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«Margaret Rogers, Surrey ISSN 1470 – 9570 Learners need grammar 59 Learners need grammar: but which grammar? The challenge of word order in German ...»

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Learners need grammar: but which grammar?

The challenge of word order in German

Margaret Rogers, Surrey

ISSN 1470 – 9570

Learners need grammar 59

Learners need grammar: but which grammar?

The challenge of word order in German

Margaret Rogers, Surrey

This paper approaches the topic ‘which grammar’ from a number of perspectives. After a

short look back at grammar in the curriculum and beliefs about the role of grammar in a

historical context, the nature of German word order is discussed from a language-typological point of view. Following this, the issue of the learner’s ‘need for grammar’ will be addressed by a look at some typical learner errors in spoken production and through the perception of advanced German learners about their grammar ‘needs’ in a specialist degree in modern languages. This is followed by a consideration of the issue of grammatical sequencing in textbooks. The article concludes with a proposal for an evidence-based approach in the area of MFL policy.

Introduction In the last couple of years, grammar has returned to the national agenda of what in UK primary and secondary sectors are called Modern Foreign Languages (MFLs).1 In Higher Education, university departments of modern languages have generally maintained a more conservative stance and so grammar was never off the agenda. But what does it mean to say that grammar is back? Which ‘grammar’?

Do we mean the grammar which we use when speaking or the grammar we use when writing? One obvious example of a spoken/written difference in German is the word order in some adverbial subordinate clauses such as those beginning with weil. One German examinations board chairman, in full denial of any such differences, once told me that we still wanted ‘our’ candidates to get it ‘right’ in oral examinations, by which he meant, observe the written rule. Other conventions such as turn-taking and ellipsis, including not using whole sentences, also distinguish spoken from written language.

Or do we mean different linguistic models of grammar? How many pedagogical grammars or textbooks of German written in English use the Satzklammer model found in German DaF publications? Or Satzbaupläne? If they do, what terms do they use in English to convey the German model? Or do they try to fit German grammar to the more English  gfl-journal, No. 2/2003 Margaret Rogers 60 Subject-Predicate model, with resulting reconceptualisations of phenomena such as verbsecond in declarative clauses as ‘inversion’ of subject and finite verb, or non-finite verbfinal order in main clauses as ‘moving’ the relevant verb part to the end of the clause?

In the classroom itself, we encounter two participants in the activity of language learning:

the teacher and the student, both with their own ideas of grammar. For the teacher, it is probably some kind of near-native or native speaker grammar; for the learner, it is in practice some kind of interim grammar, an approximation to the target which in most cases and in most respects will remain ‘interim’, in this sense then, a misnomer. But we know that learners do not progress by learning neatly-encapsulated bits of the target language perfectly before moving on to the next bit, the final outcome being an accumulation of ‘bits’: their grammar interacts and evolves. So what kind of grammar is pedagogically optimal and how do we identify it?

We may, for instance, look to the textbook, which attempts to carve up the language into digestible chunks and to guide the learners along a path, interpreted and elaborated by the teacher. But how does the textbook author decide on the chosen path? Is the decision based on evidence of how some learners learn? Or on some linguistic notion of progressive complexity? Or simply on received wisdom?

Finally, which level of grammar is in focus: word, clause/sentence, or text? Grammar for German in particular has often meant a focus on inflectional morphology, i.e. grammar at the word level, to the extent that one nameless teacher of German once told me that ‘German has more grammar than English’. What has often received little attention in the past in pedagogical and other grammars, as well as in textbooks, is grammar above the sentence level: how do sentences combine to make texts? What distinguishes a series of sentences from a cohesive text, a question which is particularly relevant to German, where nominal inflections facilitate a flexibility in the order of information unfamiliar from the perspective of a rigid Subject-Verb-Object (SVO) language such as English.

Cf. Turner 2001 for a useful evaluation of developments with respect to the National Literacy Strategy.

–  –  –

In this paper, I would like to approach my topic of ‘which grammar’ from a number of perspectives, starting with a quick look back at grammar in the curriculum, and beliefs about the role of grammar in a historical context, leading us back to the present day.

Following a brief discussion of the nature of German word order from a languagetypological point of view (what is there to learn?), the issue of ‘need’ (in what sense or senses do learners ‘need’ grammar?) will be addressed on the one hand by a consideration of some learner errors in spoken production, and on the other hand through the perceptions of advanced German learners about their needs in their first year of a specialist degree in modern languages. We then move on to consider the issue of grammar in textbooks from the point of view of grammatical sequencing, before concluding with a proposal for moving forward in the area of MFL policy making related to an evidence-based approach.

A quick look back In matters of fashion, it is sometimes helpful to see what we have stored away in the back of our wardrobes: sartorial re-invention at no extra cost. In matters of language teaching, grammar has featured in UK foreign language (FL) classrooms since the teaching of modern (sic) languages was first institutionalised in the nineteenth century. Hence, I would like to spend a few minutes tracing back some of the themes which have become very topical today.

