Rediscovering English grammar for a new generation

| January 28, 2019

You might be surprised to know that Australia has no ‘official’ language.

But since English-speaking colonists landed on Australian shores two centuries ago, the English language has been imposed on its residents.

Before colonisation, there were around 250 Indigenous languages spoken in Australia, but only about 20 are still in daily use by people of all age groups. And in 2005, a report found that 110 Indigenous languages were being spoken exclusively by elders, but not the younger generations.

These days, according to the 2016 census – English, our lingua franca – is the only language spoken in the home of nearly 73 per cent of the Australian population. At the same time, the government now requires immigrants coming into the country to pass a strict English language test.

But despite the fact that English is the imposed language of the land, many native English speakers in Australia don’t actually have a solid grasp of it. This is largely because structured English-language learning was culled from the national curriculum in the 1960s.

It’s only in the last five years that it has been phased back in.

Dr Jean Mulder, a linguist with the School of Languages and Linguistics at the University of Melbourne, has played an instrumental role in shaping the form of explicit English language teaching in the national curriculum for grades Prep to Year 10.

She also played a leading role in designing the Years 11 and 12 English Language subject – one of the three choices available to students to meet their English requirements in VCE in Victoria.

So what effect did the removal of formal grammar and structured language learning from our schools have on our basic understanding of English? And why have we brought it back?

Grammar and the national curriculum

Formal grammar teaching was removed from the national curriculum in the late 60s – part of a trend in anglophone countries like the UK, America and New Zealand, which reflected a growing dissatisfaction with the way grammar was taught.

The rigid prescriptive approach to grammar instruction in the early 1900s in Australia involved a lot of rules, ‘parsing’ (organising sentences into syntactic components), complex sentence structures and a formal vocabulary.

Students spent hours memorising grammatical rules in writing exercises that often lacked any relevance to or context in their lived experience of language. This style of grammar instruction was a straightjacket on the English language, rather than an opportunity for creativity and expression.

The unpopularity of this approach kicked off what is sometimes called the ‘grammar revolution’ in the late 60s; it was an attempt to shift to a functional rather than formal grammatical teaching style, with a greater focus on spoken rather formal written English.

The new idea was that English grammar could be learned osmotically and spontaneously in the classroom through creatively working with texts.

But the resulting curriculum wasn’t rolled out effectively, and explicit English language teaching was basically culled from the curriculum.

“As a result, what we have now are people who know how to use English, but they don’t know how to analyse it or talk about it,” says John Hajek, a language expert and professor with the School of Languages and Linguistics at the University of Melbourne.

The most recent English Language curriculum developments return to explicit grammar teaching.

“The idea now is that any grammar that’s taught should be taught in context, which is very different to how it’s been taught historically,” says Dr Mulder.

In this curriculum, students learn about grammar in relation to their reading, their writing as well as their oral communication.

“They’re not just learning grammar for grammar’s sake.”

Why meta-language matters

According to Professor Hajek, successful English language teaching is not just about strict formal grammar-rule teaching.

“It’s more about what we call ‘metalanguage’.”

Metalanguage describes a way of talking about the categories of language – including verbs, nouns and the many other components.

Metalinguistic awareness is about having the tools to deconstruct language. But, it also opens up a deeper understanding of the way that things like power, gender and objectification appear structurally within a language.

“Linguistic knowledge is about working out all the possibilities, and what you can do with language in every different context,” says Professor Hajek.

Recent studies, particularly in the United States, challenge the findings from the 60s that suggested metalinguistic awareness in English was not improving students’ writing quality. These new studies have found metalinguistic awareness is in fact an important part of students’ ability to express ideas and make well-structured arguments.

For Dr Mulder, getting explicit English language learning back on the curriculum is about improving effective communication in a number of different areas.

“For me, it’s about having a better understanding of language – whether you’re speaking, working in a social media environment, writing an academic text, or you want to effectively use things like parallelisms for stylistic effect in a more formal speech. It’s about being more effective at communicating,” she says.

But for those of us who went through school without grammar, it’s had another unintended effect; it makes learning a second language particularly difficult.

The grammar of language

Fifty years ago, about 40 per cent of all secondary school students in Australia studied a second language into their final year of school. Today, that number is closer to 10 per cent.

While the benefits of learning a second language are wide-ranging and well documented, Australia is falling behind other OECD countries in this area.

According to Professor Hajek, learning the grammar of a second language has often been harder for Australian students to grasp as they have very little or no explicit knowledge of English grammar from their primary or secondary education. And a number of studies support this, connecting first language metalinguistic ability with second language proficiency.

Teaching beginner second-language classes to University students who have no prior metalinguistic knowledge, is a bit like teaching two languages at once; the new language (like Italian, for example), and the metalanguage of their mother tongue.

“With these learners, you have a very short amount of time to facilitate the learning process, and having that shared language of grammar, to talk about the new language you’re learning, really speeds that process up. It makes it richer,” says Professor Hajek.

“It doesn’t mean that we have to spend every lesson understanding the rules of grammar, but we can at least talk about things and deal with things very quickly.”

Native English speakers who have grown up with only one language at home and have no formal metalinguistic awareness are less equipped to learn these processes.

“When native speakers of languages like French, German, Italian or Spanish go to school, they spend quite a lot of time in primary and secondary school coming to terms with the grammar of the language,” he says.

Students in these countries tend to understand the structural underpinnings of their language, and this then enables them to pick up a second, or even third, language far more easily.

“When we’re teaching language at university, it’s a holistic learning process in which there’s a lot of emphasis on culture and there’s an emphasis on speaking, listening, reading, and writing.

“The grammar aspect is used to reinforce that,” he says.

So, when this new generation of grammar-philes pop out the other end of their schooling now, they should be armed with a solid understanding of how their language works and the confidence to use it appropriately and effectively.

This article was written by Sarah Hall and Elizabeth Cassidy of the University of Melbourne and published by Pursuit.