Teaching Grammar Interactively:

A Talk on Language Teaching Methodology

Harold Schiffman,
Professor Emeritus
South Asia Studies Department
University of Pennsylvania

This talk is meant to be accompanied by a videotape of the actual demonstration of teaching grammar interactively to a class in Indonesian, held at SEASSI 1993 in Seattle, WA.

In this demonstration, I use an interactive approach to teach the syntax of noun phrases in Indonesian. I begin with a review of English grammar, eliciting from them whatever explicit knowledge they have of the grammar of English noun phrases, and summarize this on the board: what emerges from this is that English noun phrases contain nouns or pronouns (we define them in a `schoolbook' way as name of a person, place or thing,) adjectives, numerals and other quantifiers, demonstratives (this, that), definite and indefinite articles, and some people even mention gerunds. We establish several things:

  1. In the syntax of English noun phrases, the noun is on the right (as we face the sentence) and the adjectives or other modifiers are to the left.

  2. There is a direction of modification; everything modifies to the right, and not to the left. This may seem obvious, but in other languages (e.g. French, most SEAsian lgs.) this may not be the case. (In the cards I use for each lexical item, they are also marked with an arrow that points in the direction of modification: or ) Text of some sort is printed on the arrow.

  3. Modification needs to be established as a kind of dependency. Modifiers are focused on the `head' that they modify. There is a hierarchy (gasp!) of constituents in the noun phrase (and the sentence in general). The order of constituents is not democratic.

  4. Adjectives in English have no morphological marking that tells us that they are adjectives, but possessives do---they are marked in pronouns with stem alternates, or with the Saxon genitive (apostrophe 's)

After this brief recap of what the students know/remember about this subject, I ask for volunteers to represent the constituents of an English noun phrase. I have prepared large cards with nouns, adjectives, and other modifers on them, and they have to organize themselves into an acceptable Noun Phrase They do this with some reluctance and rolling of eyes etc. because at this point they see it as childish. However it does require them to cooperate in producing an acceptable Noun Phrase, and it reminds them that the order is not free---the adjectives are closest to the Noun, the quantifiers in front of the adjs, the demonstratives before that, etc. They begin to realize that there is something here we haven't discussed, and which may have never been known explicitly by them up to this point---that the order of constituents in a Noun Phrase is not random. The cooperative aspect leads them to learn this experientially, rather than from the grammarian speaking ex cathedra.

On the reverse side of each card with English on it I have written its Indonesian equivalent. The received knowledge about Indonesian Noun Phrase syntax ... is that it is the mirror image of English Noun Phrase syntax, i.e. `just put all the stuff over on the other side.' At this point I tell them that we are going to convert the English Noun Phrase into an Indonesian Noun Phrase; I have the modifiers turn their backs, link arms, and pivot around the noun into positions on the right of the noun. Everyone flips their card, and the Indonesian Noun Phrase appears.

However, it turns out that this is not correct. I have deliberately included a numeral in the lineup, and Indonesian cardinal numerals are not found on the right of the Noun, only ordinal numerals. To make a cardinal numeral ordinal, a prefix ke- must be added, i.e. tiga `three' must be converted to ketiga `3rd'. But this may change the meaning of the sentence, so we have to decide what we want. If we want to retain the meaning `3', we have to send the numeral back to the other side.

In this demonstration here, I also do an explicit activity involving a `possessive' Noun Phrase, i.e. `my child's teacher's name' since there is the difference that English possessives are morphologically marked, but Indonesian possessives are not. When a phrase like English `my child's teacher's name' is converted into its Indonesian equivalent, the syntax is the mirror image of English, i.e. nama guru anak saya, but there is no marking of possession; this business of stringing out a series of nouns or pronouns tends to throw English speakers for a loop when they first encounter it, and also because saya means both `I' and `my', depending on the syntax. That is, it is the syntax alone that indicates possession here; if a Noun follows a Noun in Indonesian, the relationship is one of possession, i.e. A + B means `B's A'. English speakers expect some kind of marker of possession (stem-alternate pronouns I/my, apostrophe s). I emphasize this point because it is a sticking point---the constituents are indeed in the mirror image order in Indonesian, but that's all you get.

