All posts by writingblogst

“Expressing” Grammar

Drawing is one of my favorite hobbies. It is very personal and expressive. I had a few opportunities to attend drawing classes as electives in my undergraduate college life and the thing that I remember vividly the most is frustration. The professors were keen on establishing and enforcing the rules as we exercised drawing, which only served as an obstacle more than anything else. Their common belief was creating a foundation onto which the student could built upon but I did not share the same belief. Rules do not build foundations, they only serve as overall guidelines to form a standard. If one wants to express complex thoughts or feelings, sometimes the rules that may hinder their depth need to be broken. Drawing is an art form of emotional exercise and study of expression. So is the language.

I have always viewed grammar as the rules that dictated the structure of a language. Although their importance is undoubtful, the degree of restriction that they impose is exigent. The article, Grammar, Grammars, and the Teaching of Grammar by Patrick Hartwell, presents the clash of ideals about how to implement grammar in language pedagogy. The two sides of the spectrum are identified as proponents and opponents, or more preferably as grammarians and anti-grammarians, respectively. I tend to fall into the camp of opponents but I believe it is important to note that my position is based on my own personal experience. In the article, it is suggested that “teaching grammar does no harm” by the proponents but I would disagree. Making someone aware of the rules beforehand makes them aware of their own errors and “degrades their performance”. More often than not, I have observed students who fail to express their thoughts because they make an unintended stop over an error and attempt to correct it. This is something I have also struggled with during my own language acquisition.

Throughout my high school life, learning grammar was always the top priority in my ESL and ENG courses. Present perfect tense was the most complicated. I was perfectly (no pun intended) fine doing exercises on paper but I could never actively use that tense in speech. Looking back, I believe the major reason of difficulty in transition was too much emphasis being placed on the form rather than implementation in discourse. I have seen many of my own students struggle with the same transitional problems. Exercises such as fill-in-the-blank or error correcting do not necessarily help someone to develop the grammatical skill to utilize it in language but for whatever reason every grammar book, regardless of proficiency level, seem to include variations of these activities and do not offer much else. As the article suggests, the best approach would be. I managed to learn how to actively use the present perfect tense after writing essays in my senior year at high school. Although there was grammar correcting, it was not the priority of the essays. My focus was to organize my thoughts and present them to an audience.

Grammar can be considered “the internalized system that native speakers of a language share”, as suggested in the article. The key term in this particular definition is “internalized” as it hints at how grammar often exercised by native speakers; unconsciously. Children began using their native language by simple repetitions. They obtain phrases or short sentences used on daily basis from those around them, particularly their parents, by listening. Then, they recite those phrases or short sentences themselves until they develop an aptitude to mold their own language. The exposure to the rules of the language comes later down the road; most likely at elementary school. Some instructors believe that this particular approach is much more efficient in implementing grammar in comparison to a much traditional one. I would often give the example of “what time is it?” to my students in class. The idea was to examine the possibility of learning through repetition. The question “what time is it?” is not something that they would create from ground-up using grammar. I would suggest that the same method could be applied to longer sentences or even daily conversations. Practice of communication could improve their grammar better than constructing sentences by following rules listed in front of them because they would not only repeat the sentences but the grammar as well. It would be a recreation of the method of how children tend to learn grammar as mentioned.

One of the misconceptions that many instructors have is “all the rules taught will be learned” and it is simply not true. The overwhelming amount of rules, especially when enough time of exercising is not given, run the potential of negating each other. Delving into the complexities of language is more challenging for students than most instructors seem to realize; “mental baggage” of a student is a real issue. Each proficiency level has set of grammatical items that the language learner is expected to utilize but not necessarily be able to offer reasoning for their usage. Hence, overwhelming a learner by introducing every single rule is not necessary. In my experience, offering the most basics and allowing the students to apply them correctly had the potential to encourage students to broaden their ambitions. They had the illusion that they were already using correct grammar and thus they could easily shift their focus more on other skills, such as speaking or writing. More complex grammar could be taught by repeated exposure through these skills and acquired unconsciously. Sometimes, it is easier to haul if you do not see the size.

There is an unfortunate disadvantage to that natural method however. It is something that I was reminded of after doing the adjective exercise offered in the article. The exercise was simply to place the listed words in proper order. I was able to form the correct sentence of “the four young French girls” as expected, but I was not able to express the reasoning. It was simply natural. As most native speakers would agree, sometimes it is impossible to explain why certain things need to be in a certain way. When an error is detected, the vague explanation tends to be “it just does not sound right”. This is a problem that I often deal with and I believe it is due to how I acquired grammar. The unconscious utilization of it creates a challenge to present it. There are many grammatical rules that I am unconsciously aware of but offering elaborate explanation instead of “it is just the way it is” proves to be more laborious than I would like; especially as a language instructor.

