Monday, February 25, 2013

Getting Meaning and Grammar to Merge

Major levels of linguistic structure
Major levels of linguistic structure (Wikipedia)
by Robert L Fielding

Grammar is most probably traditionally viewed by students of any foreign language as a sort of obscure code which prevents them from passing examinations, forcing them to take further courses in that language.

That may be because they are unused to scrutinizing the grammar of their own language and so find the grammar of the language they are learning as an opaque system, rather than one that helps them to mean what they say and say what they mean.

English grammar is as complicated, or as uncomplicated as any other grammar; it is logical and easy to understand for native speakers, whilst being difficult to comprehend for students whose native language is not English.

Again, traditionally, students are taught to use the verb correctly; more or less without any other reference than that of tense. They are given linguistic hoops to jump through, sometimes without any real reference to meaning. No wonder students get their grammar wrong, even in faculty - when, arguably, they can least afford to make mistakes.

It is when writing up term papers and the like, in specialized topic areas with attendant specialized vocabulary that students have to grapple with grammar to achieve the meaning they want to convey - in language, the meaning of which cannot always be readily grasped by teachers in writing centres, for example.

Grammar is looked upon as an almost independent system in language, when in actual fact, it is highly affected both by subject and by vocabulary.

Accordingly, a new approach to the teaching of grammar, as well as its scrutiny in half-written term papers, should include the teaching of paraphrasing of sentences or paragraphs, to disambiguate meaning - to get to the bottom of the vexed question, 'What do you want to say?'

A student who writes a 'sentence' without a main verb is perplexed to find that what she thinks is a sentence, is not one; the placing of a relative pronoun is a common source of confusion.

'The boy who helped me.' This is not a sentence, even though its writer will insist that it is. 'The boy who helped me, ran away before I could thank him.' This is a sentence.

Now, how can I as the teacher best explain this? I can give the student the 'normal explanation' or I can ask the student to paraphrase her 'sentence' and then mine.

Of course, she will do her utmost to explain what she means, but will ultimately fail, as it has no meaning other than being a noun phrase - the boy who helped me - that boy in particular.

Whereas, in my own sentence, it is clear that that particular boy (the one who helped me) ran away.
In this way, the student can easily be made to see that her 'sentence' in not one and therefore has no meaning, whilst mine is a sentence, the meaning of which can be easily explained.

Now, it is readily admitted that this is a simple example, but, it does serve its purpose; that an attempt to paraphrase its meaning fails, and in so failing, exposes the mistake for what it is - an error that falls down on meaning.

If anything is achieved using this way of getting to the bottom of the problem with the student's grammar, it is that she finally understands what a relative pronoun does - it allows her to add something - in this case, the predicate 'ran away'!

To repeat, this is a very simple example. When it comes to examples with complicated meanings, paraphrasing has no equal. If a student can say it in another way, she has got to understand what it is she wants to say - first - using grammar to organize words to say it.

Grammar is not just an obscure system to organize words in a sentence, rather, it is a very real way to convey meaning using those building blocks of meaning - words.

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