Daring to disagree with Michael Swan: Grammar doesn’t have to be grey, but it can’t be black and white, either!

15 04 2012

Another IATEFL 2012 highlight was Michael Swan and Catherine Walter’s talk entitled Grammar Doesn’t Have to be Grey. It’s always a pleasure to listen to one of my greatest ELT idols talk about one of my favorite topics – grammar. Together with Larsen Freeman & Celce-Murcia  and Greenbaum  & Quirk, Michael Swan has had an enormous influence on my grammatical competence, and Practical English Usage has been my grammar bible for over twenty years.

For me, grammar has never been grey, but I have to admit that it can be to someone who is not intrinsically motivated to learn it, so the more color we add to it, the better, according to Walters and Swan.

They touched upon relevant issues related to the teaching of grammar, such as the importance of explicit grammar teaching for sustained improvement in accuracy and clarified what grammar we should teach at lower or higher levels. Swan also advised participants against excessive correction of grammar errors and suggested that input, in the form of explanations and examples, should take up less time than exercises.  Also, these exercises may start in a more mechanical and non-communicative format but need to progress into interesting and motivating work, with personalization, problem-solving, creativity, discussion, and fact-finding. Examples ought to be simple and contextualized, ads, pubic notices, cartoons, quotations and texts being excellent sources for this purpose.  More importantly, Swan emphasized that there isn’t a single way to teach grammar, and that the methodological choices will depend on the learner, the level, and many other things.   Thus, the color metaphor can be interpreted in two different ways:  both in the sense of motivating learners, showing that the language is alive and colorful, and in the sense that the variety of colors may represent the diversity of learners and , thus, of approaches to teaching grammar.

It was when he outlined how explanations should be given, however, that all the colors disappeared from his palette and, rather than grey, it all became black and white. Michael Swan bluntly suggested that grammar explanations should be in the mother tongue if at all possible. Just like that! No comments on when, where, with what age or level of learners – in other words, no reference at all to the teaching and learning context. They should be in the mother tongue if possible; period.

Defending the use of the native language in the ESL/EFL classroom seems to be a current trend, and justifications abound. In his post T is for Translation, Thornbury (2010) weighed the arguments on both sides of the debate and indirectly suggested that the pros outweigh the cons. With a similar perspective, in his very informative post in the NNEST Interest Section Blog, Mahboob (2011) presents two reasons for the development of negative attitudes towards the use of local languages in English language classes, the first one being related to the history of English language teaching and teacher education, and the second one to the study of and literature on second language acquisition. He goes on to support the use of local languages in the English classroom, drawing insights from Foreman (2010, cited in Mahboob, 2011) and Swain, Kirkpatrick and Cummins (2011, cited in Mahboob 2011). The former provides cognitive, affective, pedagogical, and socio-political reasons to support the use of L1, while the latter offer reasons why the use of L1 can make content comprehensible.  I invite you to read his post for further exploration of the topic.

I’m not opposed to the use of the L1 in the ESL/EFL classroom and agree that there are moments when it is not only recommendable but necessary, for the same reasons discussed by Thornbury and Mahboob. However, I’m suspicious of experts who advocate this practice, or any practice, for that matter, as a general rule, the way Swan unfortunately did. Given the variety of contexts in which English is taught around the world, each one with different profiles of learners, learning objectives, resources, cultural influences, etc., one cannot responsibly say that this or that should definitely be done or not in the classroom, “if at all possible”. Contextual aspects are of fundamental importance.  Of even greater relevance are learners’ needs, goals and desires.  Would an intermediate or advanced learner in an expanding circle context, where English is not spoken outside the classroom, want the teacher to use the precious classroom time explaining grammar in their native language as a rule – not as an exception, not when the explanation in English didn’t suffice, not when there’s the need to compare the two languages for better understanding, but as a general rule, a standard procedure?

Resisting the temptation to go on elaborating on when, why, how, and with whom teachers should or should not use L1 in the classroom, I’d like to focus on the learner instead, and in doing so, invite my NNEST colleagues to reflect on their own process of learning English as a second or foreign language :

Would YOU have liked or benefited from grammar explanations delivered in your native language while you were learning English, in all stages of the process?


Mahboob, A . (2011, August 31). Using local languages in English language classes [Web log post].  Retrieved from http://www.nnestblog.blogspot.com.br/.

Thornbury, A. (2010, April 21). T is for translation [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://scottthornbury.wordpress.com/2010/04/21/t-is-for-translation/.