I always had difficulty with grammar trees. Other instructors, the ones who learned grammar traditionally and utilize it consciously, are incredibly fast with constructing grammar trees for complex sentences. It is like puzzle-solving on advance level. I think the suggested correlation between “the study of grammar and the ability to think logically” comes from this particular aspect but I would argue that logical thinking does not necessarily need to be a conscious effort. Inability to explain something is often confused with lesser cognition. I tend to compare this difference to people who utilize one side of their brain more than the other. Some people, the left-side dominant ones, excel in mathematical skills and memorization. This probably makes it easier for them to exercise grammar in more detail. Other people, the right-side dominant ones, excel in artistic merits and emphasize the bigger picture more than its details. Obviously, this is not a conclusive notion but more of a suggestion of possibility. The instructors who could ace grammar trees were much better at presenting the rules of the language but not so well at actually using it in real life. I guess the satisfactory lies on the position of the individual.

Teaching grammar is and probably always will be a controversial topic among language instructors. I can only offer my perspective based on my own experience to the conversation. The best way to state how to approach this issue would be by the statement in the article, and I strongly agree, that we should “see it not as a cognitive or linguistic problem but rather as a problem of metacognition and metalinguistic awareness, a matter of accessing knowledges that learners must have already internalized by means of exposure to the code.” I believe the students of language are more than capable of attaining this metalinguistic awareness and develop a “syntactic sophistication”, as long as they have freedom to practice their voice and attain it by natural means as opposed to methodically.

A Walk Down Memory Lane

One of my favorite idioms of English language happens to be ‘taking a walk down memory lane’. I wonder if it is any coincidence that the article for this week’s class discussion allowed me to experience it firsthand. Too many memories that involve overcoming challenges in learning a new language rushed through my mind as I read the article Teaching Composition in the Multilingual World by Paul Kei Matsuda. It was as if my entire background in second language acquisition summed up in that single article.

I do not find myself overwhelmingly inspired by articles that I read but I feel compelled to bring my ‘A-game’ in composing this particular blog entry because it is as if an implicit challenge was made and I would like to believe that I possess the level of proficiency to face it.

In his article, Paul Kei Matsuda presents the notion that “no one is the native speaker of writing”. The ability to write is not exclusive to a nation but the language used in writing could very well be. As we have discussed in our previous class, the construction of voice in composition is influenced by culture and it is one of the key aspects that bridge the gap between the minds of the writer and the reader. I believe the influence of culture do not only shape the analysis of the writer but the cognition of the reader as well. Thus, it is crucial for a writer to meet that certain set of expectations in order to accomplish an authentic communication.

It is not easy to incorporate a culture into a language born in another. A cultural experience attached to a word or a phrase can be lost in translation and it may not necessarily represent the true feelings of the writer properly. In her article, War in Translation, Lina Mounzer expressed frustration with her attempt to convey certain emotions in English language. This has been a topic of discussion in many of my English and literature classes as it is now. The paranoia “about the English-language reader’s judgment” is a real concern for many second language writers. Utilizing an introspective approach and present it in an intuitive way tends to be the only option in most cases.

Lina Mounzer also presented the notion that circumstances in which a person learns a new language affects that person’s attitude toward it. Luckily, my personal experience was a positive one. My earliest interactions with English language included import comic books. I was an avid comic book reader when I was much younger. There were many international comic books translated and sold by local publishers but my impatient nature provoked me to seek out more obscure ones that were not given the chance to shine on international market. I needed to learn English in order to follow the compelling stories in those books. It was fun. It was exhilarating. I was also exposed to the culture as comic books not only illustrate but also describe the norms through language.

Paul Kei Matsuda states that writing classes specifically designed for ESL students should be optional in order to avoid any implication of identity positioning. I do not recall ever attending an ESL class that was not mandatory. In my high school, the non-native students were required to take the ESL courses as prerequisites to ENG courses down the line. They were tremendously helpful though, as my skills in writing were sharpened. I was better prepared for the academic language which was the next major step in communication. The ESL courses of my high school built a solid foundation for me to step onto and reach it.

A solid portion of my training in formal composition occurred in college. Though I had to suffer through nights of never-ending aggravation with assignments, I managed to acquire a level of proficiency that I am content with. There is still much to learn, much to improve. I have said that I felt “compelled to bring my ‘A-game’ in composing this blog entry” but I honestly do not believe this is my best. A little more time for revision would go a long way. The time might easily be the biggest challenge in writing, after all.

Third Dimension of a Person

I do not remember the last time I had a chance to watch television. Being able to watch what you want and when you want online made the habit of watching television casually fade away. Although one can easily argue that watching stuff online is just as wasteful of time as watching television, I can at least find more meaningful things to watch online that otherwise would easily go unnoticed. The video The Danger of a Single Story that I had a chance to see in our class was another excellent example for that. It was a recording of Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie’s TED speech. She argues about critical misunderstanding of other cultures and places that stem from single narrative. It was an intriguing and a thought-provoking video.

