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Teaching Language: From Grammar to Grammaring by Wayne Rimmer

Teaching Language: from Grammar to Grammaring by Diane Larsen-Freeman

by Wayne Rimmer

As the traditional cornerstone of the curriculum, there have been no shortage of theories of grammar and its place in language acquisition. Grammar teaching has largely followed its treatment in successive schools of linguistics. For example, the passion for comparative philology in the nineteenth century fuelled the grammar-translation method as this facilitated informed comparison between two language systems. In the mid-twentieth century, there was the battle between behaviourism, which saw grammar as the result of rule-formation mechanisms wholly responsive to external input, and transformational grammar, which articulated the principles of internal syntactical rules that were limited in nature but powerful in application. By the end of the century, systemic-functional linguistics, with its integration of grammar into discourse, was influencing the communicative approach.  As the title, From Grammar to Grammaring, suggests, this book offers a new perspective on the debate.  Larsen-Freeman makes a convincing argument for grammar to be seen as a skill rather than, purely, a competence. The significance of this shift in emphasis is such that From Grammar to Grammaring is a book which really every teacher should read.

This is not a book review in the conventional sense that it will go through each section in a linear format supplying illustrations and commentary. In the limited space available, that process would take too long and coverage of the main points would be scanty. From Grammar to Grammaring is an important book and it does not deserve to be passed over. Instead, this article begins with Larsen-Freeman’s central thesis and explores its ramifications. What Larsen-Freeman does is to react against the preoccupation with grammar as a body of knowledge. Grammar is much more than knowing the rules, although this is undoubtedly part of the construct (p.14), it also involves sensitivity to usage. In fact, grammar rules are more flexible than we think.  Larsen-Freeman (p. 54-55) illustrates with the rule that adjectives pre-modify heads.

the yellow field
the field yellow

However, if the adjective itself has a dependent, it can only follow the noun.

the field yellow with goldenrod
 the yellow with goldenrod field

Larsen-Freeman offers a semantic explanation for this case, namely that the pre-modifier position is the default slot for adjectives while the post-modifier position is reserved for more temporary characteristics that result from a specific cause. But this is to illustrate a much more general phenomenon.

The point of all this is, of course, that rules tend to be stated and conceived of in deterministic ways, when in actuality many, although not all, are more probabilistic, flexible even, bending when it comes to expressing meaning. (p. 55)

There is a note of caution here for Larsen-Freeman is not dispensing with the notion of rules. She would not condone errors like She go to school. Attempts to explain such errors as a sign of creativity, or to sanction them because they are evidenced in certain second-language varieties (cf. the work of Jennifer Jenkins), would get short-shrift in this approach.

Thus, grammar is not a list of rules which can be applied to any sentence regardless of the context of use. Successful communication is marked by a skill in exploiting the grammatical resource to match the meaning. This skill is grammaring, the dynamic process of relating form and structure to meaningful units. Furthermore, in what Larsen-Freeman calls ‘The Grammar of Choice’ (chapter 6), grammar offers users options in how they shapethe communicative act. An example given by Larsen-Freeman (p. 57) is word order in constructions with two objects. Certain verbs, e.g. give, send, throw, allow both an indirect object and a prepositional complement.

Meredith gave Jack advice.
Meredith gave advice to Jack

Both are grammatical so what is the motivation for preferring one over the other? Larsen-Freeman has a pragmatic explanation based on the tendency for information to be ordered in a unit from old to new, i.e. for the important message to get end focus. Thus the first sentence is most likely to be a response to the question ‘What did Meredith give Jack?’ and the second an answer to ‘Who did Meredith give advice to?’ The selection of one construction over the other is therefore not, completely, arbitrary, but informed pragmatically.

The book also has insights into the delicate question of language as a form of social identity and personal expression. The development of English as an international language has created a huge interest in socio-linguistics so it is appropriate that grammar is reexamined in this new environment. It is important to consider that grammaring allows the same message to be delivered in different ways according to the anticipated impact on the receiver. A well-quoted example used by Larsen-Freeman (p. 65) is the quotative like.

Emily: He told me like

This feature is much more characteristic of younger than older speakers. From a sociolinguistic portrait of the youth scene in the 1980s, Tagliamonte & D’Arcy surmise that be like ‘… gained prestige as a trendy and socially desirable way to voice a speaker’s inner experience (2007: 212).’Carter & McCarthy refine its usage to situations when ‘… the report involves a dramatic representation of someone’s response or reaction (2006: 102)’. Certainly, quotative like is marked, it is not in this writer’s grammar for example, so on the crucial premise that a difference of form signals a difference in meaning, like is calculated to construct a specific view of a speech-act, as well as assert a consciously youthful identity.

The way that writers/speakers can use grammar to shape the receiver’s interpretation is highly personalised.

Grammar is much more about our humanness than some static list of rules and exceptions suggests. Grammar allows us to choose how we present ourselves to the world, sometimes conforming to social norms yet all the while establishing our individual identities. (p. 142)

In effect, each grammatical choice is unique for that individual in that context of use. This is not such a bold statement as the inherent creativeness of language has always been a tenet of transformational grammar.

… much of what we say in the course of normal language use is entirely new, not a  repetition of anything that we have heard before and not even similar in pattern –in any  useful sense of the terms “similar” and “pattern” – to sentences or discourse that we have  heard in the past. (Chomsky, 1972: 12

Of course, by ‘new’, Chomsky means variation which operates within the finite resources of grammar. He is referring purely to syntactical operations. Larsen-Freeman opens up grammar as a window into human experience and the tension between social acceptability and self-expression. Grammar can be an extension of a creative instinct which runs deeper than language. Thus, grammaring is a natural component of language use, one which forces constant reflection on the relationship between form and communicative purpose. When form is felt to be inadequate, possibly because of a changing sociolinguistic environment, it can lead to a revision of the existing grammatical repertoire. In her earlier work, Larsen-Freeman (1997) claimed that this process eventually powers diachronical change, i.e. rules are shaped by usage, not vice-versa.

Clearly, From Grammar to Grammaring raises questions which go to the heart of language acquisition and what it means to be an articulate mammal. However, the arguments discussed are far from abstract as a constant theme in the book, signalled by sections called Teachers’ Voices, is the reaction and input of teachers from around the world. The book is also designed to be interactive for there are Investigations sections with helpful tasks for the reader. In fact, From Grammar to Grammaring is a very well-balanced book. It offers a masterful combination of judiciously-selected theory, clear examples, coherent argument and copious suggestions for good practice. If you only have time to read one book on grammar, read this one.


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