Passive Grammar: We’ve Got It, Let’s Use It!

Michaela Borova and Bryan Murphy
bm_fld [at]
University of Architecture, Civil Engineering and Geodesy, Sofia, Bulgaria

Bryan Murphy became aware of passive grammar while working in Sofia and attempting to learn “survival Bulgarian”. In one of his rare successes as a learner of Bulgarian, he sat down with his Bulgarian for foreigners textbook and discovered that a whole load of the language that had been opaque before was suddenly starting to make some kind of sense. This was true not only of words but also of grammar, and indeed of socio-linguistic features. While the concept of active and passive vocabulary is well-established, the parallel concept of passive grammar is less often considered. We believe that it is valid and has significant implications.

What precisely is passive grammar? It is grammatical awareness that the learner has but cannot – yet – put into productive use correctly and consistently. It does not necessarily matter whether this awareness is conscious or unconscious. Conscious awareness may take the form of explicit, learned information, for instance that Bulgarian has three genders: masculine, feminine and neuter. Unconscious awareness may take the form of unformulated expectations about the language you’re learning, such as that it will distinguish between present and past. As your contact with the language increases, these expectations grow and develop, becoming more complex and more refined. We are well used to “protecting” our students against negative transfer from their mother tongue in the form of “false friends”, etc. We are less accustomed to exploiting the vast potential for positive transfer in a conscious and systematic manner.

Why does this matter? Well, if we’ve got passive grammar, let’s use it. In fact, as teachers, we already do so, though usually implicitly. Any spiral syllabus recognises it. The Total Physical Response turns it into a method. All multiple choice questions designed as grammar tests rely on it entirely. Attempts to develop reading and listening as skills draw up on it. Michaela has developed a type of exercise for use at the University of Architecture, Civil Engineering and Geodesy in Sofia which makes use of it. She explains the role of auxiliary verbs in question formation, then asks her students to form questions using tenses they have not been presented with. She finds that, working in groups, they are usually able to form questions in the simple past from a knowledge of the simple present, to form questions using “would” from a knowledge of how to form questions using “can”, etc. She finds that this kind of pre-communicative exercise ties in well with the learning styles prevalent among engineering students. In other words, they enjoy discovering that there is some logic in the mechanics of English. Moreover, it boosts their confidence in their capacity to handle the greater complexities that are to come.

If we make the concept of passive grammar explicit, we can follow up some of its interesting implications. It is possible that grammar may have to be passive before it becomes active, in which case it makes good sense to build up the foundations of passive grammar. But, and this is a big but, there is no guarantee that passive grammar will ever become active. Bulgarians, for instance, have an enormous reservoir of passive Russian grammar, due to the similarities between their two languages, but not that many of them have had occasion to acquire communicative competence in Russian. Passive grammar, then, may be a necessary step toward active use, but it by no means a sufficient one. We are talking about a potential tool, not a magic wand.

If you are still sceptical about the existence of passive grammar, let us see if we can tap into and develop your passive grammar of Bulgarian with the following exercises:

Underline the verb in the following sentences:

Az iskam podarak.
Te iskaha kolata.
Nie iskahme tova.
Toi iskashe vsichko.
Vie iskahte mnogo.
Vie vzehte kolata.
Te nyamaha vreme.
Iskaha li te kolata?

2)  Which one word in each of the following utterances make them questions?
A/ Te otvoriha li vratata?
B/ Toi mozhe li da popravi pechkata?
C/ Imame li vreme?

3) Re-write those questions as statements.

1) a. iskam; b. iskaha; c. iskahme; d. iskashe;
e. iskahte; f. vzehte; g. nyamaha; h. iskaha?

2) li

A/ Te otvoriha vratata.
B/ Toi mozhe da popravi pechkata.
C/ Imame vreme.

Full marks? If so, we are not that surprised.

We need to add another rider here: you cannot build a course out of this stuff. It would be far too boring. These exercises are a bit like warm-ups for the brain, most effective if used sparingly.

The implications we wish now to highlight concern non-native teachers, the nature of exercises, mistakes in exercises and slow learners.

This concept upgrades the value of non-native teachers at a stroke. If grammar explanations have a role to play, which they do in building up passive grammar, then for beginners and elementary learners they are best given in those learners’ own language

Whilst we do not deny the benefits of “negotiating meaning” in a foreign language, anyone who has done any real life negotiating will be aware that failed negotiations often generate more frustration than benefits. Regarding the information about a language that needs to be conveyed, we need to take seriously the questions What? When? How much? and How? Teaching about language can again have a place in language teaching, but it is a tool, not an end in itself. Nevertheless, it probably deserves closer examination, as a tool, than it has had in recent times.

The concept of passive grammar suggests that it is not always necessary for grammar that is being presented to be immediately used actively for learning to take place. Yet most textbook exercises require this. Here is another exercise which, like the examples given above, does not.

a. Underline the words in the text below that refer to the past.

Yesterday, I crashed my car. Two days ago, someone killed my cat. Last Sunday, my spouse asked for a divorce. Never mind. A week ago, my lover and I robbed a bank. Tomorrow, we’re leaving, and soon we’ll be starting a new life in Australia.

Underline the past tense verbs in the text above.

Underline the irregular past tense verbs in the following text:

A man walked into a pub. He went up to the bar and asked the barman for a glass of water. The barman took out a gun and pointed it at him. “Thank you,” said the man.

In terms of the basic psychology of memory, the above exercises require recognition not recall as a first step in the memory process. In standard TEFL terms, they require reception not production as a first step in the language learning process. The next exercise demonstrates more clearly that passive grammar also operates at the level of text grammar. It is a short, standard “jigsaw reading” exercise at intermediate or upper intermediate level.

Put the sentences into the right order:

  • The New Jersey teen became a vegetarian 15 months ago.
  • Undeterred, Jacklyn ate buns filled with pickled slices instead.
  • Don’t make the mistake of offering Jacklyn Stewart, 15, a pork chop.
  • At first her dad treated it like simple rebelliousness.
  • Or, for that matter, a hamburger.
  • He gave a barbecue and made a point of having only ground round for the grill – not a soy patty in sight.

(from Newsweek)

Answer: c, e, a, d, f, b.

It follows from the ideas of passive grammar, recognition and reception that the “meaning” of learners making mistakes might not be transparent. We are talking specifically about mistakes in exercises. It is clearly no bad thing if a learner gets a production exercise right. But this does not mean that the learner has mastered the grammar point. They may have guessed the answer, they may have worked it out without understanding the grammar point, or, having solved the problem, they may immediately forget the problem-solving mechanism. Conversely, getting an exercise wrong does not mean that nothing has been learnt: it is possible that passive grammar has been imbibed, and, what’s more, passive grammar going beyond the overt teaching point. Learning and teaching, indeed, are by no means symmetrical, and this is what enables people to learn languages, for linguists have not yet provided a full and accurate grammar of any single language, so that learners necessarily learn more than teachers can systematically teach.

Which brings us back to Bryan, shuffling his teach-yourself-Bulgarian books: miffed at finding himself, despite all his experience of language learning and language teaching, a decidedly slow language learner this time around, but nevertheless aware, or at least confident, that with input, encouragement, motivation and, above all, time, he’d get there. Passive grammar means, above all, that we as teachers and learners can relax a bit about learning process: there’s more going on than might appear on the surface. And if we can learn to exploit passive grammar effectively, we might be able to speed up that learning process.

The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. III, No. 8, August 1997

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