French grammar is synonymous with language learning – ahem – second language acquisition. But do us French teachers really understand the role of French grammar based on how we were taught? It’s time to look at both the principles of linguistics, sociolinguistics, and theories of second language acquisition to get a final answer: What is the role of French grammar in fluency and French language acquisition as an L2?
French Grammar is not what you think it is
Let’s figure out why French grammar is such a heated topic in the French teacher and learner space right now.
There’s so much more to chew on when it comes to switching our mindset from the legacy PRESENT REGULARS ➡️ IRREGULARS ➡️ REGULAR PAST ➡️ IRREGULAR PAST ➡️ FUTURE ➡️ SUBJUNCTIVE ➡️ MORE COMPLEX STUFF IN LINEAR FASHION that gets favored so often.
This doesn’t come from nowhere either.
French grammar may not be what you think it is. Grammar isn’t a linguistic rule system that we use to produce and understand sentences. And no animal communication has it. We haven’t found any animals that are using grammar.
What is French Grammar?
Grammar is what allows us to organize sound into words and words into sentences, which is what makes language complex. And it’s much more than just simple features.
When you think of grammar I know you’re already thinking of the features. The things that you can boil down and explain and are really easy to put on a worksheet. Things like être vs avoir in the past tense, word order difference, conjugations, masculine, feminine, future tense, si clauses, but that’s not all of what French grammar entails. That’s honestly the tip of the iceberg. The real good stuff is what I’m about to show you.
The 5 Properties of Grammar According to Linguistics
These are the five properties of French grammar:
Phonetics is the inventory of sound in language. So for English, we have 12 vowels. Do you ever think of that? Not every language has the same number of vowels, or vowel sound combinations. So look down at number two for a second, just for a second. And you’ll see that the Hawaiian language only has five vowels. Does it?
Phonology is the rules of how those sounds are allowed to be combined. So there are sounds that you know we cannot do in English, you’ll never hear them. And there are things that you cannot do in many other languages. Like for example, like the sound l doesn’t exist in Japanese. So phonology is the rules of how sounds combined. Hawaiian has five different vowel sounds. And one of the rules one of the phonological properties is that all words in Hawaiian and in vowels, isn’t that cool.
Morphology are the rules of word-formation. So like this is how we do the whole master-builder thing, we make pieces and put them together. Some examples of morphology are suffixes and prefixes like -ed in English. And certainly clues as to the idea of past tense. Like how -ment functions as an adverb (-ly), for example recemmement is recently, things like that.
Syntax is the rule of sentence formation. So it’s a lot of the order of how things need to go together in order to make sense. Like, I remember that first example that I showed you, the haircut is this short too, you need to put those ideas in order for it to make sense. The property of that grammar for that language is that the syntax order is different. So it’s not that one language is right or wrong, it’s that their grammatical structure looks different.
Semantics are the rules of how meaning is expressed by words and sentences. So with grammar, we also have to look at the difference between what is taught and the way people talk. So there are two ideas here. The first one is prescriptive grammar.
Source: Shrum & Glisan (2011)
Prescriptive Grammar vs. Descriptive Grammar in French
Prescriptive grammar is a set of rules prescribed by grammar authorities, maybe an older sibling, a teacher or a grammar book. And it usually carries a lot of social capital and value. Frenchies – think about what the l’Academie says, and what that usually means for our French students and the history of the language and how they’ve shaped that. And then think about how French people actually speak and how that’s diversified across all of postcolonial history.
Next, we have descriptive grammar: this is what people actually say. The rules are fluid and they change faster. So you’ll often have people asking whether a rule is correct or not simply because it changes that fast because I mean, you’re moving at the speed of speech, which is very quick.
The five properties of grammar are the same. Whether you’re looking at descriptive grammar or prescriptive grammar, the rules are the same.
Examples of Descriptive Grammar
So let’s take a look at an example of this: Double Negatives
As I’m speaking here to either my native English speakers like myself, but we are, of course a language learning community. So that’s not everybody. Maybe this is something that you experienced learning English or maybe growing up speaking English. I don’t know. But if you are an English speaker, you’ve probably heard this at some point, the idea of double negatives and how bad they are. double negatives carry a high social stigma. And they are actively marked wrong in English classes throughout
the globe, but especially here in America. So let’s get an example. Here’s bullet number two. Which one is right?
I don’t know anything, or
I don’t know, nothing.