In contemporary society, ‘grammar’ has connotations which we can trace back to beliefs which have survived for millennia, starting with the teaching of the classics: training the mind, logical thought, discipline. We are doubtless all aware of hidden ideologies – as opposed to evidence – which often lurk behind official policy decisions: in languages, today’s rhetoric of standards in languages has been commonly interpreted as grammar. In

earlier times, such ideologies may have been more explicit and professionally acceptable:

German has […] in a less degree than French the claim of practical utility; but in another respect it must be ranked higher, for its numerous inflections peculiarly adapt it for teaching grammar; and for that purpose, it would stand next to Latin. (Report of the Schools Enquiry Commission, 1868, reported in Perren 1976:120) So, by inference, as a kind of poor man’s Latin, German could be thought to inherit the transferable benefits of a highly-inflected language, reflecting the classical status of (Latin)

–  –  –

grammar as the foundation of learning. In the same vein, in the mid-20th century, one august body, The Incorporated Association of Assistant Masters in Secondary Schools, pointed out the putative benefits of acquiring grammatical skills in modern languages in


[The individual student’s] struggles for accuracy in grammar and idiom will help him to form habits of careful thought […] (The Incorporated Association of Assistant Masters in Secondary Schools 1949:18) While such views gradually receded through the 1970s and 1980s as ‘communicative competence’ became the main criterion of assessment, they did not disappear. They just went underground. In the 1990s, the official rhetoric of documents from bodies such as the then School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, GCSE and A-level GCE syllabuses, and Chief Examiners’ Reports were, superficially at least, steeped in the language of communicative language teaching. But closer analysis reveals in many cases highly traditional attitudes to grammar and its learning (Rogers 1996) which are little different from those of their historical predecessors. Consider the following extract from a Chief

Examiner’s Report on A-level German:

In many cases it was clear that the grammar had not been thoroughly learnt or understood, which is regrettable. In others, however, there seemed to be a total disregard for grammatical structure. This lack of discipline was often, but by no means always, compounded by careless presentation of work […] (University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate. German.

Report on the June 1993 Examination) Clearly, the communicative paradigm had not entered a happy marriage with its grammatical spouse, at least not in the eyes of this A-level Chief Examiner.

For recent policy developments in the UK, however, more interesting than ‘careful thought’ – or underlying associations of good grammar with good discipline – is the additional belief that grammatical knowledge gained in foreign language learning will have a positive

influence on mother-tongue skills:

His improved grasp of the structure of language will continually find expression, even in his mother tongue […](The Incorporated Association of Assistant Masters in Secondary Schools 1949:18) Indeed, such thoughts are now official policy in the UK, where a cross-curricular approach to the teaching of languages, embracing both ‘Literacy’ and MFL syllabuses (see, for

–  –  –

instance, CILT/QCA Modern Foreign Languages and Literacy at key stages 2 and 3) has

been proposed, according to which:

Pupils should be taught to use their knowledge of English or another language when learning the target language (DfEE, 3c,1999) The new National Curriculum for Modern Foreign Languages places greater emphasis on

formal aspects of language, including both grammar and grammatical terminology:

Pupils should be taught the grammar of the target language and how to apply it (DfEE, 1b, 1999) In the majority of grammar books for foreign learners, grammar is usually associated with word grammar (particularly for a nominally highly-inflected language such as German) and sentence grammar. In English mother-tongue teaching, however, text grammar has become a priority.

Pupils should be taught the principles of sentence grammar and whole-text cohesion and use this knowledge in their writing. (quoted in CILT/QCA Modern Foreign Languages and Literacy at key stages 2 and 3) Particularly for aspects of German word order, text, in the sense of what influences the order in which information is presented in sentences as connected items in a cohesive whole, is an essential part of applying the structural rules.

We discuss a practical example in the next section, showing how older concerns about structural accuracy need to be rethought in the overall context of the pragmatic tailoring of information.

German word order: a typological view What is it that students have to learn when they tackle word order in German? Starting from

the traditional viewpoint of English structure, German word order looks distinctly odd:

• the finite verb does not always follow the subject in declarative main clauses (‘inversion’ is a minority rule in English: only then did she ….)

–  –  –

• the verbal group appears in final position in both finite and non-finite subordinate clauses

• main clauses have different rules from subordinate clauses But it is English which is the odd one out here among the Germanic languages. Two particular features are notable: all Germanic languages except English exhibit what is from an English perspective called ‘inversion’, namely the verb-second constraint; and other Germanic languages such as Afrikaans, Dutch and Swedish have a different word order in main and subordinate clauses.

So how can we characterise German word order? During the 1960s and 1970s there was an extensive theoretical debate about which type of language German is. If we classify languages according to word order type in terms of Subject, Verb and Object, there are six logical combinations, but the majority of the world’s languages can be accounted for by the SVO and SOV types. And German, as a mixed-type, is indeed highly unusual (cf. Hawkins 1979). But this analysis may also be said, through its close association of (S)VO order with main clauses, and (S)OV order with subordinate clauses, to mask certain trends which may influence our perception of word order rules, and hence our treatment of them in the classroom. In fact, statistical studies show that a large percentage of declarative main clauses in German, particularly in written texts, do not start with a nominal or pronominal subject. Estimates vary according to the genre of the text, e.g. drama, Ich-Erzählung novel, newspaper or academic text. One estimate of newspaper German (Sommerfeldt 1988) claims that 42.7% of text-opening sentences do not start with the subject; neither do 49.5% of all other sentences. Another study (Winter 1961) cites 41.1% of non-subject initial sentences for academic texts, but 23.5% for dramatic texts, simulating, we can speculate, spoken dialogue in which it is more usual to start with the grammatical subject.

If we move to the other end of the clause, describing German main clauses as SVO begs the question of what might be happening after the ‘O’. And it is here that we come to the ‘bracket’. Differing definitions of this very German phenomenon notwithstanding, there is still considerable evidence that the end of the bracket is often filled in German main clauses; one study (Lambert 1976) claims that 60% of sentences in her sample are ‘bracketed’, although her study includes subordinate as well as main clauses. Common

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bracketed structures in main clauses include separable verbs, auxiliary (haben or sein) with past participle, and modals with infinitive.

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