What, Why and How of Doing Grammar? An Interview with Dr. Bal Mukunda Bhandari


There is no denying that a language is language because of its grammar. Whenever there is a question of teaching and learning of a language, grammar stands as the most focal element there. In the context of Nepal, grammar instruction has ever been a vital element of English language teaching and learning both in schools and colleges.  Particularly, for school levels, many English grammars are written by Nepali authors, authenticity of which perhaps can be questioned in many ways.  These grammars seem to have a lasting influence on English language learning and teaching ahead in their life. Likewise, there are a number of misconceptions and issues with regard to what grammar is in actuality, why our students need to be taught grammar and how it can be instructed more effectively. In this interview with Dr. Bal Mukunda Bhandari, who has been involved in grammar instructions for more than two decades, an attempt has been made to penetrate into the issues regarding principles and practices in teaching grammar and to seek his insights to help address the issues.

About the Interviewee

Dr. Bal Mukunda Bhandari, an Associate Professor in the Department of English Education, Tribhuvan University has been involved in Nepalese ELT for about two decades. Dr. Bhandari has published more than a dozen of books on ELT and linguistics. He is also one of the authors of Lotus English Series, school level textbooks for English. Currently, he is the Executive Director of Centre for International Relations, Tribhuvan University.  

 Do you think grammar is necessary to teach at all in order to ensure teaching and learning of a language? There are many who go for interdisciplinary approach to teaching language where grammar instruction is not explicit.  What is your perception?

Human beings are capable of speaking and understanding language. They can use utterances to refer to a thing, state or action. The sounds they produce with a physiological process are shaped to form an intended word or sentence. They have a level of knowledge of the language that they speak. This knowledge helps associate the human sounds to extra-linguistic world. This is a preprogrammed knowledge imprinted in the human mind. This is the knowledge which in the world of linguistics is called grammar.

A second/foreign language is taught at least for two reasons. It is taught as an end to fulfill the immediate goals. For example, someone is going to work in an English speaking country as a waiter, or a baby-sitter or some people may need English in Nepal so that they can guide tourists, they can run a curio shop, they want jobs in the English speaking countries. In such cases, the learners need to learn English as a language, a means of communication. They don’t need the metalanguage. They don’t need the rules that underlie a language e.g. English. In many countries including Nepal English is taught in schools and colleges as a subject (as opposed to language) of an academic grade or degree. When the main focus is to introduce lexis and grammar (as a device of making sentences), the tests and grades matter a lot.

We have been applying two completely different approaches of English education in Nepal. In an approach we have courses on grammar from primary to tertiary level (post graduate level). A significant portion of the syllabus is occupied by grammar. In another approach we teach English through contents such as essays, conversations, interviews, short stories, poems, plays and novels. Students learn English mainly through reading, and their knowledge is tested through writing. There is neither grammar lesson in the class nor there are questions to test any specific grammar points. On completion of their education both the products are sent to perform the same function. No difference in the proficiency of language or in their performance has been noticed. Those who have undergone grammar course can’t exhibit better performance in grammar itself. This shows that grammar teaching in a language class has no ground support.

It is important to keep in mind that there is a strong relationship between grammar and vocabulary. Lexical items inherently posses some property. For example, no NP follows the word ‘die’ whereas an NP should necessarily follow the word ‘kill’ and ‘murder’. At the same time the words suggest that the NP that follows ‘kill’ has to be an animate but it should be human NP to follow ‘murder’.

The value of grammar instruction has been debatable since the beginning of teaching modern language as a foreign language. Everyone involved in teaching and learning has an opinion for or against grammar teaching. Some of them opine that a good knowledge of grammar is necessary if the learners’ have to use the language correctly. While others think grammar instruction is not necessary at all. They think it hampers language acquisition and slows down the fluency.

In the fields of second language acquisition earlier research findings (when communicative language teaching was in fashion) showed that grammar had very little to do in language teaching but recent research findings show that grammar has a role but they still do not accept direct grammar teaching. Grammar instruction may be used as a basis in some practice activity or sometimes as consciousness raising device, not as a device to learn to use a language.

Some say grammar incorporates only morphology and syntax but others tend to think that grammar should incorporate all the levels of language. In the broadest sense of the term, what a grammar is in actuality? On What conditions can we say that a particular sentence is grammatical?

Let us consider the following definition of grammar.

Grammar is the study and description of a language in terms of either syntax and morphology alone or these together with aspects of phonology, orthography, semantics and pragmatics. (The Oxford Companion to the English Language).