Surprise! They’re actually both double negatives, when you actually look at the definition of a double negative. English has many double negatives, like, don’t know, anything. That’s a double, those are both double negatives. But don’t know nothing. Just the difference, the variation in the word nothing. It’s still grammatical. And we’re going to talk about what that means in a second. It’s still grammatical, but it carries high social stigma. So ask yourself, which social stigma is it? And why is one of them getting marked wrong and English classes and the other one not? Here is the true linguistic meaning of what’s grammatical and what’s ungrammatical.
Descriptive French Grammar in Class
And this is really important for your classes, too, because I know for a fact that there are lots of Hispanic Heritage class teachers that are currently doing this practice and it needs to add on grammatical is this idea here, don’t ain’t going on.
Can you tell me what this sentence means: Don’t ain’t going on.
The next sentence is grammatical: ain’t nothing going on.
I could give it to you in different words, there is nothing going on.
They both mean the same thing.
You’re just using different words to do it. And the two ideas have different social values, have different ideas and implications for who’s speaking them, and exactly what situation you might be in for where you’re using it, what region you come from – all that good stuff.
Ungrammatical: The Truth About Correct French Grammar
So what’s grammatical and ungrammatical has nothing to do with social status, it has everything to do with whether a native speaker would say it. And here’s where we get into how this plays out in our society, for grammatical norms. And this is actually this is how language really changes and adapts, we’ve got something called modifications.
Modifications are the practice of adjustment, change, or modifications of your grammatical systems based on the social factors you’ve got going on. This happens constantly in your environment, maybe from either your desire to learn or your necessity to learn from sheer survival, maybe you want to impress, or there’s a need to conform depending on the situation.
This is how the emergence of dialects happens. I’m sure you can think of some situations pretty clearly off the bat where this happens. Here’s a really important quote for you that I want you to literally sticking out to your desk. A sentence is grammatical if a speaker would naturally produce it, regardless of its social value.
So if a sentence works, if it is completely grammatical, no matter what features it has, or what kind of social value is in there, it’s a grammatical sentence it is acceptable to use in terms of linguistics, it’s part of the language. And I’m going to encourage you you need to stop marking it wrong.
“A sentence or utterance is grammatical if a speaker would naturally produce it – regardless of its perceived social value” – La Libre Language Learning
Boom, linguistics has spoken.
Where does linear grammar come from?
It’s from our legacy of 19th century language education rooted in greek/latin style instruction for literacy, not acquisition (and certainly not research-based practice from the 20th century forward).
The goal in the 1800s was make better readers who could talk good n’ smart at din din about politics, not speak fluent greek.
Grammar itself isn’t the enemy to your department (or district) having a hard time letting go of this outdated, surface level linear model of grammar structures.
It’s been engrained in teachers for a long time that this is what “rigorous language instruction” looks like.
Have you ever heard someone say this to you?
why do proficiency oriented teachers seem to hate French grammar and verb charts?
If you’ve ever struggled with the anti-grammar rhetoric in the proficiency world, they are not referring to grammar as a tool in context.
They are (hopefully) referring to ditching the linear attitude that was never true in the first place.
We don’t hate verb charts (or at least not all of us.) We just don’t think they’re very useful compared to the outrageously high-powered tools of stories, personalized questions and conversations, and other tools of well-leveled, interesting input.
So what is true about French grammar?
Well, it’s a surface-level definition of structures and features that we barely understand ourselves.
Grammar is decidedly NOT linear. It’s very messy, but also predictable – like a toddler up 2 hours past naptime.
We only see the results aka “grammar” of complex linguistic systems being played out.
It’s kind of like trying to understand and describe a black hole. How do you give words to a phenomenon that absorbs all light and information and therefore has no color or possible visualization or conceptualization for us? Whelp, call it a black hole for now. lolz.
French grammar can be awesome
Grammar is SLA’s black hole.
It’s clear to all that there are describable rules that govern how features of language interact with each other, and you can show/teach these to your students to help them along and recreate these interactions in their own output. But that will not lead to acquisition.
It’s useful and helps in different ways, such as more accurate output (according to some researchers – keep in mind that the jury is still out on important details about what works the best) and that’s cool too.
is your head spinning yet? This is why this question is – very importantly so – hotly debated in our community.
What truly leads to second language acquisition
So if the real role of French grammar is as a tool for students in context to help them towards proficiency goals, then what truly leads to second language acquisition for our students?
The key component to any second language acquisition environment is high quality, compelling, understandable input structured to follow your target language’s natural order of acquisition and frequency of use, with appropriate opportunities for output and self-reflection.
I know, I know, I’m not in the input-only camp like many Stephen Krashen followers.
