Form, Use, Consciousness

Key topics in L2 grammar instruction With a Preface by Anthony J. Liddicoat (Professor of Applied Linguistics, University of Warwick)

by Thomas Szende (Author)
©2020 Monographs 252 Pages


Every language universe is both close to and far removed from our own. In a way, learning a foreign language is like not getting off at our usual stop and staying on the bus until we arrive at the terminal. The unfamiliar neighborhoods we discover are both similar to and different from what we know. Learners tackle an L2 using a variety of experiences acquired in their L1, and this new language system works as part of a network of previously existing grammar models and social categories.
The purpose of this book is not to revisit the pros and cons of teaching grammar. Learning an L2 appears as the gradual ability to realize which language features to select and prioritize to express a particular idea. Speaking in any L2 requires specific tools, and describing reality through new linguistic means involves a mental restructuring to which learners—particularly adults and older adolescents—are sometimes resistant. Indeed, not all information produced in an L2 and disclosed to the learners will necessarily be applied to language acquisition. If, by some miracle, this were the case, there would be no need for any reflection on the teaching and learning of grammar.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Preface
  • 1. Foreword
  • 2. Introduction
  • 3. Language and Grammar
  • 3.1. Production and Comprehension
  • 3.2. System or Description?
  • 3.3. A Work in Progress
  • 3.4. Norms and Variation
  • 4. Grammar in the Classroom
  • 4.1. Negotiation
  • 4.2. Autonomization
  • 4.3. Optimization
  • 4.4. Bifocalization
  • 5. Transposition and Metalanguage
  • 5.1. Teachable Subjects
  • 5.2. Rigor or Approximation?
  • 5.3. Interpretive Hypotheses
  • 5.4. A Truth Contract
  • 6. Target Language Models
  • 6.1. Authenticity
  • 6.2. Examples
  • 6.3. Texts
  • 6.4. Contextual Information
  • 7. Use and Reuse
  • 7.1. Practice Exercises
  • 7.2. Tasks
  • 7.3. Repetition
  • 7.4. Pronunciation
  • 8. Grammar and Progression
  • 8.1. Learnability
  • 8.2. Units
  • 8.3. Grammatical Maturity
  • 8.4. Teaching Scenarios
  • 9. Needs and Profiles
  • 9.1. Fear of Grammar
  • 9.2. Fluctuating Desires
  • 9.3. Grammar Cultures
  • 9.4. Individualization
  • 10. Rules and Exceptions
  • 10.1. Solutions and Priorities
  • 10.2. “That Can’t Be Right”
  • 10.3. Prototypical and Reproducible
  • 10.4. Complexity
  • 11. Error
  • 11.1. Interlanguage
  • 11.2. Language Transfer
  • 11.3. Correction
  • 11.4. Assessment
  • 12. Grammar and Vocabulary
  • 12.1. An Intricate Maze
  • 12.2. Dictionaries
  • 12.3. Pre-Constructed Sequences
  • 12.4. Conceptual Structures
  • 13. Accuracy—Appropriateness
  • 13.1. Form-Function Mappings
  • 13.2. A Malleable Dough
  • 13.3. Active L2 Grammar
  • 13.4. Successful Verbal Exchanges
  • 14. Discursive Practices
  • 14.1. A Linear Order
  • 14.2. The Mouse Eats the Cat
  • 14.3. General and Specialized
  • 14.4. What Is Unspoken
  • 15. Getting into Grammar
  • 15.1. Knowing “What” and Knowing “How”
  • 15.2. Implicit L2 Knowledge
  • 15.3. Explicit L2 Knowledge
  • 15.4. Noticing
  • 16. Room for Reflection
  • 16.1. Getting a Grasp of the Material
  • 16.2. Taking a Step Back
  • 16.3. Micro-Skills
  • 16.4. A Product of History
  • 17. Contrastive Analysis
  • 17.1. From L1 Grammar to L2 Grammar
  • 17.2. The Specific Logic of L2
  • 17.3. Languages Near and Far
  • 17.4. Translation
  • 18. Teaching Grammar Through Technology
  • 18.1. Class and Cyberspace
  • 18.2. Multimodality and Gaming
  • 18.3. Sustainability
  • 18.4. Corpora
  • 19. Grammar and Communication
  • 19.1. An Optimal Balance
  • 19.2. Working Points of Reference
  • 19.3. Grammatical Ability
  • 19.4. Resources for Interaction
  • 20. Afterword
  • References

