Dellar on Grammar

Dellar’s latest blog post is Part Nine of his views on ELT. It’s called Part Nine: the vast majority of mistakes really aren’t to do with grammar!

I’ll summarise it and then suggest that

1. Most mistakes in the oral and written production of students of English as an L2 are to do with grammar

2. Dellar’s view of how people learn English as an L2 is badly-informed and incoherent

3. Dellar’s approach to teaching English as an L2 is mistaken.

Summary of Dellar’s blog post

When he was younger, Dellar believed that the root cause of student error was essentially grammatical. It took him “quite some time” to realise that since students only did tasks that focused on the production of grammatical structures, it was unsuprising that their errors were grammatical. Dellar comments that “to extrapolate out from such experiences and to then believe that mistakes are mostly down to grammar is a fallacy of the highest order”.

To become more aware of the real issues that students face when learning English, Dellar says that teachers need to change tack and focus on tasks which require the production of language outside the narrow confines of what are essentially grammar drills of varying kinds.  Unfortunately, during these “freer slots”, teachers still pick up on grammar. “This is what we’re most trained to focus on, and the way most of us are still trained to perceive error, and old habits die hard”.

Dellar then discusses how he and his co-author and colleague, Andrew Walkley started using Vocaroo (an online audio recorder) to record fifty chunks / collocations and send the link to all ther students. “They’d then write them down as best they could, like a dictation; we’d send the original list and students would then write examples of how they think they might actually use each item – or hear each being used. These were emailed over and we’d correct them, comment on them, etc.”.  To their dismay, Dellar and Walkley found that words that they felt they had “explained well, given extra examples of, nailed, as it were”, would come back “half digested, or garbled, or in utterly alien contexts with bizarre co-text”.

Dellar explains these disappointing results as follows:

What is really going on is that the new language is somehow slowly getting welded awkwardly onto the old; meanings in the broadest sense are largely understood, but contexts of use not yet clearly grasped.

He goes on:

This should not surprise, of course. The fact that students have encountered new items in class, seen them once or twice or even three times in some kind of context, possibly translated them and more or less grasped their meanings is simply evidence of the fact that they’ve not yet been primed anywhere near sufficiently. For fluent users who’ve grasped new items, there’s been encounter after encounter after encounter, with item and with co-text in context; for learners, this process has only just begun, and as a result the odds of priming from L1 being brought over when it comes to using the new items creatively is very high indeed.

It also tempers the expectation one should have of the power and value of correction. I’m under no illusion that the detailed comments and extensive correction / recasting I carry out on student efforts (see below) will somehow magically result in correct and fluent use henceforth. Rather, I see my work here simply as further efforts to prime and to draw attention to glitches, misconceptions, perennial misuses and so on; in short, I am merely a condensed and rather more focused part of the priming process.

What else you realise is the sheer futility of trying to explain much error through the filter of grammar. Take the first sentence shown below – The area has been deserted after a huge flooding 3 years ago. What’s a dogged grammar hound to do here? Point out that if we’re using AFTER when talking about something that happened three years ago, we’d generally use the past simple, so if we want to use the present perfect, it’d be better to use SINCE? If we’re talking about flooding, it’s usually uncountable and thus kill the A? Even if you were to do this, you’d still be left with: The area has been deserted since huge flooding three years ago, which still sounds very stilted and forced. Often, the only real solution to the morass of oddness these sentences throw one into is rather severe reworking, with options sometimes given, questions sometimes asked, and explanations often proffered.

Dellar concludes that when we’re teaching new vocabulary, we need to pay careful attention to “how well we’re priming students”. Limiting instruction and feedback to single ways of saying things, or short ungrammaticalised chunks / collocations gives students little chance of “really coming to terms with the ways in which new items are typically used with previously learned grammar and vocabulary, or the kinds of (often fairly limited) contexts in which items are used”.

Dellar finishes his blog post with this:

Any of you who ever have to deal with student writing as they prepare to do degrees or Master’s in English, where all the kinds of issues seen above are compounded with serious discoursal and structural issues, spelling problems, paragraphing anomalies, and so on will know what I mean when I claim that prevention is infinitely preferable to cure.

And that the medicine needed really isn’t all that much to do with grammar as we know it!

Discussion

Let’s start with language errors made by L2 learners. Dellar ignores the work done by researchers on this subject.

