Why learn language that way?

When it comes to learning, a huge amount of research has been carried out into how we learn. When it comes to learning a language the amount of research is phenomenal. However, how much of that research is actually used to inform teaching? Recently one of the leading writers in the field of EFL, Scott Thornbury, took to Twitter to ask just this question.

Thornbury wants to know why so many language books follow a grammar syllabus when all the research shows a grammar syllabus doesn’t work. When learning a new language for the purpose of communicating, simply studying grammar doesn’t help - in fact it hinders. One of the problems is that most people fail to distinguish between learning a language and acquiring the ability to use a language.

Studying grammar and learning to assemble sentences like a puzzle may be appropriate for learning Latin or Ancient Greek but not if you are trying to learn a new living language such as English. When the taxi driver asks you where you want to go there is little point in standing there conjugating the correct conditional form of the verb “to go”!

If you spend time in any of the English speaking countries, one thing you notice is how bad the grammar of the locals is. In England even the standard of grammar used by the BBC is not perfect, but it still works.

The evidence says that to successfully learn a language the focus should be on functional spoken and written English, not on being able to recite verbs or conditional tenses. Learning a language should focus on communication, vocabulary and pronunciation. This is our focus and the way we teach. Grammar rules can and should be learnt later, in preparation for exams.