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Contemporary language teaching involves a recognition of the complexity of what needs to be learned by students in order to use a language for communication and engagement in linguistic and cultural diversity. One of the problems of teaching in times of complexity is that some aspects tend to be side-lined not only in teaching practice but also in research and theorizing. This has often been the case with teaching grammar, which has tended to be backgrounded in some ways of thinking about language teaching in favor of activities that focus on communication or intercultural understanding. The challenge in times of complexity is not to see engagement with the complexity as a series of either/or choices in which selecting one focus means ignoring another but rather to work towards ways that allow for the fullness of complexity to enter into the classroom and into learners’ experiences. Thomas Szende examines the teaching and learning of grammar in this spirit and seeks to achieve an integration of grammar into the complexities of modern language learning and the requirement for learners not only to know about a language but also to use it in productive and complex ways.

This raises the question then of what is the place of grammar in the complexity of language teaching. This question requires considerable reflection as it does not simply involve a return to the times of a more grammar-centered practice but rather the field needs to consider how grammar is involved in enabling newer agendas and goals for learning. For teachers to understand this requires more than just a theory of grammar and of grammar teaching and also requires more than just a documenting of teachers’ experiences as teachers of grammar. Classroom practice involves connecting theoretical knowledge with pedagogical knowledge in ways that facilitate learning and scaffold learners’ language development. For teachers to engage with the complexities of language teaching and learning requires both practice and theory, and their integration. Szende models this well in his book, which grows out of both long experience as a language teacher and deep knowledge of grammatical theory. What is important is that theory and practice are not seen in dichotomous ways that contrast theory and practice and construct a linear relationship between them in which theory is generative of principles for practice that can then be applied. Such a belief is a perpetuation of the Aristotelian framing of disciplines as theoretical, productive or practical depending on the telos, or purpose, each serves, whether knowledge, production or practice. This hierarchical view of disciplines has resulted in a belief in a hierarchy of disciplines that has led to theory being seen as superior to practice. Such a hierarchical view of theory and practice is problematic for the productive development of the field of language teaching and learning, which requires a more dialogic, praxis-oriented ←13 | 14→way to engage theory and practice. Theory need to be informed by practice as much as practice needs to be informed by theory; practice needs to be theorized as much as theory needs to be put into practice. Szende’s work is both theoretical and practical and exemplifies a praxis of grammar teaching in which both theory and practice serve as equally valid starting points and are brought into an integration in which the purpose is effective language leaning and use.

In drawing on practice as one of the starting points for reflecting on the teaching of grammar, Szende draws on his experience of teaching a language, Hungarian, that has been largely marginalized in language education both as a language to be taught and as a source of reflection on the nature of language teaching. Much of the way in which modern approaches to language teaching and learning, including the teaching and learning of grammar, have been developed has been based on theories and practices developed through a small number of languages, most especially English. There has largely been a monodirectional process of development in which theory and practice developed through and in relation to a small number of languages has been communicated to the rest of the world and adopted into the teaching and learning of other languages. There has been little communication in the other direction and few opportunities for ‘small’ languages to inform language education. Such monodirectionality inevitably results in limited epistemologies entering into educational thinking and risks losing insights from the diversity of contexts of language teaching and learning. Each language and each educational context produces a unique lense through which to view language education. As language education is ultimately a field that promotes engagement with diversity, the opportunity to learn from perspectives derived from different sources is especially welcome and especially significant.

Drawing on his lengthy extensive background as a foreign language teacher and researcher, Thomas Szende has succeeded in creating a comprehensive and nuanced book for teachers who want to learn more about grammar and how to approach grammar in their teaching. Szende underscores that, in teaching grammar, the goal is to show learners how the language works and the enable the creative use of the language system rather than to teach grammar rules for their own sake. This book offers a wide ranging discussion of ideas for thinking about and teaching grammar for learners that will benefit both teachers and their learners alike.