We can begin with contrastive analysis research, notably Fries (1945), which suggested that errors are the result of transfer from the L1. Then came research in the 60s which showed that errors were not simply explained by L1 transfer; the same errors were commonly made by all language learners, regardless of their L1. Corder’s (1967) seminal work argued that errors were indications of learners’ attempts to figure out an underlying rule-governed system. Corder distinguished between errors and mistakes: mistakes are slips of the tongue and not systematic, whereas errors are indications of an as yet non-native-like, but nevertheless, systematic, rule-based grammar. Here, Corder is suggesting that learning an L2 is a cognitive process, not a mindless (sic – for behaviourists, the construct of mind is anathema) process of responding to stimulus from the environment), where learners work with their own ideas about the L2, which slowly approximate to a native speaker model. This “interlanguage development” theory received its first full expression in Selinker’s (1972) paper, which argues that L2 learners develop their own autonomous mental grammar with its own internal organising principles. Selinker uses the word “grammar”, as do all applied linguistic scholars, to refer to the system and structure of a language, concentrating on syntax, but including morphology, phonology and semantics.

Dellar claims that “the vast majority of mistakes really aren’t to do with grammar!”. He is, quite simply, wrong, as thousands of studies attest. Errors in the output of learners of English as an L2 are usually categorized in terms of lexical, grammatical, phrasing, and pragmatic errors, with punctuation added when looking at written texts. There is not a single study that I know of on this subject which doesn’t give grammatical errors as the most frequent type of error. Here’s an example.

MacDonald (2016) found from an examination of written texts in English of Spanish university students that grammar errors made up the majority of errors.

Dellar’s view of language learning

I’ve dealt with Dellar’s view of language learning in a separate post,  so let me focus here on his use of “priming” as an explanation of how people learn an L2. There are, at the moment, two rival, (and incompatible) views of second language acquisition (SLA). The first is that it’s a cognitive process involving the development of interlanguage, helped by innate knowledge of how language works. The second is that learning an L2 is the same as learning anything else, including the L1: it’s a learning process caused by responding to stimuli in the environment. This is a modern version of behaviorism and it’s motivated by a modern type of empiricism: language use emerges from social interaction, and only very basic statistical operations in the mind, based on the power law principle, are enough to explain how people learn an L2. These usage-based theories come in various forms and are referred to under the umbrella term “emergentism”. I think the best exponent of this view is Nick Ellis.

Priming is mostly associated with emergentist theories of SLA; it stresses frequency effects. But it’s complicated. How does priming occur? Is it unconscious? Is Schmidt’s “Noticing” construct compatible with the construct of priming? In his blog post, Dellar says:

What is really going on is that the new language is somehow slowly getting welded awkwardly onto the old

While that’s not what anybody who argues for an interlanguage development view of SLA would claim (new language doesn’t get “awkwardly welded onto the old”), it sounds as if Dellar is suggesting that learners do develop an increasingly sophisticated model of the target language. If he is, then this clashes with his insistence that priming is what explains SLA. Dellar says

The fact that students have encountered new items in class, seen them once or twice or even three times in some kind of context, possibly translated them and more or less grasped their meanings is simply evidence of the fact that they’ve not yet been primed anywhere near sufficiently. For fluent users who’ve grasped new items, there’s been encounter after encounter after encounter, with item and with co-text in context; for learners, this process has only just begun, and as a result the odds of priming from L1 being brought over when it comes to using the new items creatively is very high indeed.

First, pace Dellar, “encounter after encounter after encounter, with item and with co-text in context” is not a necessary condition for learning a language, as the daily inventive output of English users makes clear. Millions of times a day, fluent users of English as an L2 use combinations of items that they’ve NEVER encountered before, not even once. If Dellar wants to adopt a strictly “priming”, usage-based view of SLA, then he has to explain this. As Eubank and Gregg (2003) say:  “…. it is precisely because rules have a deductive structure that one can have instantaneous learning… With the English past tense rule, one can instantly determine the past tense form of “zoop” without any prior experience of that verb…….. If all we know is that John zoops wugs, then we know instantaneously that John zoops, that he might have zooped yesterday and may zoop tomorrow, that he is a wug-zooper who engages in wug-zooping, that whereas John zoops, two wug-zoopers zoop, that if he’s a Canadian wug-zooper he’s either a Canadian or a zooper of Canadian wugs (or both), etc.  We know all this without learning it, without even knowing what “wug” and “zoop” mean”.

