As soon as I uttered the sentence, the classroom became the setting of a horror film. Thunder and lightning were heard in the distance. My language students’ faces were invaded by terror. What had I said? What horrible threat had escaped my lips? Nothing, really. I just had said: “Today, we do the subjunctive.”
Grammar is one of the most difficult topics to teach in a foreign language class. First, because (at least in comparison to other countries), the British school system puts little emphasis on it, as I found out when I worked in secondary education. The English teacher whose class I supported ended hanging posters across the room with statements such as: “verb is the action word”, “adjective is the word that describes another”, because the pupils were puzzled every time she mentioned those terms. Then, how can you make students understand grammar concepts in a foreign language if they do not have them clear in their own?
Not so long ago, the teaching of foreign languages prioritised grammar above all things. When I started studying English (as a Foreign Language), age eleven, back in Spain, I had to learn sentences such as:
“My tailor is rich and your mother is in the kitchen”.
First, I have never had a tailor and I do not know why I should care about his / her money. Second, I do not think that “your mother is in the kitchen” contributes to spread gender equality. The lessons did not particularly encourage the pupils to engage in conversations. On the contrary, they were organised around a grammatical concept: the possessive articles (“my tailor/ your mother”), the prepositions (“in the kitchen”)… Then, we would reinforce these concepts by translating sentences. My favourite ever was:
“My yellow house is smaller than my cousin’s blue hospital, but it is bigger than my dog’s green kennel”.
As you see, the main point here is the grammatical concepts (making comparisons and learning the colours), not the content of the sentence (it would actually be a tragedy if I lived in a house smaller than my dog’s).
Thankfully, the emphasis changed some years ago. Instead of focusing on grammar learning, language teachers prefer to put students in a speaking situation: you need to introduce yourself. What do you say? You are having drinks, renting a room… What do you say? Grammar concepts are taught as they appear: when you introduce yourself or other people, you ask questions. That is when you explain that, in the Spanish present tense, the ending of the verb form changes depending on whom are you speaking about: I am (soy), you are (eres), he/ she is (es)…
When I teach the subjunctive, I have the added difficulty that this concept does not exist in the English language (“If I were you…” is perhaps the only example we can find). Consequently, in my lessons, my emphasis is not that tenses have two moods in Spanish (indicative and subjunctive). Instead, I explain to my students that subjunctive is the verb form they need to use when expressing wishes and hopes (“I hope you like it”/ “Espero que te guste”) or when talking about things you dislike (“It annoys me that you make noise”/ “Me molesta que hagas ruido”). Rather than talking about an abstract concept, I prefer to emphasize when and how it is used.
In conclusion, grammar is essential in the language class, but we should try to keep it as simple as possible and not depend too much on it.