Thoughts from Greece 2. Why do we need grammar?

It’s all Greek to me!


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:
‘elastic band’
‘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!


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!


An Olympic Crossword part 2

In my previous post I explained how I got the students to create a crossword for their peers about the Winter Olympics. They completed them in today’s lesson and here are the finished versions.



As you can see, the mistakes in the questions and answers have been corrected. This was done by the students with very little prompting from me.

You may be wondering what the language value is of this exercise, and (quite rightly) thinking that ‘luge’ and ‘bobsleigh’ aren’t exactly useful words. I think what they got out of it linguistically was:

a) the use of the +ing form of the verb for activities

b) using relative clauses without studying tedious ‘rules’. At least for speakers of languages with Latin roots, the structures are pretty much common sense and don’t need a lot of teaching. They were able to correct ‘a person *which‘ when I pointed it out.

c) some useful vocabulary that can be used figuratively such as hurdle (as in a problem or obstacle), sweep (as in swept away)

d) the use of the passive (which they corrected without my help)

e) some lexical chunks in the questions such as third place, make a descent, sweep the floor, hold the Olympics, get closer to (something), a piece of music

f) the difference between city and country.


But it’s not perfect!

Having said all that, two of the students complained about doing it, saying it was boring and they weren’t interested in the Winter Olympics. Fair enough! I gave them some grammar exercises to do instead and they were quite happy after that.


Your feedback

What do you think? Useful/not useful?

Would you use it with your students?