By Michael Swan
As the leader of a small team working on methods of teaching grammar at the Notker Balbulus Language Institute in Edinburgh, I have been following various contributions to the recent debate with considerable interest. In most respects, they characterise our practice with remarkable accuracy. We do indeed require our students to learn grammar rules by heart; and we not only make them recite the rules in chorus, but are training some of the students to sing them in four-part harmony. Many of the rules we teach were, as they point out, devised by mediaeval monks; we find that these have a rich deep patina which one simply cannot find in today's rules. In this connection, we have been fortunate in discovering, in Oxford's Bodleian Library, an unpublished manuscript containing a veritable storehouse of arcane rules relating to Middle English word order which we are currently incorporating into our teaching programmes. Labelling we regard as essential, and any of our students can identify an indefinite past progressive subjunctive determiner at 200 paces in a dim light. We steadfastly refuse to allow our learners access to comprehensible input; an account of some interesting early work using incomprehensible input can be found in the paper 'The Use of Sensory Deprivation in Foreign Language Teaching (Swan and Walter 1983) in English Language Teaching Journal 36/3. We take very seriously the translation component of 'grammar-translation' (sometimes neglected in today's permissive times), and our students spend a good deal of their time translating English texts not only into their mother tongues, but also into Latin, Sanskrit, Classical Greek and Old Church Slavonic. The one area where they are somewhat ahead of us is in the matter of etching conjugations into our students' brains, referred to in their latest posting. This is an exciting and promising direction to explore, and we have indeed tried several approaches, using Spanish and Serbian (since English has no conjugations). However, our results have been disappointing and in some cases unfortunate, and we have come to the conclusion that, sadly, this is a technique which will have to wait for advances in neurosurgery for its successful implementation.
Michael Swan is a writer specializing in English language teaching and reference materials. His interests include pedagogic grammar, mother-tongue influence in second language acquisition, and the relationship between applied linguistic theory and classroom language-teaching practice, and he has published a number of articles on these topics. And he has a great sense of humor.