Anthony J. Liddicoat, University of Warwick

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“Grau, teurer Freund, ist alle Theorie.

Und grün des Lebens goldner Baum.”

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–832)1

Recently I was invited to a symposium on the diversity of language learners. To illustrate my presentation (Szende, 2018a), I had asked my native French-speaking students about the specific difficulties they face when learning Hungarian, which I teach at the National Institute of Oriental Languages and Civilizations (INALCO) in Paris, France.

The language class, which connects individuals, is a “projective” space for future learning. It is also a “reflective” space about past learning paths and events, and for continually questioning how our approaches affect our students. Their attitudes are undoubtedly linked to their perceptions of the L2 and also to their self-image as learners of this language. There is nothing more exciting than hearing them speak, giving substance to the way they understand how the language-learning materials work. Learners conceive their own place within the social space of the language class, where they forge their knowledge while uniquely shaping their voice for the target community. We can see how the identity display of learners is not unlike the attitudes that teachers themselves adopt to convey representations of the languages/cultures they are responsible for transmitting.

In learning Hungarian, most of my students have expressed the headache of memorizing long lists of words, evoking the massive lexical anarchy that they must tackle. There is no doubt that the wealth of lexical information can create real difficulties, and that the lack of vocabulary causes regular interruptions in conversation. Knowing words is undeniably necessary to be able to understand and be understood. Learners are right to think that depriving them of words means that they would no longer be able to construct sentences (Szende, 2018b).

However, would switching from one language to another—in this case from an Indo-European language to a Finno-Ugric/Uralic language—be a simple matter of replacing the labels attached to language units? Indeed, the simple grasp of vocabulary is a very necessary but insufficient condition for mastering ←15 | 16→a language. Based on these anecdotes, is the emphasis on vocabulary not based on an unconscious premise that knowing isolated words is enough to use them efficiently in speech?

My students do not talk much about their grammar weaknesses. However, grammar cannot be easily avoided. Some believe that it hinders proper language learning; however, nothing could be further from the truth. We tend to believe that we develop L2 skills by communicating. But to interact in a language, we need structured tools as well as the ability to identify the specific nature of the constructions used in comparison to other constructions. Learners embark on the adventure of acquiring an L2 with the necessary baggage of their first language and the various deeply rooted patterns of their L1. To express their thoughts, they must perform multiple operations (i.e., connection, determination, localization, quantification). While learners may be motivated to produce and understand L2 statements, they constantly need to select, assemble, and organize new linguistic material. They are quick to realize their grammatical limitations, even when they tend to blame them on their lack of vocabulary.

The “naive” segmentation of morphological and syntactic structures is a constant source of error. Given the large variety of potential analyses, it is unlikely that students, especially in the early stages of their learning, will break down an L2 in the same way that linguists segment words and sentences. In language, not everything can be easily segmented; for example, a radical may never exist in its natural state, even as an element of identification. Hearing that “the root of a word always carries its meaning, which is specified by an extension” is the dream of any language learner craving precise formulas. However, a word can have several roots, and its extensions may or may not be regular. So what can we do when we are unable to predict the genitive or accusative form of a word with any certainty?

We can identify two extreme attitudes when it comes to grammar (Challe, 2001: 181). We can (a) isolate it and make it into a kind of religion, or (b) bury it in the language, which sometimes amounts to rejecting it. I am not aware of any “zero grammar approach” with proven effectiveness. Grammar has always been present in the classroom and is essential for learning languages in a non-natural context, regardless of the skill priorities (i.e., reading, writing, listening, speaking).

We might say at this point that any language class that does not offer learners the opportunity to access the language is not a language class at all. Undoubtedly, the grammatical objective must be skillfully articulated around the requirements of interpersonal communication; however, there is no such thing as the “communicative whole.” Paradoxically, communicating does not necessarily lead to communication skills. Knowing a language means knowing how to communicate successfully, and we use grammar to structure messages and convey intentions as clearly as possible.

Even the most modern and contextualized language teaching methods are a poor substitute for the more systematic treatment of forms. In order to motivate learners as much as possible, teachers can create the illusion of “reversing” the ←16 | 17→traditional language learning itinerary with sequences that can be used directly in daily interactions in a way that encourages the class’s active participation (Szende, 2019a). However, purely communicative learning within a “functional whole” does not exist. At some point, if learners are to understand the usefulness of correctly using forms, we have to draw their attention to the components and how they come together within the L2.