At this point I ask for volunteers to organize some noun phrases using cards I have prepared, or to prepare other cards. I ask for a volunteer to represent a noun, who is then expected to recruit some other modifiers to form a sentence. Again, some reluctance and eye-rolling, but when the students are on their own, things may sort of fall apart unless they cooperate. I remind the noun that she is in charge; it's her Noun Phrase, and she needs to organize it (reminding them that this is not a free-for-all, there is a hierarchy). This she does, and the others have to cooperate by lining up appropriately.

Then we convert the Noun Phrase to an Indonesian Noun Phrase, and as I had hoped, there is a problem. There is a quantifier banyak `many, much' which has gotten onto the wrong side, and it must be sent back. But wait; the teacher in this class points out that banyak MAY occur on the right, but with a different meaning: here it would mean THE many ... Here we have another insight about Indonesian Noun Phrase syntax that is not usually explicitly taught. Another problem is that one cannot have a long string of adjectives in Indonesian comparable to English `the many large blue expensive cars' etc. When there are multiple adjectives in Indonesian, relative clauses must be employed using yang etc.

The students are beginning to get serious now; they realize that this process reveals things that they did not know (their teachers know it, but don't explicitly teach it), but has not been explicitly dealt with in the grammars, the teaching materials etc. of Indonesian. They stop acting silly and begin to think about what is going on. There is a discovery process going on; they are discovering things they did not know, and we are leading them to that discovery.

Pedagogically, now, we need to build on this realization process here by continuing to have students make up a few more Noun Phrases. One could

  1. Choose someone to represent another Noun, have him/her recruit constituents and arrange them.

  2. Following this, another activity might be introduced: the teacher divides the class into teams and gives them some `incorrect' Indonesian sentences to correct; first team to finish `wins' (this introduces some competition).

  3. Another activity: give out scrambled Noun Phrases (everything in the wrong order) and students have a fixed time to decipher and unscramble the Noun Phrase.

  4. Working in pairs, students could be given a portion of an Indonesian dialogue/story in which all Noun Phrases have been put in the wrong order (e.g. English order) and they first have to fix their sentences, and then work with other students to see how their sentences fit together into a coherent dialogue. Everyone cooperates to produce the final product. This could be done with a dialogue they know;

  5. Follow up with a similar dialogue they don't know.

Why Not Just Do Chalk-Talks?

The question typically arises here as to why this is better pedagogically than the usual `chalk-talk' grammar session, where the teacher writes things on the board and lectures to the students. After all, someone will be sure to mention, `the content is exactly the same.' This is absolutely true. However, when I use this approach I notice the following:

  1. Attention Students pay attention when this kind of demo is going on. There is an element of tension and surprise; they don't know what will happen next. In a `chalk-talk' grammar session, many people act bored, go to sleep, or at best try to pay attention but don't get it. One has to repeat the same explanation over and over, to the same students, forever.

  2. Remembering Students remember their `part' in the demo weeks or months afterward, and one can call on this memory to remind them, e.g. `Where were you when you were an English ADJ, and where were you when you were an Indonesian ADJ?" In a CTGS, one is relying only on visual and auditory channels for learning, and there are abstractions that may be clear to the teacher but not to the student. Many students expect to be mystified by grammar, and consider it a tedious chore.

  3. Learning Channels In this kind of demo, another channel for learning is open; I am not sure what this is cognitively, but perhaps they remember the `motion' or the spatial relations (where they were standing with regard to others) when they might not remember what they got through the visual/auditory channel. With motion there may be EMOTION; they remember how it felt to be moving around, etc.

