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Seeing the sense in grammar

As methodologist Jim Scrivener launches his new student grammar, the Gazette asks how his experience as a trainer, teacher and language learner helped shape the book

You've written a grammar book for students – but you're a teacher and trainer rather than a grammarian. So are you a good language learner?
I'm actually a very poor language learner. There seems to be a fairly widespread assumption that language teachers must be good language learners. Well in my case I have always struggled. I think that this may actually be quite helpful for a teacher (and a writer) in that I can see more clearly what kind of problems a learner might be having and can empathise with the ones who are struggling, not just with the fast, successful students.

In a world where corpus linguistics has changed the face of grammar, do you worry about not being an 'expert'?
A little, but I think

there are compensations. Most books in any field are (naturally) written by those who are expert in what they do – but there's a risk that they feel the need to write down all they know for completeness' sake. But I think there's also a space for the informed, interested, corpus-using but less-than-expert writer-learner who is perhaps more tuned in to the experience of the learner learning and who is able to find an approach angle that is clear and helpful while still being as truthful as possible.

You made your name writing methodology books for teachers. Was that very different from writing a book for learners?
There's actually a lot in common. When writing, whether about methodology or language, most of my stuff has come out of my own attempts to understand things – and once I start to grasp something, finding ways to boil it all down to some sort of essence that I can keep hold of.

So in methodology I try to make my own sense of classroom techniques as I use them and in writing about grammar for students I try to work myself through their own learning processes as I get my head around the grammar.

Your book Visual Grammar is for adults and young adults. Do you think these age groups benefit from overt grammar teaching?
Well I do know all the arguments for not explicitly studying it – but I think they are wrong. If I am attempting to learn another language, I do want to get an insight into how it is structured. And almost every student I meet seems to expect and want grammar.

Although some adults can learn – like babies – entirely by immersing themselves in a language environment, it doesn't work for many. I've been surrounded by some languages for years and remain stubbornly poor at them. As adults, we typically need other help. And grammar books are one aspect of that help. They don't do it by themselves, but they can make a real difference.

One key feature of the book is your use of visual information. Why is this so important?
In terms of understanding, a good visual can sometimes help you to grasp something that a paragraph of text can obscure. So a time line, for example, can capture the time reference of a sentence that might be really hard to explain. A well chosen image may help to pinpoint the meaning of something. Of course, it won't work for everyone all the time, but combined with other textual information, a visual may help make sense of a complex idea.

I've realised that my own difficulties in language learning are often not to do with understanding, but with remembering what I have learnt and then retrieving the information when I need it. I've found that an image may be enough to help me back into a particular structure or a phrase. As part of trying consciously to retrieve an item, you might recall a diagram or imagine the colours and pictures of the page it was on – and that gives you the beginnings of a way back to the item. It's much harder to do this with bald text.

What else is different about your approach?
Some grammar books for students tend to be rather dense, often packing in a lot of information onto one page. I've often wondered whether a learner can really unwrap, say, everything about the present simple from a single unit. So, I've taken a slightly different route. I've separated out many of the meanings and uses of items and given each a section of its own. So the present simple, for example: instead of one unit, there are 17 different sections, each picking up one focus. Again, this reflects what I needed to do to make my own sense of the tense. I couldn't handle it as one thick slab of complex rules and patterns, but broken up and presented bit by bit, with diagrams and images to help me, it's a little more take-in-able.

If you could abolish one element of English grammar, what would it be and why?
Ha ha! I love the question. It would be a purely personal choice, rather than for the betterment of humankind. I hate adverbs. Apart from all the obvious -ly ones, I've never been good at spotting them and still have little idea why things like maybe or a lot or quite or here or even count as the same grammatical category when they are all clearly so different. I suspect that we have simply got lumbered with a faulty classification system that no one has ever managed to reform. So, I wouldn't abolish them, but I would put them all in the mincer and hope they come out with brand new names.

Visual memory: Jim Scrivener believes that diagrams and pictures can help learners grasp ideas that text can obscure. Courtesy Sun Xiaodong