Friday, May 31, 2019


Just now, I heard a very good line about grammar. It comes (I can’t check the citation at the moment, but I trust my source) from Kató Lomb’s famous book Polyglot: How I Learn Languages.

“You cannot,” says the famous Hungarian poly-polyglot, “You cannot learn language from grammar, but you learn grammar from language.”

What’s there to be added to that marvelous, super-succinct summary of all the misunderstanding about grammar teaching? I’ve written quite a bit about my experience teaching Latin and Greek in The Netherlands this year. What has happened to language teaching in my own country? 

Dutch as a school subject meant literature when I was in school (like, forty years ago). A short story here, a poem there. Medieval Dutch. A highlight of nineteenth-century Dutch literature (Max Havelaar). We famously had one grammar (spelling) lesson a year, followed by a quick test applying a few stupid rules (for those who know Dutch, this was mostly about applying the kofschip rules). It was no big deal. What I hear from students and pick up from a few colleagues now is that Dutch classes have become some horrible thing about grammar, vocabulary (?!), and more torture. What a surprise no high school graduate in The Netherlands wants to read Dutch in university anymore! (It may, by the way, also explain the general disdain of the Dutch for their own language and their embracing silly English expressions where perfectly fine Dutch equivalents are available.) 

The modern languages where taught grammar-based in the 1970s and 1980s, but there were some adventurous teachers who were clearly moving in a different direction, and it was not only about grammar and vocabulary, as it often seems to be today (or so I hear from my poor students--third year French, never read a book).

The Classical languages have been grammar-based for a long time in The Netherlands and despite excellent classicists (such as A.G. de Man in In grammaticis veritas [Groningen: Wolters, 1951]) ringing the alarm bell, very little seems to have changed for the past 80 years, or more likely a century and a half. No, something has. It’s even worse than when I was in school. More grammar (not that the kids actually learn it), less stories, much less learning. (Sorry, but I don’t give a penny for turning Latin and Greek into a kind of ancient history class, it seems to me a horrible sell-out, a cop-out for not learning the language, which indeed they don’t, and teachers seem to think it’s fine.)

So what is it with my Dutch colleagues and their odd belief in grammar? Anybody who speaks a few languages fluently knows s/he did not learn that language by studying grammar. The very best students I see in Latin and Greek read, read, read. I ask them, Do you think of grammar rules when reading? Oh no, sir, they smile, almost apologetically, except they do know I love their answer. We just read. If I don’t get it, one very good student adds, I just read it again. And then I get it. The grammar exercises in the reading book? Oh no, says the student, I skip those. And she is right.

Such students learn grammar from language. They have long understood that it ain’t work the other way around, like I found out, realizing I couldn’t read Latin to save my life after six years (very many hours, plus a very decent final exam) of Latin in high school. 

How come language teachers don’t seem to see that?

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