I used to be, but there’s research to support that properly timed and leveled opportunities for output support acquisition, so I’m not ready to throw all my eggies in just the input basket. (Krashen is great, but there are other researchers out there). Read more about the role of comprehensible input and deepen your understanding of second language acquisition research here.
But something even more surprising? I honestly don’t think that this question matters that much when SO MANY curriculums across the globe are still relying on a neat, linear view of French grammar to support and instruct students.
I guess they don’t like toddlers. 😉
We first need to support teachers trying to move into a French grammar syllabus that makes sense, rather than fuss over the details of an esoteric instruction model that most of you with outrageous teaching constraints don’t even have the energy to daydream about.
it’s very cart-before-the-horse if you ask me.
don’t fuss over details – focus on what matters.
There’s no sense in worrying over what’s in the research about what truly leads to acquisition as long as you’re in the heart of what matters and making progress towards proficiency. Remember, we still have to explain this to most people:
a multiple choice test on correct spelling of masculine and feminine forms doesn’t add more words or fluency into your students’ brain, or help them understand that same masculine and feminine vocab list.
You see what I mean about the cart-horse thing?
It may help them spell better, they may know that a usually means feminine, but how is that really going to help them if they don’t know what ‘je vois’ means?
It’s not usually covered in level 1 legacy French grammar, but happens to be one of the most frequently used French verbs. That’s cart before the horse.
High Frequency verbs will make your life so much easier
Here’s where high frequency verbs comes in.
If you’ve been around these parts for more than a minute, you know that my #1 mission is to make proficiency and healthy teaching practice actually practical and doable for teachers like you.
Not some pie-in-the-sky get everything completely right fantasy.
Teaching is difficult enough, and you need a simple solution to moving towards a more truthful grammar syllabus without alienating your colleagues or starting from scratch.
I help teachers reclaim their weekends and be proud of their communicative classroom in the monthly membership the Practical Proficiency Network – join the waitlist here for when we open up next!
This is where high frequency verbs and structures come in.
It’s an easy sell to anyone who may be struggling with what to teach now that you’ve switched to more proficiency-oriented instruction.
What to Do When Others Are Attached to the Legacy French Grammar Syllabus
First of all, teaching is hard no matter what – choose the hill that’s most worth it to you. There’s also another solution for you if your department or district struggles with releasing the model of linear French grammar.
It’s also easy to ask departments or districts to use these lists instead of the linear grammar model, because many of the structures are familiar, just in a different order.
Lastly, they’re mostly verbs – which still feels like traditional linear grammar (even though it’s not).
So if you’re looking for the easiest way to transition to a more proficiency-oriented grammar syllabus, these are your best friends. But don’t just limit yourself to the super 7 and sweet 16 (although amazing!) there’s more than just the verbs to consider. Check the post for more in-depth info.
If you yourself love teaching grammar, welcome to the eternal struggle of being a language teacher. We’re here because we’re language nerds, but only 1% of our students share this nerdness.
They need acquisition (language actually in their heads) & to move along their path to proficiency (what they can actually do with language).
This comes from giving them more language to work with, not teaching them about how the language interacts with itself.
Are you struggling with your colleagues? It doesn’t have to feel like a fight. We’re on the same side. Check out this video for what to do if your world language colleagues aren’t on board with proficiency:
Proficiency Oriented Grammar Instruction Tools
Here are some resources and French lesson plans to give you ideas on different approaches to French grammar:
Grammar in context – French grammar is not the enemy! It’s just a tool and should be treated as so. This was one of my favorite ways to teach important verbs in my French 1 class. Click here to see the French 1 irregular verb game set.
French High Frequency Words & How to Use Them
I’ve got you covered. These new blog posts on how to best use high frequency verbs and structures will help you get started with which ones you need and how best to start using them.
More French teacher resources for you
Have you ever wished the transition to proficiency were easier to do? Grab the FREE toolkit here to learn the framework for updating your practice to comprehensible input with key tools like French grammar in context and high frequency words – with actionable ideas you can use tomorrow in class.
Free Conference for World Language Teachers
If you’re ready to jump in and get started with proficiency and teaching with comprehensible input, I have another resource to help you on your journey below:
Sign Up for the Next Practical & Comprehensible Free Virtual Conference! Every year, I gather together the best and brightest in the field of world language to share with you how to switch to proficiency through comprehensible input. All with practical ideas that you can use tomorrow. It’s a FREE virtual conference – join the waitlist and find out more about the speakers here.
Which French high frequency verbs are you focusing in on right now? Comment below and let me know!
her’s to focusing on what matters about the grammar debate and the tools to help us get there,