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Cultural Bias in Grammar Explanations

Grammarians (and ESL/EFL/ESOL teachers) often say things like this quotation from the student's version of the Comprehesive Grammar of the English Language (p. 47):

4.1  In abstraction from any given language, we can think of time as a line on which is located, as a continuously moving point, the present moment.  Anything ahead of the present moment is in the future, and anything behind it is in the past.

Actually, thinking of time in this manner is a western point of view--and perhaps even an Anglo one.  Years ago, I read about a group of Indians in South America--in Peru, I think.  They look at this time way: 


We know the past, don't we?  Therefore, the past is in front of us.  We can see it.  We don't know the future, do we?  We can't see the future, can we?  Therefore, the future is behind us.

Additionally, an ESL teacher reported in the a TESOL publication for teachers that he asked his students to draw timelines.  Not a single student drew a straight line.  They all drew circles and curves and complex systems--nothing like that timeline that teachers so often draw and that materials writers so often include in ESL/EFL/ESOL textbooks.  I think that only native speakers of English and very advanced non-native speakers think of English in terms of a linear timeline.

That is, when we draw timelines to explain verbs and time we are probably talking to ourselves rather than helping the students out very much. Teachers often reply to this statement with something like "But my students seem to understand the timelines when I draw them." And I reply something like "Students are so sweet to us...they smile and nod and make us think they understand. Some of that agreement is self-protection, of course, because students generally do not like to admit that they do not understand what is going on in class; some of it is culturally based ways of handling teachers.

Beyond Timelines

But, you probably say, if we don't use timelines, how do we explain time meanings for verbs?

Perhaps the best answer is that we're doing too much explaining and not enough showing.  Explanations tend to be abstractions that maybe help a few students.  What most learners need is less abstract information and more concrete examples. 

Grammar lessons and materials are made up of the Three Big E's: Explanations, Examples, and Exercises.  Students need good examples (remember that list of what makes an example good**) and they need lots of activities to try out the language and to help them get a feel for how the verbs are used in communication.

Please send me your questions and comments at patbyrd@comcast.net.  Thanks.

**Good examples are accurate, clear, interesting, usable in other contexts, contextualized, & formatted attractively & clearly