English Grammar or not?

I have sometimes been asked by students who originated from a foreign country to teach them English without explaining any kind of grammar. While it is tempting to try to help everyone, I find it impossible to teach English without going back to the basics. One potential student from Hungary moved to the United States and learned a little bit of English by watching TV. He found a job with a Hungarian window washing company and therefore, spoke Hungarian at work. He came to Tampa with his Hungarian girlfriend who was studying English via a Hungarian website and therefore also spoke Hungarian at home. This student had a thriving career back in Hungary but could not find any comparable work here because of his lack of understanding English. When this student insisted that I just converse with him, it became apparent that he just wanted to mimic English and was not interested at all in learning any grammar. He believed that he could learn English without having to bother with grammar and he could repeat any sentence or learn vocabulary without grammar. He wanted a quick fix, thinking that basic English would get him by. He didn't see that his short sightedness would limit his job opportunities.

It is really sad to meet people with this kind of mindset because of your desire to help. While many foreign students don’t understand what is wrong with “I no go,” or pronouncing the number 3 as if it were a “tree,” they want a quick fix while on the other hand, the tutor wants to teach them how to form a sentence, conjugate verbs, and know which article to use when.

I taught basic English grammar to an engineer from Puerto Rico because he felt that his English slang and accent (which he learned and mimicked by watching TV in Puerto Rico) prevented him from getting a better job and advancing his career. This person decided that it was worth the effort to learn the basics and it didn't take long before he could conjugate verbs in the proper tense, recognize the difference between me and mine, and expand his descriptions by using new words.

The typical foreign student hears approximately 5,000 words but retains only 500. They stay within their comfort zone and rarely are able to describe how they feel because they are prisoner of their word limitation. So how do you convince a student who has the belief that conversation only will make him learn English? I taught an ESOL class and started with 6 students. Within five months, we had 51 students who, by word of mouth, heard that there was a free English class being taught which explained grammar and expanded English vocabulary. Their main request was that we explain the “whys and how-tos” so that they could understand English better.

I strongly believe that you cannot please everyone and that there will always be that one student who refuses to believe that hard work will pay dividends later on and learning grammar is the fundamental basis of properly learning English or any language for that matter. Letting others make their own mistakes by allowing them to believe that they can learn the language without basic grammar is releasing that specific responsibility that comes with teaching and sharing the enthusiasm for a particular language. There are too many people who want to learn, who have a thirst for knowledge and who are intent on furthering the opportunity to be in the United States. The guilt over not being able to help one lone fish is rewarded by the time and dedication committed to those who want to learn the correct way.



Colette J.

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