Tea with BVP: A discussion on grammar rules

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The below discussion is based on a topic on “grammar rules” on the SLA talk show Tea with BVP, hosted by Dr. Bill VanPatten, Dr. Angelika Kraemer, and Dr. Walter Hopkins from Michigan State University.


It is my opinion that the foundation of solid SLA theory, along with trial and error of various teaching methods are essential for becoming a well-rounded language teacher. Not all classroom teachers are equipped with the theories behind why they do what they do in the classroom. Personally, I have improved the happiness of my life and the quality of education of my students by the empowerment of such information.

Spanish teacher Eric Herman loves talking about, thinking about and writing about Second Language Acquisition theory and practice. One of the things I admire about Eric is that he is able to synthesize so much about this topic and he also experiments, applies, implements, evaluates and makes adjustments for optimal learning in his own classroom.

Any time he shares information that shapes my teaching, I am inspired to share it with others! The comments Eric made were regarding 1) textbook rules vs. Universal Grammar rules, 2) some of the limits of explicit instruction, and 3) the non-controversial statement that explicit knowledge does not turn into implicit knowledge.

“…Some basics in generative (Chomskyan) linguistics would go a LONG way. The idea that there are no rules in the textbook sense is an old idea in linguistics. The terms “mental representation” and “competence” are old and not original to BVP. To linguists the theory of language (the nature of language and how it is represented in our mind/brain) is very different from the rules in a textbook. So generative linguistics posits an abstract linguistic system in terms of principles (constraints), parameters (binary choices like a switch box), and features. There are other theories of language (e.g. connectionism) that also don’t at all resemble textbook rules.

To learn some basics in generative linguistics, then open up any introductory SLA book and locate the chapter on Chomsky. E.g. 1) Mitchell & Myles (Second Language Learning Theories) chapter 3 (p.52-91). 2) For a more in-depth understanding (but still accessible to the beginner), read Chapter 1-3 (60 pages) of English Syntax: An Introduction by Andrew Radford.

A “property theory” gives us the nature of knowledge. A “transition theory” is about the process of acquisition. So, if the property theory is Universal Grammar or some connectionist model, then the transition theory is about how INPUT alone builds that linguistic system. Output and textbook rules play NO direct role in the (re)setting of parameters. That’s not to say they can’t help – e.g. we may then be able to cope – comprehend and produce beyond our level (what gets called language-like behavior) in order to get ourselves more input comprehended. As for the question of whether explicit grammar rules can help us comprehend more, see VanPatten et al (2013) “Explicit Information, Grammatical Sensitivity, and the First-Noun Principle: A Cross-Linguistic Study in Processing Instruction.” Just like Krashen has always said – the role of the Monitor is extremely limited. Only the simplest of rules are of any use to comprehending.

And one more thing: the question of learning becoming acquisition, rephrased as whether explicit knowledge can turn into implicit knowledge is actually not controversial. Robert DeKeyser, Mr. Skill-building, says in BVP’s 2015 book: “The phrase ‘turning into’ is a bit misleading on that point; all that is claimed is that explicit declarative knowledge, via practice, plays a causal role in the development of procedural knowledge” (p. 103).

“Skill Acquisition Theory, then, does not reject the possibility or usefulness of implicit learning, but focuses on how explicit learning . . . lead to knowledge that is functionally equivalent to implicit knowledge. From a purely psycholinguistic point of view, it is important to stress, as does Paradis (2009), that explicit knowledge never becomes implicit through practice . . . ” (p. 106).

Furthermore, DeKeyser places 4 conditions on the applicability of explicit knowledge: “Skill Acquisition Theory is most easily applicable to what happens in (a) high-aptitude adult learners engaged in (b) the learning of simple structures at (c) fairly early stages of learning in (d) instructional contexts” (2015, p. 101).

There are classroom studies showing that explicit teaching can have negative effects on development, including stagnation, slowing down, and even regression. And we also have some relevant brain studies to suggest that the type of instruction (explicit vs. implicit) either leads or does not lead to native-like brain response patterns (2012, Morgan-Short et al).

And neuroscientists that say that explicit learning and knowledge may even inhibit acquisition (the development of an implicit linguistic system). To quote Michael T. Ullman, again from BVP’s 2015 book: “Finally, some evidence suggests that learning and/or retrieval of knowledge in declarative memory may block (inhibit) the learning and/or retrieval of analogous knowledge in procedural memory” (p. 139)… “Thus, explicit instruction of grammar, as is often given in classrooms to L2 learners, should encourage learning in declarative memory (which may then inhibit learning or processing in procedural memory). Conversely, exposure to the L2 without explicit instruction, as often occurs in immersion contexts, might enhance grammar acquisition in procedural memory, and thus lead to more L1-like processing of grammar” (p. 142).”

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  • I love this and love your videos using TPRS. They have really helped me!! Thanks!!

    Renee Hennessy 3 years ago Reply

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