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/.

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