Many everyday key expressions can be identified, stored, and used by speakers with a very modest grammatical background. For example, specialized training programs targeting learners who are not interested in a lengthy course or in understanding every linguistic structure and function avoid focusing on each grammar point. The Framework refers to situations marked by a kind of “semi-automated behavior”: “There are cases where the learning objective is limited to the more or less stereotyped carrying out of certain tasks that may involve limited linguistic elements” (CEFR—Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, 2001: One such example is the switchboard operator, whose “multilingual” performance is limited to the production of a few fixed formulas relating to routine operations.

Ready-made expressions are ideal for impressing native speakers in limited interactions. However, as language teachers, we know that managing speaking time is not enough and that even a well-organized lesson can result in only a limited amount of active learning. For dealing with simple situations, routinely learning speech acts and memorizing sets of formulas (e.g., expressions learned in ritualized classroom situations) is not enough. Formulaic expressions provide only part of the knowledge and skills that are required to perform communicative functions: “Alone, they do not guarantee successful communication” (Taguchi, Li, & Tang, 2017). Grammar is necessary if we want to understand and above all, produce more than phatic or fixed expressions.

The objectives of learning languages are continually evolving: our parents read the great classics while our children (inter)act in a globalized and multicultural world. A few decades ago, it was assumed that the linguistic code, as such, should no longer be taught and that only the language’s communication skills and actions should be learned. It is not surprising, then, that many of these methods promise the acquisition of a language not only within a short period but also without difficulty. Decades of teaching, focused primarily on meaningful social and communicative contexts, have not tarnished grammar. Today, the limitations of communicative and task-based approaches have led researchers to “reclaim” the grammatical fundamentals of teaching.

My field of expertise is the teaching and learning of foreign languages in an institutional environment, where everything is structured to ensure that learning takes place. As a leading institution for learning “languages other than English” (LOTEs), INALCO is an ideal observatory for teaching foreign languages and cultures that are typologically and genetically diverse (or “rare,” as we often say), and represents a fertile ground for reflection on L2 grammar.

←17 | 18→

In France, the term “rare language” means both (a) a language that is not widely taught to a limited audience and (b) a language that is difficult to master because its structures are different from those of Indo-European languages. In a world where English dominates multilingual communication, some languages may be crippled by their reputation for having complicated and hard to acquire grammar. With its many categories that are strange to foreign learners, Hungarian does not escape this reputation, which can be an obstacle to its acquisition and promotion.

We develop certain beliefs about speakers and their languages. To a naive observer, Hungarian looks like a jumble of CS, SZ, and ZS letters, and sounds like a series of aspirated H’s, rolled R’s, and strangely long vowels such as É and Á. We often hear about the beauty, performativity, or inaccessibility of a language. In Hungary, the Magyars have some strong opinions about their own language, believing that Hungarian is an orphan (rokontalan), ancestral (ősi), small (kis nyelv), or separate language (egyedülálló). And now we come to the central notion of Hungarian as a difficult language (nehéz nyelv) with a complicated grammar. In practice, once its basic mechanics have been mastered, Hungarian is a very logical language containing few exceptions. But stereotypes die hard, including narrow or discriminatory prejudices, as evidenced by the saying a magyar az ördög nyelve [Hungarian is the language of the devil] which has long stigmatized the Csango people, a Hungarian-speaking ethnic minority in Romania’s Moldavia.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2020 (August)
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2020. 252 p.

Biographical notes

Thomas Szende (Author)

Thomas Szende is Professor of Hungarian and Applied Linguistics at INALCO (National Institute of Oriental Languages and Civilizations, Paris, France) and Director of the EA 4514 PLIDAM Research Center. His academic interests focus on second-language acquisition as well as Hungarian grammar, bilingual lexicography, and translation. He has published several books, including Second Culture Teaching and Learning (Peter Lang, 2014) and The Foreign Language Appropriation Conundrum: Micro Realities & Dynamics (P.I.E-Peter Lang, 2016).


Title: Form, Use, Consciousness
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254 pages