It’s a chicken and age question: Which comes first when learning a language, speaking or writing? I’ve been thinking about this a lot since I started preparing to teach English as a Second Language (ESL).
Back in high school I could perform grammar back flips in German, but could not carry on a conversation. After I translated all the words in my head, I had to rearrange them into a precise order. I did not understand how anyone could speak spontaneously or write creatively, until my eyes misted up reading Goethe.
Focus on the few
If you’ve read my book, Write Like You Talk Only Better, you know I believe in the power of spoken language. Instead of getting caught in the rat’s nest of grammar rules you’ve mostly forgotten, write like you talk then focus on what will help us understand each other, a lofty mission for EFLs (English as a First Language).
Recognize that the most common writing errors, for example confusing words that sound the same such as “its” and “it’s”, reflect our tendency to go back to the talking-listening way we acquired our first, often only, language.
Of course newcomers need to read and write as well as talk and listen. But I’ll bet most talk and listen more than they write and read.
Thank goodness, ESL instruction has shifted, though perhaps not as much as I’d like, from emphasizing grammar to working with what people need to say and understand, for example directions to the store.
Still, grammar imposes an order students will be able to apply in more cases, extending their linguistic reach. If they make a grammar mistake, it makes sense to show them the right way to handle similar issues. Or does it?
How important is it?
Last week I asked our instructor for an example of a grammar rule ESL students needed to understand. He cited adjective order. Here’s the rule.
Over the week, I asked several colleagues, well-educated writing and editing professionals, if they knew the adjective-order rule. None did.
My personal advice has long been: don’t use more adjectives than you need to. Let me now add that fewer adjectives mean less chance of flouting this edict.
For EFLs, the rule is so ingrained it’s intuitive. Not so for newcomers.
In my neighbourhood
But then again, in my multicultural neighbourhood, I rarely hear any misplaced adjectives, let alone ones that interfere with their ability to be understood or make them look bad.
However, when I’m shopping at the Chinese vegetable store or walking my dog by the largely South Asian school, I often overhear mangled verb tenses.
Come to think of it, I hear these sometimes from well-educated Canadians. On the subway ride home from class the other night, I had to explain the difference between “drank” and “have drunk” to two classmates, one EFL, the other an ESL who mastered English years ago and is now onto Japanese.
Like my friends, sharp English communicators trip up mosty on the bizarre exceptions such as “drink” and “lie.” Few listeners notice. Even fewer catch on when they miss the subtle shifts of conditional and subjunctive tenses.
So why bother? Why not focus on the most common errors, the ones that can stand in the way of making friends, learning or looking good?
The similarities of ESL and EFL
Knowing what to emphasize will make me a more effective instructor, not only newcomers and foreign university students, but also EFL folks.
Learning English as a second language is different than learning as a toddler and sharpening as a student or adapting as a specialist. But I have a hunch it’s similar in many ways.
To put my finger on where learners are stumbling, I’ll have to start more conversations with taxi drivers and eavesdrop more at the schawarma shop. Stay tuned.