Tongue lashing

November 13, 1998

We were puzzled by the simplistic dichotomy between grammar and communication presupposed by Alan Thomson's article "Double speak" (THES October 30). The suggestion that pendulums swing back and forth from "studying grammar" to expecting students to "pick the language up" with no explicit focus on rules has little correspondence to the work that goes on in language departments.

Far from encouraging language teachers to dispense with grammar teaching, Noam Chomsky's view of first language development provides the theoretical underpinning for an approach to language teaching that allows learners to build up a model of the rules of the language.

Communicative language teaching does not imply an unwillingness to "stifle natural communicative abilities with grammatical rules". It is based on the assumption that those rules will most successfully be grasped if grammatical structures are encountered and practised in the context of speech acts that justify their use and illuminate their communicative import in the foreign language.

It is true that the grammatical weaknesses of first-year students are a cause for concern. But a continuing obsession with two "extreme" (and mythical) positions is no way to move forward. It is surely time to go beyond such a sterile debate when university teachers confront a much greater challenge: the need to reassess our pedagogical objectives faced with changing student expectations and experience.

It would be helpful for journalists not to confuse readers with doubly false notions of language acquisition and teaching in UK universities.

George Ferzoco, Ann Miller, Yvette Rocheron School of modern languages University of Leicester

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