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I was having a conversation with one of my students the other day that reminded me of an experience I’d had several years ago. The conversation was about confidence and what makes us feel nervous when we use a second language. My student, who is Japanese, told me that although she can understand a lot, she struggles to communicate verbally because she is afraid of making a grammatical error. The experience which sprang to mind was from the time I worked as a business English teacher in Paris, where I spent the best part of an hour trying to come up with the correct way, in French, to ask for a stamp. I felt like my knowledge of vocabulary was reasonably good after living there for two months, so why was it still difficult to actually use the language when I needed to?
My student and I agreed that our perception of vocabulary being threaded together with grammar was the problem. Grammar is often responsible for slowing down the learning process and a different approach is needed.
Is grammar necessary?
When my student uses her first language, she is unaware of grammatical structure and speaks using ‘lexical frames’. Adopting this approach to learning languages is more effective because the process is already familiar to the user.
Examples of lexical frames in English:
“it’s up to you”
“as a matter of fact”
“what a surprise!”
Seen as individual words in isolation, these phrases seem daunting to my student because they don't appear to make sense. However, when treated as chunks of language, like in the examples above, the user need only know the context of the lexical frame with no grammatical analysis required. Another example, particularly relevant for Japanese learners, is the misuse of the present perfect tense. The sequence of verb tenses is so different in both languages that students are often held back, but if we look at “have you ever” questions as a lexical frame, grammar interference becomes less important.
The rationale behind using a lexical approach in second language learning is an important consideration for the teacher and student. With increased confidence, students are able to use the language in ordinary situations more frequently. Although error prone at first, if they apply these lexical frames to everyday speech, they can learn from their mistakes whilst getting plenty of practice. Besides, it is important to bear in mind that the vast majority of native speakers do not always use lexical frames accurately. This is ultimately what defines fluency and cannot necessarily be found in textbooks.