In past grammar was considered the art of speaking and writing. The word grammar would include the study of everything related to language. Structuralists separated the levels of language and defined grammar as the level between phonology and semantics so it meant the study of rules in a language for changing the form of the words and combining them in to sentences. However, linguists today treat grammar same as linguistics which is sometimes referred to as a linguistic grammar. Therefore to be a sentence grammatical it should be phonologically (in speech), orthographically (in writing), morphologically, syntactically, semantically and also pragmatically acceptable.

 There are two ways of teaching grammar: deductively and inductively. Most observations show that Nepalese teachers find deductive method to be more comfortable to instruct language with. Why is it so? Which method do you recommend and why?

I don’t label any method ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Both the methods have advantages and disadvantages. For example, the rules and explanations help students understand what is being taught. It respects the creative and generative power of human mind. It introduces bits of language in a systematic and gradual manner. Use of mother tongue makes the environment comfortable for teacher and students. On the other hand inductive method accepts the principle of learning to communicate through communication. It respects the learner as subject (as opposed object in deductive method). In learning a language, we’ll have two goals understanding about the language and learning the language. Deductive method caters for the first goal while inductive method caters for the second one.

I agree with your observation that most English classes in Nepal, we find deductive  (an imperfect  deductive) method. This is because the teachers who have been given the tag ‘trained’ have never got opportunity to undergo, observe or practice inductive classes. The teacher education institutions provide them with the theory of methods – no classroom application. On the other hand inductive method require good command in English, sufficient resources and materials. The attitude of making students ‘understand’ is the chief barrier which stops teachers using inductive method. In fact, language teacher’s job is to make students learn the language.

Application of a method depends on many factors. So the teacher should be capable of analyzing them. Choice of a method depends upon many factors. It is the teacher whose job is to analyze the factors governing the context and choose an appropriate methodology instead of a ‘method’.

Do you think linguistic grammar is any worth for teacher? How do you think a linguistic grammar and a pedagogic grammar interact with each other?

Linguistic grammar, also known as theoretical grammar, is the systematic description of language usually not concentrating on a particular language. It provides a language teacher with the apparatuses to investigate the features of the given language. Pedagogical grammars on the other hand are intended chiefly for classroom use under the guidance of teacher. They may contain rules, exercises, vocabulary lists, dialogues, reading passages and writing activities. There are many good teachers who have not studied linguistic grammar. However, the study of linguistic grammar makes them better. The source of pedagogical grammar is linguistic grammar. For a language teacher linguistic grammar is resource and pedagogical grammar is the teaching material.

Many English grammars written in Nepal are in vogue in both private and public schools of Nepal. How authentic do you find them in terms of contemporariness?  Do they reflect everyday English? How do you think this issue can be addressed? Do not you think that it is important to base grammar on corpus?

Privatization in education is thriving in Nepal. It has opened avenues of opportunities for the people of different sectors. As a result textbooks (pedagogical grammars) of English have come out in abundant number. Few years ago books were produced in Nepal because they were needed, but now books are produced as publishers and ‘writers’ need them. Because of this students and novice teachers are misguided, there is also unhealthy competition. Most of the grammars produced in Nepal are based on (i.e., borrowed materials from) traditional grammars of 19th and early 20th centuries. They have no materials of present day English.

Most grammars now in Britain and America are corpus-based which teach learners the real contemporary English. Languages keep on changing. It is natural and regular process. All the speakers of a language have internalized grammar. They do not follow grammar books but the grammar books have to follow the speakers.

  Do not you think that nativization of English or the birth of local varieties of English has created a big controversy over what is acceptable and what is not? Do you think that different varieties should have different grammar books to describe and explain different grammars? Do you recommend that English grammar for Nepal should base on Nepalese English?

English speaking people from England went to America, Canada, Australia and other countries where their English gradually deviated from the original one, and thus grew many varieties viz. American English, Canadian English, Australian English as so on. Varieties also appeared in the countries where English is taught as a foreign or second language. The English found in Nepal has its own characteristics. So it is also a non-native variety of English. The native varieties are intelligible to each other, but the nonnative varieties are more deviated. A language is what its native speakers speak and what they accept. The idea of writing grammars of different varieties can be done as linguistic research but not for pedagogical purpose. English is not a lingua franca in Nepal, nor a second language. The purpose of teaching a foreign language is to enable the learners to communicate with its native speakers. So the issue/idea of writing English grammar for Nepal based on Nepalese variety of English is illogical and worthless.

 Do you have any other observations to share on teaching of English grammar in Nepal?

