Academic journal article Babel

Grammar and Communication: Can We Real Have One without the Other?

Academic journal article Babel

Grammar and Communication: Can We Real Have One without the Other?

Article excerpt


The following reflections are little more than that: they represent the idiosyncratic experiences of a schoolroom novice in a German class, together with an attempt to view these experiences in light of published research and theoretical considerations.

However, it would be surprising if the remarks below represent no more than an isolated case, without any echo among school language teachers in Australia. These reflections of a beginner in the school classroom are concerned with how, and even if, grammar should be learned explicitly, and if so, to what purpose.

After very many years teaching German language and literature in two Australian universities, I have in recent years been teaching the same two subjects in the International Baccalaureate program at an independent secondary school. German literature in the Baccalaureate course is taught only to native speakers of German at this school, thus there is scarcely any question of difficulties with language. The German language Baccalaureate course however is taught to non-native speaker learners in Years 11 and 12; such learners have typically taken a standard German course in the previous three years.

Key Words

Grammar teaching, German, textbooks, senior secondary languages, vocabulary learning, communication


The learners

My first encounter with a Year 11 group four years ago proved to be a shock for both the learners and me. It transpired that this was the first time the learners had been exposed to a class in which nothing but German had been used. On my part, it was a shock to discover that in Year 11, the latter part of Year 11 in fact, German was not the language of instruction--but was used only to execute tasks laid out in the set textbook. The language of instruction and of classroom administrative matters, that is, communication, was English.

Experienced teachers will no doubt smile at my naivete. When I asked the learners when they thought it might be time to start using German as the communicative language among ourselves, both inside and outside the classroom, given that there remained only a very limited number of class hours before they faced the final examinations in the following year, they did agree, if with some trepidation, that that time was then and there.

My next shock was to discover how little mastery, let alone understanding, learners possessed of the very basic grammatical structures of German, and how little vocabulary they had. Despite this, they had always received good results in their half-yearly and annual German tests and examinations. They were, one might add, bright, articulate and intelligent people who were doing well in their other subjects. They were, therefore, unpleasantly surprised to find that they could not use German as a communicative medium either written or spoken, since German had up until that time been a matter of completing the carefully scaffolded tasks in their textbook, which they had done both to their teachers' and their own satisfaction. In other words, they were not engaged in using German to communicate, but rather in activities for getting correct answers.

I had cause to reflect on all of this when I was asked to sit in on a Year 11 Latin class, while their teacher was absent. At a loss as to what to do with them, since I am not a Latinist, I took the Latin textbook from one of the class members and proceeded to have an impromptu round robin oral test of about ten verbs and their conjugations. The learners conjugated them all faultlessly. I asked myself why it was possible for the Latin class to do this, but not the German class. Of course I understood that Latin is Latin grammar, so to speak, that the aims of teaching and learning Latin are not the same as those of teaching and learning French or Japanese. Students of Latin do not expect to use Latin to communicate with other Latinists, unless they propose to work within the Vatican. …

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