Thoughts from Greece 2. Why do we need grammar?

It’s all Greek to me!

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I’m sitting in a bar on a remote island. There are very few English-speaking people around (just what I was looking for) and I’m trying to ‘acquire’ more Greek. But it’s not really working. I decide to whip out my iPad and amuse everyone by reading out loud the bizarre selection of words that my app has sent me:
‘textile’
‘tzaziki’
‘elastic band’
‘button’
‘coal’
‘Yiannis Parios’ (He’s a Greek singer, my waiter tells me- old people like him)

Apart from the questionable utility of the vocabulary, I find that I’m puzzled by the change of form of some of the words in the sample sentences. The verb for ‘see’ is βλέπο or ‘vlepo’ so why doesn’t the sample sentence (‘she can’t see without her glasses’) contain any word that remotely resembles ‘vlepo’?? And if ‘nostimo’ means ‘delicious’, then why does ‘itano stimotato’ mean ‘that was delicious’?? Which bit means ‘that’? Why does the adjective change? Do adjectives have a past form in Greek? Although the guys in the bar are very friendly,  I think these questions may be a tad annoying. So I don’t ask. 

The Lexical Approach

I find that I want and need someone to give me the ‘rules’. This a surprise for me, because I’m a great advocate of Lewis’s Lexical Approach to teaching grammar. He suggests that grammatical ‘rules’ should emerge from samples of authentic written or spoken language, rather than be taught. I have to say that it’s not working for me in Greek. I guess this is probably because:

  • There aren’t enough contextualised samples of the same lexeme/chunk/verb.
  • There’s no teacher to direct my attention to the samples and encourage “noticing”.
  • There’s no teacher to ask leading focus questions to help me work out the patterns, such as ‘Is it singular or plural’, ‘Are we talking about the present or the past?’.
  • Greek’s bloody difficult- many of the Greeks I’ve met have told me I should give up!

Conclusions

We still need grammar! It seems to make the whole language learning process a lot faster, especially in the beginning, so not using it would be pretty silly. As a beginner you are impatient to make sense of the new language and join its parts together. I see grammar as a network that connects the pieces of what would otherwise be a confusing maelstrom of lexemes. Perhaps grammar teaching should/could be seen as a ‘stabiliser’ that can slowly be removed as a learner progresses?

We still need teachers! 🙂 Over time…eventually…I’d probably acquire Greek, but a teacher can direct my attention towards the useful stuff, like how to conjugate the verb ‘see’, and away from the useless stuff, like Yiannis Parios!

 

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Learning or acquiring? More thoughts from Greece.

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In my valiant attempts to learn Greek, I’ve been reflecting on the role active study and technology can play in language learning.

My memorised sentence

I have an app…it sends me a Greek word every day with sample sentences and translations.  It’s the free version, so it’s pretty limited. I’ve been flicking through these words for a couple of years now, basically since my last Greek holiday, but have only managed to remember a single sentence, translated by the app as: 

‘The station is far from here.’

(Actually we would probably say ‘a long way’,  but that’s another article 🙂 )

In Greek: 

‘Ο σταθμός είναι μακριά από εδο’ (I think!)

Or with our alphabet:

‘O stathmos ine makria apo etho’

Apart from that, all the Greek I could remember was chunks of language that I’d actually used with real people on my first holiday here like: ‘Where’s the toilet?’, ‘How much it it?’, ‘A glass of white wine please’. This would seem to confirm Vygotsky’s theory that we learn socially, through connecting with other people. So if that’s the case, then is there any point in studying grammar rules and memorizing lists of vocabulary? Was Krashen’s acquisition theory on the nail?

Going back to my Greek sentence, what I’ve noticed is that it did give me a few tools to decipher more langugage. I guessed that:

  1. ‘O’ is a definite article (the), but probably this changes according to the gender of the noun, as in many languages?
  2. stathmos = station
  3. ine = verb ‘be’ – ‘it is’
  4. makria = far (the key word and translation of ‘far’ was ‘makrinos’ so maybe it changes according to some other factor?)
  5. apo = from?
  6. etho = here?

A quick check in the dictionary confirmed my translations. The sentence gave the language a context and (I guess) made it easier to remember.  So when I got off the plane and spoke to my first real Greek person (a taxi driver), and I told him where I wanted to go and I heard ‘ine makria’, I was pretty chuffed with myself that I knew what it meant, and of course knowing how to say ‘it is’ in any language is enormously useful. That said, it has to be taken into consideration that I’m a language teacher and deciphering and analysing language is what I do. Nevertheless, my experience would seem to suggest that theoretical linguistic knowledge and awareness can help our learners. 

Individual words

Listening to the bus drivers’ chat during my journey yesterday, I noticed that I could recognise some of the words from the app in their fluent speech.  I couldn’t necessarily translate them immediately though: ‘imerologio’ I knew was something to do with time- year? clock? (It was ‘calendar’). And when on the next bus the driver put a football match on the radio, helped by the context I heard the words for ‘head’ and ‘zero’, among others.  After that happened, as with the taxi driver, I felt that I would  be confident enough to use the language in conversation. It was as if it ‘clicked’ into place in my head. You could say that theoretical study of language is useful for receptive awareness, but this knowledge is transferred to the long term memory/speech (?) part of the brain only once you’ve had the language ‘confirmed in real life’ by a fluent speaker??

Another point of interest is how at this stage I am relying very heavily on translation, a fact which makes me feel rather shamefaced about how often I’ve said ‘Don‘t translate!’ to my poor students!