Wednesday, November 17, 2010



I'm just a guy who likes to teach people how to do things they want to know how to do. This doesn't translate into me being a teacher at a university like I am now doing however because somehow this process has gotten too complicated. I have to assess and judge how my students have done, in the first place. That means I have to decide what they are supposed to be learning.

As a TESOL teacher, that should be obvious shouldn't it, so what's the problem? There is, however a big problem because we test students on not only how well they speak English (that would be a placement exam) but on how well they can perform certain incremental skills in using the English language. We are trying to piece the language together from small parts and somehow that seems to function poorly on the scale of learning a language.

If we look at grammar (which is an incomplete science of the language) we can supposedly identify all the elements (in this case, many of them) about how the language works in practice. The real experience though is that people who know the grammar rules cannot necessarily speak and / or understand the language. They may get to that point eventually but they have had to learn two separate things.

Now why would I make such a stupid assertion as this? It is because I have observed that people who speak a language fluently often are not able to tell you the grammar rules they seem so competent at using. This leaves me with the conclusion that, although a scholar or writer may need to know grammar rules, ordinary people do not have to know them in spite of being fluent and perhaps even being talented in expressing themselves. Fortunately language instruction has mostly abandoned the slavish reliance on grammar instruction.

Obviously we can't use grammar as the basis for testing and certainly not for placement. So what are these small components of language that we use to measure the academic work of our students? Would they be able to be used as some kind of placement instrument? Since I know of no reputable modern placement instrument that relies on them, I must conclude that they are not a way to measure language acquisition. Therefore we must be using them purely for the purpose of generating convenient scores on which to assign the grades given at the end of each class. This sounds to be not only artificial but perhaps quite inaccurate as well.

I am left questioning whether my students will be learning English while I am being so busy at making meaningless measurements of their supposed progress?


C.J. Duffy said...

"people who speak a language fluently often are not able to tell you the grammar rules they seem so competent at using"
That comment is so true. I work for an American Pharmaceutical giant, one that is filled with English speaking people from all over the globe and from every walk of life. Their grammar, much like my own, is awful either when written but also when spoken. We all understand each other though. But this surely initself brings those changes that we Brits often tease our American coisins over? Those evolutionary changes that take the langauage on an away from its origins? Not a bad thing i think but soon words like 'this' and 'that' will get replaced by variants such as 'dis' and 'dat'.

Russell Ragsdale said...

Thanks CJ! I'm glad you came by to have a look at this. As an English teacher in a far away land, questions come up about how students learn this battered mother tongue of ours.

Honest Abe said...

Ah, Russell, the boardroom/barroom dilemma! As a communicator, I always felt we had to make our point, wherever we were. My English was boardroom in embassies, my blending in language was backstreet barroom. I survived in both arenas and now have an unending pleasure in learning idioms, and usages of regional speech. Rules? That is for tests. Understanding? That is for the streets.
Or so it seems to me.

Good prompt. Best wishes.
Abe, Southern Poet.

Russell Ragsdale said...

Abe, thanks for that thoughtful comment. I agree with the idea of different language in response to specific situations. The linguists tell us that (when it involves switching between languages in bilingual speakers) it is called code switching. From a monolingual perspective it surely must involve dialect and idiom usage. This is such a fascinating area of language! Yeah, I'm an idiom collector too.

redy said...

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Russell Ragsdale said...

Hi redy! you are always welcome!