11 responses

16 04 2012
Luiz Otávio Barros

Hi, Isabela!
Congratulations on being so bold in your second blog post. Tackling L1 + Michael Swan in one go is certainly not for the faint hearted.
Now, as to your question…
Yes, I might have – to an extent, at least. I’m modalizing my answer because I was never a “basic 1” or “teenager 2” student. I pretty much taught myself most of my A1/A2 English when I was 12ish, so when I joined a language institute, I was sort of B1ish, which means grammar explanations in L1 were no longer necessary.
But if I’d been a “basic 1” student, I think it would have been VERY frustrating to ask for rules / explanations and to be left in the dark because of the teacher’s reluctance to resort to Portuguese. But then again, I’m only hypothesizing.
Now, from a teaching perspective, I find the L1 vs L2 debate fascinating, not least because of all the unexamined assumptions underpinning both sides of the argument. For example, those who justify strict adherence to L2 on the grounds that code switching would encourage students to “think in L1” (pre-output) are assuming that one does in fact think in a language (rather than in some sort of abstract “language of thought” to use Steve Pinker’s words) and this argument is far, far from settled.
And this sort of anti-L1 dogma has, for a long time, stopped ELT from looking at a number of key issues more critically. For example, how do we attack errors that are more likely attributable to L1 interference (rather than developmental in nature)? Is it worth referring students to the original source of the problem (L1) with a view to “fixing” it or should we hope that ongoing exposure and non-contrastive corrective feedback will eventually push students’ interlanguage forward? Or, say, to what extent does translation (as opposed to meaning conveyance via pictures or made-up contexts or CCQs or whatever) make the target lexis more or less memorable / retrieval in the short term and in the long run? These are questions that, to the best of my knowledge, hardly ever get asked. Could it be, perhaps, that because those who should kick start the discussion on a worldwide basis operate mostly in multi-lingual contexts where translation would not be feasible anyway?

16 04 2012
Luiz Otávio Barros

By the way, I mean “retrievable”, not “retrive.”

I take the view that semantic precision can help us here – at least it has helped me get my head around the L1 – L2 conundrum. Let me explain.

I think you hit the nail on the head when you described the intermediate student who (certainly!) would not want precious clasroom time wasted on unnecessary explanations in L1. Students need as much exposure to L2 as realistically possible – this goes without saying. There’s no way we can question this. So, in that sense, using L1 is tantamount to depriving students of precious input – period. This means that from an acquisitional perspective, one must use L1 very sparingly, judiciously – and all the other adverbs that ELT has used over the years to warn teachers against the use of L1.

But conducting part of the lesson in L1 is one thing (and this is what Sawn is advocating, if I understood correctly), using L1 to convey meaning and bring out important differences in usage, quite another – which is what you said, right? In other words, TRANSLATING words and sentences (with a view to clarification and focus) should not, I believe, be conceptually lumped together with what I described in the last paragraph because short bursts of translation do NOT deprive students of significant amounts of exposure to L2. Now, whether translation will enhance or hinder learning is another question and, as I said, one that hardly ever gets examined. Pity.

But, contentious, context-insensitive and ill-informed as Swan’s assertion might’ve been, at least it seems to have sparked a lot of interest in the issue and maybe this is a first step.

Thank you so much for this post.
Um beijo.

16 04 2012

Hi, Luiz.

You made some very interesting comments there. First of all, yes, I agree that when beginners have questions whose answers can’t be understood in their limited L2, of course teachers may, and should, resort to L1. On the other hand, we don’t do much explaining of grammar with basic students anyway, do we?

You are also right that the assumption that one actually thinks in a language is highly disputed. I would go more for the argument of automatization and what neurobiology has been showing us about the brain: my assumption is that the brain can be wired differently depending on how the second language is learned – directly or by way of constant reference to the L1, which could create a sort of “speed bump”. These are only assumptions, though, and I think this needs to be investigated. Anyway, it would only occur with translation as a principle in the approach adopted, not the translation we are talking about here.

Judicious use of L1 is not a problem at all and, in my mind, it has never been. I agree 100% that to expedite learning, we need to address errors originating from L1 interference as such, and not just let the so-called natural acquisition take place. In explaining modals, for example, I make it a point to show students that the translation of might, may, could, must, should, etc. is usually “deve”, so just translating won’t help them understand modality in English. Conversely, when something in English works the same way as in Portuguese, I point that out, too.