In my observation, I have found that most teachers teach the structures in the name of grammar being isolated from the functional aspect of language. They give rule of form (for example, how a tense is formed) and some common examples missing the rule of meaning (for example, how, when and where a tense is used) and activities of language use.

Whoever observes English language classes in Nepal, very quickly recommends that the teachers should be trained despite the fact that almost all the teachers are trained either from a university (mainly from Tribhuvan University) or the ministry of education. The teachers often have to prove their training by showing their certificate. Once a government official rightly announced, “We have given training certificate to 98% teachers”. This situation very easily indicates the inefficiency of teacher education in Nepal. It has to be improved, and we, teacher educators, should take initiative.

Thank you so much for your contribution. 

4 comments

  • As my first word, I would like to thank Sajan Sir and Bal Mukunda Sir for their great efforts to let us have a close look at what, why and how grammar is in the Nepalese minds and tongues. It has driven me to learning several aspects of the English grammar being practised and argued on in our context. In the answer to the first question, the concept of generative grammar to reflect the definition of grammar is praiseworthy. I feel we are equally concerned about how the teachers teaching grammar in the real world might take it. And, we may feel that the teachers and students need some ‘demonstrative’ definition rather than philosophical one, then we could be communicatively comfortable. Another matter – I have often observed scholars using two relative terms ‘end’ and ‘means’. In the same answer, as one of the two reasons, English is taught as an ‘end’ has confused me a lot. On going ahead, I have started to understand it as a ‘means’ to achieve some goal. Yes, the second reason is true and awkward. Even teachers,worried and weary to complete the course, take up English as a subject rather than a language, much more students! And, what about grammar lesson and questions on grammar in the class? Don’t we really have no such classes? I couldn’t understand it.

    Linguistic grammar and pedagogical grammar are the main points of interest to me. Linguistic grammar – I couldn’t find it, but I found on pedagogical grammar as Grammar in Use, Grammar for communication (http://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/knowledge-database/pedagogic-grammar). And, I have realized that it is pedagogical grammar that many more of our English teachers lack so they are unable to be used to inductive method of teaching grammar, and in spite of the certificates of ‘trained’, they are not trained in actuality. It is supposed to be because of our ongoing ‘trend’ – we simply focus on what ‘training’ is, not what teachers mean by training. That is why the label of ‘trained’ to those teachers has been the matter of mockery to all.

    Overall the post is inspirational for readers to study more to be in the depth of grammar and thought-provoking.

    Thank you.

  • As my first word, I would like to thank Sajan Sir and Bal Mukunda Sir for their great efforts to let us have a close look at what, why and how grammar is in the Nepalese minds and tongues. It has driven me to learning several aspects of the English grammar being practised and argued on in our context. In the answer to the first question, the concept of generative grammar to reflect the definition of grammar is praiseworthy. I feel we are equally concerned about how the teachers teaching grammar in the real world might take it. And, we may feel that the teachers and students need some ‘demonstrative’ definition rather than philosophical one, then we could be communicatively comfortable. Another matter – I have often observed scholars using two relative terms ‘end’ and ‘means’. In the same answer, as one of the two reasons, English is taught as an ‘end’ has confused me a lot. On going ahead, I have started to understand it as a ‘means’ to achieve some goal. Yes, the second reason is true and awkward. Even teachers,worried and weary to complete the course, take up English as a subject rather than a language, much more students! And, what about grammar lesson and questions on grammar in the class? Don’t we really have no such classes? I couldn’t understand it.

    Linguistic grammar and pedagogical grammar are the main points of interest to me. Linguistic grammar – I couldn’t find it, but I found on pedagogical grammar as Grammar in Use, Grammar for communication (http://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/knowledge-database/pedagogic-grammar). And, I have realized that it is pedagogical grammar that many more of our English teachers lack so they are unable to be used to inductive method of teaching grammar, and in spite of the certificates of ‘trained’, they are not trained in actuality. It is supposed to be because of our ongoing ‘trend’ – we simply focus on what ‘training’ is, not what teachers mean by training. That is why the label of ‘trained’ to those teachers has been the matter of mockery to all.

    Overall the post is inspirational for readers to study more to be in the depth of grammar and thought-provoking.

    Thank you.

  • Bal Mukunda Bhandari

    Thank you for reading it.
    BMB

  • Surendra Raj Adhikari

    It is really thought-provoking. Being language teacher, it is our duty to advocate for what is wrong and what right. Dr Bhandari is a linguist and good academia, and therefore, he has addressed the issue very well. However, it is everyone’s concern that World Englishes are emerging and which variety to follow is debatable. I also do believe that whatever variety one follows, it requires to be intelligible throughout the world.

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