“I learnt all my English grammar from studying foreign languages”
This is a statement I have heard on numerous occasions from adults of all ages and it was brought home to me at a recent event for MFL teachers. A Spanish lady said with a sigh, “I would get through so much more Spanish if I wasn’t having to teach them so much English grammar.” I think most of us there understood. Every year I spend two hour long lessons on English tenses with my year 10 class. First we play tennis, then we eat chips, then we go to London. Pupils quick to get the pattern can swim. What? I hear you ask. Well, I use to play, to eat, to go and to swim as my examples and my classes categorize these verbs in different English tenses. The difference between past participles and simple past tenses always generates discussion. Ate or eaten? Swam or swum? And how are they used? All this needs to be done before we look at the equivalent tenses in French or German.
The other day I was introducing my year 7 class to the present tense of regular verbs and thought I’d test them out.” I play and I am playing – anyone tell me how you would classify them? Who remembers from primary school?” The first response I received was “I think the second one’s a present perfect.”
Yes, I know, it was the wrong answer, but I was secretly delighted. In over 20 years I had never come across a pupil who had heard of the term. But I was even more pleased at what followed. There was a murmur among the class (“No that’s wrong!”) and 10 more hands came up. The correct answer was given immediately. “Sir, the first one’s a present simple and the second one is a present progressive.” There were glimmers of recognition among the class. “Well done – all that grammar you learnt in primary will be very useful to you in languages” was my response.
Early days , you might be thinking. But I would say that this year my year 7s have cottoned on very quickly. In translation tasks, if they are tempted to write “ich bin spielen” I tell them “remember -no progressive tenses in German” and immediately they can correct themselves. Previously I had to spend a lot of time explaining the fact that the present simple and the present progressive are two different forms of the same tense and often encountered puzzled frowns.
Actually, it is not always easy for us, as MFL teachers, to use the terms our year 7 pupils will have come across in Year 6. For example, I had to stop myself saying “present continuous” and use the term they were taught at primary (which I always thought was more American!) “present progressive”. And yes, I had never heard of the term “fronted adverbial” before – I used to talk about adverbs or adverbial phrases. But I have long been convinced that one of the main reasons a lot of people say they find MFL difficult is because their knowledge of English grammar is insufficient to get them beyond the transactional language. At this point someone occasionally says, “Well I learnt to speak fluent X without knowing the grammar”. Possibly – but can they read and write and understand that language so fluently? And adapt the language to formal and informal situations? (very important in many languages).I wonder….
Last year, the new grammar test for 11 year olds was repeatedly criticised in social media. I found myself arguing with various teachers and even Michael Rosen, the children’s laureate, at one point. I don’t know whether it will help their English. Maybe not. However, I’m convinced it’s a step in the right direction for MFL. So please, year 6 teachers, don’t feel that what you are teaching is irrelevant and useless. I, for one, am grateful and I believe that if we MFL teachers ensure we are using the same terminology that the children learnt in primary, over time we will begin to reap the benefits in faster MFL acquisition.