The Limits of Conscious Grammar: Some Observations by Experts

Stephen KrashenStephen Krashen

The Monitor Hypothesis says that consciously learned language is available as a Monitor, or an editor. We think about rules before we say/write something or after, and make corrections when we realize what we said, or are about to say, is wrong. The conditions for the use of the Monitor are severe: The performer has to (1) Know the rule; (2) Be thinking about correctness (3) Have time to retrieve and apply the rule. (Krashen, S. 1981. Second Language Acquisition and Second Language Learning. New York: Prentice-Hall. Out of Print.)

Over-use of the Monitor (Krashen, 1981) happens when Monitor-use interferes with communication, when we are over-concerned with correctness (Hemingway, 1927; Berra, no date). Knowledge of grammar does not make a significant contribution to communication (Walker, 2002).

Hemingway on the overuse of the Monitor:

 “The major, who had been the great fencer, did not believe in bravery, and spent much time while we same in the machines correcting my grammar. He had complimented me on how I spoke Italian, and we talked together very easily. One day I had said that Italian seemed such an easy language to me that I could not take a great interest in it; everything was so easy to say. ‘Why, then, do you not take up the use of grammar?’ So we took up the use of grammar, and soon Italian was such a difficult language that I was afraid to talk to him until I had the grammar straight in my mind.”

Ernest Hemingway, “In Another Country.” In Men without Women, Scribner, paperback fiction. 1997, p. 46-47. Originally published 1927.

Baseball star Yogi Berra on the overuse of the Monitor:

“You can’t think and hit at the same time.”

Limits of grammar knowledge in real production and comprehension.

Letter to the London Times, August 29, 2002

Sir: While my wife (1953 O-level French, fail) happily bargains with French market stallholders, I (1953, A-level French, pass) and only stand by muttering “No, tomatoes are feminine” or “You should be using the subjunctive!”

I was even able, when paying the bill at a small hotel, to say beautifully and accurately in French: “Had we not been awoken at 3am by the dustcart, it would not have been necessary for us to have raided the mini-bar for a bottle of water.”

Unfortunately I had to reply on my wife to understand the reply: “Sorry, but it is still going to cost you 50 francs.”

Yours faithfully,

H.L.M. Walker

Saffron Waldon, Essex.


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What It Takes to Be an Expert Grammar User: Daniel Tammet

Stephen KrashenStephen D. Krashen

The case of Daniel Tammet became well known after a documentary, Brainman, was made. It has been shown world-wide since May, 2005. Tammet suffers from savant syndrome, a form of autism characterized by “an obsessive need to order and routine” (Tammet, 2007) and in his case, and extraordinary ability to deal with numbers. The documentary featured his linguistic abilities: After ten days of study of Icelandic, Tammet was able to converse in the language with two native speakers for 15 minutes. Tammet now knows ten languages.

Much of his ability in language acquisition is, without question, really a profound ability in language learning, not acquisition: Tammet has an incredible memory. He holds the European and British record for memorizing pi, at 22,514 digits. (This is, incidentally, sixth in the world. The world record is held by Chao Lu, 67,890; see here for rankings.

It is clear, however, that he uses both learning and acquisition: While studying Lithuanian, while working as an English teacher in Lithuania, he worked with a teacher: “I wrote words down as I learned them to help me visualize and remember them” (conscious learning) and read children’s books . . . (acquisition)” (Tammet, 2007, p. 134). (Parenthetical notes added by SK.)

When he started working on Icelandic, he read texts aloud so his teacher could check his pronunciation (conscious learning), but he also stated that “the large amount of reading helped me to develop an intuitive sense of the language’s grammar (acquisition)” (pp. 208-209).

“When I’m learning a language there are a number of things that I consider essential materials to begin with. The first is a good-size dictionary (conscious learning). I also need a variety of texts in the language, such as children’s books, stories and newspaper articles, because I prefer to learn words within whole sentences to help give me a feeling for how the language works (acquisition)” (p. 161).

Tammet has set up a website, selling lessons in beginning and intermediate Spanish and French. An inspection of the syllabi, available without charge, reveals that the focus of each lesson is a point of grammar.

Before we conclude from this case that the best approach is a combination of acquisition and learning, we have to remember that Daniel Tammet has memorized pi to 22,514 digits. A safer conclusion is that conscious learning works well for those with the prodigious mental powers of Daniel Tammet.

Tammet, D. 2007. Born on a Blue Day. Free Press.

From: Krashen, S. 2012. Seeking a justification for skill-building. In: In: Proceedings of the 19th Annual KOTESOL International Conference, Seoul, Korea, 2011. pp. 13-20 (available online here, scroll down).

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