Our obsession with grammatical correctness

Our obsession with grammatical correctness

ByDr Albert P’Rayan – CHENNAI

Published: 16th September 2013 08:19 AM

Last Updated: 17th September 2013 08:31 AM

A week ago, I curiously went through a Class IX English test paper. One of the questions was this: How many types of pronouns are there? Explain reflexive pronouns and interrogative pronouns with examples. With even more curiosity, I talked to the students. It was a feeling of surprise when students parroted the answer to the question and gave examples of reflexive and interrogative pronouns. A great shock followed the surprise. None of the students could use their knowledge of grammar effectively in ordinary communication. Their spoken as well as their written communication was rather mechanical and they were not able to use the language creatively.

I don’t understand why teachers bombard students with grammatical terms. In my two decades of English language teaching career, I don’t remember having used the terms ‘interrogative pronoun’ and ‘reflexive pronoun’ even once in the classroom. It doesn’t imply that I’m not good at teaching grammar. It has been proved that grammar can be taught contextually and effectively without using all these grammatical terms.

There are two kinds of grammar teachers: prescriptive grammarians and descriptive grammarians. Prescriptive grammarians are obsessed with grammatical correctness, fond of using grammatical terms and emphasize the rules of the language. Descriptive grammarians are fond of the usage of those who speak the language, discuss how native speakers of English actually use the language in their day to day communication and they don’t give importance to the norms of correctness. In India, most teachers of English are obsessed with the rules of grammar. They want their students to acquire the knowledge of grammar terms.

I’m reminded of an interesting incident in my friend’s life. As the marble floor in their kitchen was covered with dust, they had to get a person to clean the floor. The cleaner convinced my friend saying that if the floor was cleaned with acid all the dirt would be removed and it would look nice. Very reluctantly he agreed to the cleaner’s suggestion. The cleaner spent about 45 minutes to clean the floor. Satisfied with the work, my friend paid the cleaner more money than what was agreed. The following day when my friend inspected the floor closely he realized that the floor was not as polish as it was before the acid wash. The acid had removed dirt as well as the glossiness of the floor.

I would like to relate this incident to the teaching of English language in our schools. Teaching grammar without creating opportunity for students to use the language is like cleaning the marble floor with acid. It may remove the dirt of inaccuracy in language but also will remove the glossiness of communication skills. Let teachers not practice such acid wash.

Fluency is more important than accuracy. Successful communication is more important than grammatical mastery. Grammar exploration is more important than grammar explanation. English should be taught as a life skill and not as a subject.

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