Second, Dellar wants to explain failure to learn “new items” of the L2 by appeal to insufficient priming. But that is not how a great many scholars (including Eubank and Gregg, of course, and a legion of others) would explain it, and it’s not how those in the emergentist camp would explain it either. Dellar says that learning depends on priming, without explaining what priming refers to. Elsewhere, Dellar has said that he uses the construct “priming” to refer to lexical priming, not structural or syntactic primimg, and that he bases himself on Hoey’s 2005 book. Hoey says that priming amounts to this: “every time we use a word, and every time we encounter it anew, the experience either reinforces the priming by confirming an existing association between the word and its co-texts and contexts, or it weakens the priming, if we encounter a word in unfamiliar contexts” (Hoey, 2005).  Note that there is absolutely no way that such a statement can be tested by appeal to empirical evidence; Hoey’s theory is circular. Until the construct of “priming” is operationally defined in such a way that statements about it are open to empirical refutation, it remains a mysterious construct that people like Dellar can use as they want. Furthermore, Dellar fails to explain how his insistence that ELT should focus on the explicit teaching of lexical chunks can be reconciled with Hoey’s insistence that lexical primimg is a pscholinguistic phenomenon that refers to implcit, unconscious learning.

ELT 

Which brings us to the third matter: Dellar’s approach to teaching. We get a glimpse of it when he talks of “the sheer futility” of explaining error “through the filter of grammar”. Using the example of a student who wrote

The area has been deserted after a huge flooding 3 years ago

he asks “What’s a dogged grammar hound to do here?” and proceeds to lampoon the advice such grammar hounds might offer. He concludes that their answer

The area has been deserted since huge flooding three years ago

“still sounds very stilted and forced”, and he suggests that the text needs “rather severe reworking”, no doubt so as to include some of his beloved lexical chunks. Well, The area has been deserted since huge flooding three years ago, sounds OK to me, and reading Dellar’s own work is enough to raise serious questions about his ability to judge the coherence and cohesion of written texts. In any case, I think most students would benefit more from the recast Dellar thinks the grammar hounds would arrive at, than from Dellar’s own feedback, as evidenced in the examples he provides. What, one wonders, is the effect on a student of that kind of feedback? How does such severe reworking get welded on to the student’s current model of English? Dellar pours scorn on conventional grammar teaching, but his attempts to incorporate his own “bottom-up grammar” into his lexical approach are bewildering – see this recording    

Dellar’s preoccupation with the importance of lexical chunks informs his view of ELT. “Don’t teach grammar, teach lexical chunks” is the message. Rather than appreciate the fact that language learning is essentially a matter of implicit learning, and that any type of synthetic syllabus, be it grammar based or lexical chunk based, is fatally flawed, Dellar insists, like nobody else in the commercial field of ELT, that explicit teaching (of lexical chunks in context) should drive language learning. He talks about the problems he had in his attempts to teach students 50 lexical chunks a week, but what did he learn? Not that it’s an impossible task to teach learners the tens of thousands of lexical chunks native speakers use, nor even that there are principled ways of reducing the number. No, all he learnt was that the lexical chunks need to be embedded in context.

Dellar’s lexical chunks, served up every few days on his website, now number well over 200. What informs inclusion in this motley collection? And how are they all to be sufficiently “primed” so as to form part of the learner’s procedural knowledge of English?

For a fuller assessment of Dellar’s views of ELT, see separate posts, here, and here,

Finally, what about Dellar’s conclusion?

Any of you who ever have to deal with student writing as they prepare to do degrees or Master’s in English, where all the kinds of issues seen above are compounded with serious discoursal and structural issues, spelling problems, paragraphing anomalies, and so on will know what I mean when I claim that prevention is infinitely preferable to cure.

And that the medicine needed really isn’t all that much to do with grammar as we know it!

But is prevention better than cure when it comes to ELT?  Should teachers strive to prevent their students from making mistakes, rather than helping them to learn from mistakes? And, in the unlikely event that you reply “Yes, they should”, then what’s the preventive medicine? Learning by heart fifty randomly selected lexical chunks, along with contexts, every week?

 

References

Corder, S. P. (1967). The Significance of Learners’ Errors. International Review of Applied Linguistics in Language Teaching, 5, 161-170.

Eubank, L., & Gregg, K. (2002). NEWS FLASH—HUME STILL DEAD. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 24(2), 237-247.

Fries, C. C. (1945). Teaching and Learning English as a Foreign Language. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Hoey, M. (2005) Lexical Priming: A New Theory of Words and Language. Oxford: OUP.

MacDonald, P. (2016) “We All Make Mistakes!”. Analysing an Error-coded Corpus of Spanish University Students’ Written English, in Complutense Journal of English Studies, 24, 103-129.

Selinker, L. (1972). Interlanguage. International Review of Applied Linguistics in Language Teaching, 10, 209-241.

 

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