is four, and being that she was born and has spent all of her life here in Germany, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that her dominant first language is German. 


It isn’t that she can’t speak English. She can. However, when she does, there is often a stark difference between how she says something to me when compared to how she says it to her mom in German. As an example, in English she would ask, “Can I please have an apple”, but in German, “Please give me an apple”; directly translated, this doesn’t come across as being terribly polite in English. Yet, her choice of words in German apparently is fine. 


Some may say that this behaviour has to do with kids and how they interact with fathers and mothers. I have no argument against this. Rather, I would like to focus on how she simply just accepts words, phrases, and vocabulary from me without question in English, much as she does the same from her mother in German.


Few adults can learn as easily as a child, so what about “grown-ups” who are learning a language? Can they easily make the transition from their native tongue to that in another language when learning?


Perhaps one of the biggest pitfalls we all make as an adult learner is to translate what you would say in your own language word for word into that of the other. Thankfully, this isn’t always a problem, though there are many instances where sentences, phrases and expressions simply don’t translate well into the new language. It is these incidences that can cause potential misunderstandings.  


It is important to note that when situations like these happen, the learner shouldn’t try to “fight” accepting the different “way” and the new language simply because it doesn’t agree with them. I often hear students say, “That sounds strange”, or, “that makes no sense in German”. To them, there is no linguistic relationship to the new phrase or word that they can connect with and as such, they have difficulty accepting what they are being taught.


Obviously, there are a lot of differences between any two languages, and in some cases it is practically impossible to find that word-for-word translation, so, why even try?


So unless you have grown up bilingual and both languages are natural to you, or should you ever become a republican American president and can make up your own words, it is best to accept those differences and start using them.


Rob Beaudoin

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