La Rivista per l'insegnamento e l'apprendimento delle lingue

Teaching grammar: all for the birds?

Bettina Boss
Louise Jansen

Le projet de recherche genevois intitulé “DiGS” (Deutsch in Genfer Schulen = l’allemand dans les écoles genevoises), cité dans plusieurs articles de ce numéro, est commenté par deux linguistes australiennes enseignant l’allemand aux universités UNSW à Sydney et ANU à Canberra. Elles ont comparé le parcours d’apprentissage des élèves francophones avec celui de leurs étudiants de langue maternelle anglaise et ont pu constater que les séquences d’acquisition sont parfaitement identiques pour les deux groupes. Alors que ce résultat spécifique ne se réfère bien sûr qu’à l’allemand langue étrangère, les observations plus générales du projet DiGS intéresseront également les enseignants d’autres langues.

It is a widely held belief that students learn what their teachers teach them. Following up on research which questions this belief (cf. Pienemann 1998), a large study of the acquisition of German as a foreign language by school students in Geneva (“DiGS”) further explored the question with some interesting results which could benefit foreign language teaching generally.
In an exemplary collaboration between researchers and teachers, the project team focussed on grammar and compared what students were taught (according to the school curriculum) with what they used productively. The results of the project showed not merely major differences between teaching and learning, but also the different ways in which the learners carved their own paths. For example, they had been taught the main cases of German (nominative, accusative, dative) very early on, but when asked to write a short text in the target language, they made their own sense of the plethora of forms in the input, breaking down the complex structures they were taught into steps they could manage, and creating and applying their own, simpler rules.
In continuing collaboration with teachers, the project team complemented its findings by developing practical proposals for curriculum change which are currently being implemented in Geneva schools.
While the specific research results relate to German the outcomes of the project are also relevant to the teaching of foreign languages generally.

1. The DiGS project

As its title suggests - DiGS stands for “Deutsch in Genfer Schulen” - the DiGS project was conceived, at least in part, with a practical objective in mind: it was intended to contribute to a major review of the curriculum for German as a foreign language in Geneva schools, which was under way at the time (Diehl et al., 2000:XIII). Accordingly, the project team included teachers from every type of primary and secondary school involved, as well as five researchers from the University of Geneva. For partly practical reasons, the team decided to collect and analyse written language samples, whereas comparable studies of the instructed acquisition of German (e.g. Pienemann 1987, 1989; Ellis 1989; Jansen 1991; Boss 1996, 1997; Tschirner 1996) had used spoken data.
The subjects of the DiGS study were 220 predominantly francophone students representing each year of study and type of course in German as a foreign language taught in Geneva schools, up to matriculation level. Over a period of two years eight written texts of approximately 100 words were collected from each student, amounting to a total of around 1800 data samples. For each text, the subjects were given a task (e.g. “Erfinde ein Interview mit deinem Idol”; Diehl et al., 2000: 7) designed to elicit grammatical structures they had been taught. [...]

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