This current trend towards use of L1 can be positive and negative at the same time in our teaching context. It can be positive in language programs like yours and mine that might be stuck in the Direct Method era and too dogmatic about the use of L1. Conversely, it can be negative in our regular school context, public and private, where translation is still the norm and very little is actually learned in years and years of study. A lot is learned about the language rather than the language itself. Having prominent specialists in our field defending the use of L1 more and more, without being specific about when, where, how, and with whom, is just what those who don’t want to change this ineffective system need.

Anyway, I think this is a fascinating area and hope to it makes its way into the research agenda. Maybe we can think of something together!

16 04 2012
Luiz Otávio Barros

“It can be positive in language programs like yours and mine that might be stuck in the Direct Method era and too dogmatic about the use of L1. Conversely, it can be negative in our regular school context, public and private, where translation is still the norm and very little is actually learned in years and years of study.”


22 04 2012
Lueli Ceruti

I must say that I agree on disagreeing with Michael Swan. Just like you, most of my grammar references come from the “Bible”: Practical English Usage, and disagreeing with Michael Swan is as close to heresy and I might get. In response to your questions, I must say I don’t think I would have profited from grammar explanations in L1. Although I learned and used to teach English in a language institute seen as avant-garde, quite bold in the use of new methodologies and techniques, using L1 for grammar was not one of them. I think “the trick” is how deep into the explanation you go, and whether you end up spending more time teaching the metalanguage than the language itself. I have had the chance to use L1 asking students to translate the Present Perfect – for example, just so that they notice that it is not a straight forward word-by-word translation. However, if the grammar explanation is complex to the point of reaching the need for L1, the student will probably have attained a linguistic level in which using L2 won’t get in the way.

22 04 2012

Dear Lueli,
You touched upon a crucial point: if the L1 is needed, then perhaps it’s the type of grammar explanation that perhaps shouldn’t be given at that point!
Thanks for sharing your insights and contributing to this enriching conversation!
All the best,

23 04 2012

Great post, Isabela!

I didn’t attend Swan’s presentation, but it sounds as if it was a great presentation, as usual, except for this comment. And perhaps the real problem was not the comment itself, but the fact that it was made in this one-size-fits-all manner.

I can see a few benefits of the use of L1 in the EFL classroom, but I am concerned about its unecessary overuse. I personally try to reduce the amount of metalanguage in my classroom to a minimum, making more use of examples than expanations. This way I also reduce my need for L1 explanations of grammar rules.


23 04 2012

Hi, Ronaldo. Thank you for your comment. Yes, it was a great talk, by a great author. I agree with your take on the use of metalanguage. And besides, don’t we want to deal with grammar inductively anyway? So it’s the students who should be doing the explaining! Perhaps what we might want to reconsider in our practice is to allow a few instances of this explaining done by the students in their L1, if they can’t do it in L2. Food for thought…

25 04 2012
Gilmar Mattos

Dear Isabela,

Let me join you and the others who were a bit astonished to read about Swan’s new “decision”. I agree the main problem is the fact that he seems to have put it as the rule to be applied to anybody no matter who they are, where they are and how much they might know about English. I really do not believe I personally would have benefited from grammar explanations in Portuguese back in the early 80’s (dates me) when I started learning English. I had an experience with French as well and then Spanish at college and I am really happy my teachers always avoided the use of L1 during our classes. I know some might say this is true for me because those were the days and that I always knew I wanted/needed to learn English well enough to teach it some day or even translate it professionally, which resulted in my going to UNESP to have a degree in translation.
Well, back to my experience in the EFL classroom – having been there for more than 23 years now and maybe because, just like you, I have always loved grammar, I feel really comfortable teaching it using English all the time, or most of the time. It’s interesting I’ve had some students come to me and say they only really understood some concepts in Portuguese grammar after they learned the correspondent structure in English with me. Isn’t it fascinating?
Of course, we must make good use of examples, contextualize/personalize whatever we are teaching as much as possible but I cannot see the point of spending time teaching English grammar in Portuguese even if the likes of Michael Swan tell me so.
Just my 2 cents for this discussion. Thank you for sharing.

25 04 2012

Hi, Gilmar
Thank you for joining our discussion. I’ve had the same comment about understanding Portuguese grammar after learning English grammar.It is said that one of the benefits of learning a foreign language is the greater awareness you develop of your own language. I guess it’s the case here. Anyway, I agree with you 100%.

26 04 2012
translation and the use of L1 in the foreign language class

[…] Update: Here’s another interesting post on translation. […]

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