I attempted to reflect the message in the video by the response: “Similar to a work of art in a gallery, a human being is open to many different interpretations. These alternative interpretations form the three-dimensional being that we see. Hence, accepting a single interpretation would only serve to strip away that crucial third dimension.” People tend to observe others on the surface level. Given personal information and background of the person gets assorted with what they had heard about that person’s culture from other sources in the past. This is the point in which literary works become very important in shaping that perspective. Some literary works do not represent the culture with intricacy as they tend to focus on dramatic aspects or cultural contrasts. Many people may find themselves in position of neglect due to their desire of simplicity or lack of encouragement to discover more about others. In the video, Chimamanda Adichie encourages people to broaden the scope of stories that they consume in order to fully understand the notions of other people and perhaps appreciate a narrative by the person rather than an observer.

The danger of being only exposed to a single perspective on a particular culture or group of people is accepting the stereotype as the norm. Chimamanda Adichie makes the statement that “the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” It is important to remember that exploring similarities among cultures, peoples, and places is as crucial as exploring the differences. Storytellers have the power and the option to motivate their readers to discover these alternative perspectives. I believe the key is examining what makes a story or a narration compelling to the reader based on empirical reasons rather than commercialized reasons. People in general may find it difficult to grasp the importance of rejecting the single story and break away from the limitations of simplicity but writers tend to find the opportunities in which they can explore these complexities as they are expected to be the puzzle-solvers of thoughts. Hence, the objective of writers should be crafting stories that explore many different aspects instead of assembling a product that repeats the same, single story.

A Positive Start

Optimism is believed to be a key capable of unlocking the door to proper student autonomy by many people. It is something that I indeed subscribe to and by that optimism that I’d like to begin this very first blog post for my Writing Theory and Practice class. Although it is difficult to determine which side of the definition of optimism that I find myself in, whether the hopefulness for a successful outcome or the confidence in oneself for that outcome, I’d like to think that a positive outlook in general always leads to a positive future in some aspect. This may very well be the reason behind my positive experience in our first couple of weeks of the class.

Our first reading assignment for the term was an article called Rhetoric and Composition by Janice Lauer. It interestingly reminded me of many articles I was tasked with reading when I was an undergraduate. It felt nostalgic in an oddly satisfying way. Though it seemed a bit excessive in terms of academic display, it had so much to teach at the same time. I guess that is the satisfactory aspect of these type of articles which I remember fondly. I always struggled to read through them but in the end there were great things that I learned and recalled over the years. There are many details to consider when it comes to writing but specifically teaching how to write seems to lose its much deserved attention from my part. Articles, such as this, remind me of that important distinction and I’m quite confident that this was just a first of many to come throughout the semester.

The article often emphasized pedagogy of teaching persuasive writing and how encouragement of integrating personal elements into it was crucial for more effective results for not only the students but the readers as an audience as well. Looking back, the main focus in majority of writing assignments that I was involved in was always the application of composition structure along with usage of proper grammar. That methodical approach made me often question the lack of personality from the writer which could obviously create a distance or at least unwanted distraction by the reader. The article claims that students “overemphasize expository writing” and observe their teachers as “examiners rather than as audience” when they write essays. This is very true because that was the mind set I used to find myself in whenever I was tasked to write an persuasive or even an expository essay. The image of my professor going through my writing and finding my mistakes was ever-looming. I believe this unwarranted fear correlated with writing pedagogy often exercised in writing classes just as the article suggests. Quite often, key elements such as personality, philosophy, and rhetoric would be neglected in service of more formal style of writing catering to those who tends to grade an essay rather than receive it as a member of the audience. It is very important to remind ourselves and teach our students that “recognizing an example of good prose is not learning how to make the necessary effort to achieve it.”

The article asks the question of whether we should see ourselves as a writer or a rhetor when it comes to persuasive compositions. I had never considered the evident difference between the two. I guess a writer in a traditional sense would fall more likely into the category of people who tend to use the methodical approach to writing; such as the overall structure of how paragraphs are aligned and how the transitions are integrated into the essay. If that is the case, what would be the proper way of describing a rhetor? I would propose the same description as a public speaker except for the act being conducted in written form. Public speakers do not overly concern themselves with the structure of their particular speech because their main objective is always their audience, and more importantly winning the approval of that audience. They rely on receivers in social context and investigate compelling questions in rhetorical situations to persuade them just as the article suggests what rhetors tend to do. I should also see myself as a public speaker when I need to compose a persuasive essays in the future to study its efficiency personally and eventually pass that experience, should it prove productive as expected, to my students.

Another interesting aspect I‘d like to mention from the article is the notion of “students’ right to their own language”. This was a thought provoking assertion and I had never examined composition from that particular aspect. The students, as writers, had rights to integrate their own tone, style, and indeed the language. Overemphasis in formality often serve as restriction and obstacle in defining the character of the writer. Students need to be familiarized with “using dialects in which they find their own identity and style”. I believe the objective of any sort of writing should be self-discovery rather than making an impression on the reader. A sense of freedom is much needed to find a voice that can reach out to its audience. This freedom in writing, if given the time and space to flourish, could ignite much optimism that leads to positive outcomes without any doubts.

Overall, the article Rhetoric and Composition by Janice Lauer was a good read. There were many things to dissect from. I’m certainly looking forward to our next reading assignment.