  4. Chalk-Talk Grammar Sessions. In Chalk-Talk Grammar Sessions, I think there is a kind of unwitting `slight-of hand' that takes place with the eraser and the chalk: one deletes this, moves that, crosses out this; things disappear and are never heard of again (and in fact are not accounted for). In this approach, no constituent that is deleted can be ignored; if you are teaching relativization, and deleting anaphoric nouns, they have to go somewhere and wait. I will put them in a special corner of the room (call it the Lexicon, or Limbo), and remind the students that they haven't been just deep-sixed. Or I send the Noun out to recruit a relative pronoun to replace her, and she goes into Limbo; this process gets remembered where a chalk-talk won't be. I capitalize on the melodrama of the deletion process to ham it up a bit---evoke some pity for the poor deleted Noun; or use a sports metaphor and send the constituent `to the showers'; whatever evokes some `emotion' will be remembered.

  5. Action If one thinks about the way children learn language, it is clear they seem to learn action verbs by doing the action. They won't learn the verb `jump' without themselves jumping. The motions children go through to internalize the meaning of these words seem to be remembered by them in ways that are unlike using the auditory and visual channels. There is no evidence that this facility is lost as one ages, and that only auditory and visual channels are operative. Yet we act in much of our university teaching as if it is. One can capitalize on this natural desire to move and be active by having students act out what they are representing; action verbs and verbs of motion can be acted out (sitting, reading, standing, running) while psychological or stative verbs can dramatize the passivity of their experience. Adjectives can act like the state they represent; one can even get fancy and have costumes or disguises (masks etc.) to show changes of state: Now you're the nominative case; put on this wig and you're the dative case; go into a phone booth and change from active to passive, whatever.

  6. The Vanity of Grammarians Grammarians have to face the fact that they are often enamored of their knowledge and erudition and love nothing more than to talk endlessly about grammar, and to build abstract models. They have to live in a world, however, where many people have no use for grammatical discussions. Perhaps grammarians' long grammatical explanations are only serving their own needs; if students are not learning what is placed in front of them, perhaps a different strategy needs to be employed. An interactive approach forces the teacher to get away from the abstract grammatical explanation and make it more concrete; it also must follow a script more closely (because of the props) and it cannot wander and deal with too many levels of things at once. It constantly forces the teacher to think about each issue being dealt with, and what to follow it with. The teacher has not abdicated the teaching role; s/he is still covering the same material; but she has abdicated the lecturing role.

    Nothing in this approach requires us to throw out our reference grammars and syntax handouts; they are a good way to summarize what has been presented, and may be useful for some students who wish to actually look up some point of grammar. These students are in the minority, however.

One final point; why do I start with English word order and not just skip to Indonesian?

  1. Firstly I believe that students, given no other information, will construct sentences in the word order they think is natural, that of their mother tongue. They may not explicitly be able to describe the syntax of their mother tgongue, but they know it intuitively, and will use it. I begin by getting this information out into the open, and then make them do, by acting out the constituents, what they do mentally anyway: start with English word order and convert it to Indonesian. In the process problems arise, and we can then deal with those problems.

  2. Secondly, if we ask students to start with Indonesian, we are starting with their explicit knowledge, and typically only the `good' students will volunteer the information, while many others will keep silent.

  3. Thirdly I also want them to realize that there is structure in their language, and terminology for describing it, that they haven't thought about, so that when structure of an Indonesian Noun Phrase is described, they won't think of it only as a property of Indonesian. People who teach grammar to American learners of other languages often complain that American students don't know any grammar or any of the terminology. This is a way to `review' and elicit this knowledge without lecturing them about it.

  4. When I demonstrated this lesson to a group of Indonesian teachers, it became apparent to me that the fact that there is a problem with numerals and quantifiers is not usually explicitly taught in Indonesian classes. The Indonesian teachers knew implicitly, of course, that the numeral was wrong on the right, but didn't immediately think of the solution of sending it back to the left; they opted for a solution which preserved the syntax, but changed the meaning, i.e. converting tiga `3' to ketiga `3rd'. Cooperatively, however, we decided to solve the problem by correcting the syntax rather than the morphology, because we did not want to create the illusion that one can solve this problem by converting tiga to ketiga; it makes the phrase grammatical, but it is an ad hoc solution.

Harold Schiffman
last modified October, 2007