French without grammar

October 4, 1996

School-leavers' proficiency in English grammar may be declining but this has little bearing on students' abilities to learn a foreign language at university, says a report from Lancaster University.

The report challenges assertions that learning a foreign language, in this case French, is helped by a sound knowledge of English grammar and syntax.

But the report does confirm popular, though hitherto unsupported, perceptions that students' grammatical knowledge is declining. It found that understanding of English language structure - described as metalinguistic knowledge - fell in first-year students between 1986 and 1994. Many latterday students understood little more than "verb" and "noun".

The research team, led by Charles Alderson and including Caroline Clapham and David Steel, were surprised to discover that there was a low correlation between metalinguistic ignorance and the ability to learn the structures of another language. The report summary says: "Any instruction which assumes that incoming students know more than 'noun' or 'verb' will cause problems for many students. University teachers must be aware of this."

But the summary goes on to say: "The project concludes that, while knowledge about language may be worthwhile for language learners in its own right, there is no evidence from our study to justify the teaching of metalinguistic knowledge as a means of improving linguistic proficiency."

The research was carried out among first-year students at Aston, Edinburgh, Keele, Lancaster, Portsmouth, Salford and Southampton. Tests of meta-linguistic knowledge, adapted to English and French, allowed the team to measure and identify relationships between abilities.

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