A new way to teach grammar: The bilingual option

January 20, 2014

 This is a how-to-do it article which was first published in Juergen Kurtz’ blog Language teaching in the 21st century. The theory and research behind it can be read up in Butzkamm & Caldwell, The  bilingual reform…( 2009, pp. 120ff.)

I have chosen the for +noun / pronoun +  infinitive construction. Though it is eminently useful and transparent to speakers of many languages, I believe it is not much used by intermediate learners  – admittedly I have no evidence for this- , simply because German and other languages prefer other constructions to express the same idea.

 Step1. Lift the construction from a text the students have read and ask them to translate the sentence, for instance:

For human rights to flourish, religious rights have to come second.

For this to happen, we must act now.

For this to work well, we need to know more.

 Here, the for-construction is a means to express purpose. For this meaning  German normally uses a subordinating conjunction, “damit”. In order for the students to associate the infinitive construction with the familiar dependent clause introduced by “damit” , we need to practise:

 Step 2

Teacher                                                     Students

Damit dies passiert,

Damit dies funktioniert,

Damit dies gut funktioniert,

Damit die Märkte gut funktionieren,

Damit die Schüler fleißig arbeiten,

Damit dies möglich ist,

Damit dies nicht passiert,

Damit dies kein Problem ist,

For this to happen

For this to work

For this to work well

For (the) markets to work well

For (the) students to study / work hard

For this to be possible

For this not to happen

For this not to be a problem

 The open contrast between German: dependent clause, and English: infinitive works as a kind of inoculation against unthinking transfer of mother tongue habits. If the students hesitate, for instance with the negated version, the teacher simply gives the English sentence himself and asks the students to repeat it.

 Step 3. Perhaps the above examples are  enough for a good class. The teacher has set the class on the right track and hands the activity over to the students: “Now make your own sentences along the same lines.” Alternatively, the teacher can allow a few minutes of silence for the students to jot down their ideas. This step is a must. The students must get the chance to experiment with the new construction, and the activity becomes monolingual. The mother tongue drops away.

 Since the construction does not only express purpose but is also widely used in slightly different forms and contexts, these should be practised too:

Es ist schon okay, dass du das sagst.

Ist es okay, wenn ich das sage?

War es okay, dass ich das gesagt habe?

Es wäre falsch, wenn wir jetzt gingen /

…falsch von uns, jetzt zu gehen.

Ist es normal, dass das passiert?

Ich hätte es liebend gern, dass dies passiert.

Ich hätte es liebend gern, wenn er käme.

Ich wollte nicht, dass dies passierte /

Das habe ich nicht gewollt.

It’s okay for you to say that.

Is it okay for me to say that?

Was it okay for me to say that?

It would be wrong for us to go now.


Is it normal for this to happen?

I would love for this to happen.

I would love for him to come.


I didn’t mean for this to happen.

The students will now find it easy to come up with their own meaningful ideas, using different adjectives and different pronouns: easy for us to…, unusual for them to…, not uncommon for him to…, important for her to….

 Repetition is habit-forming , and believe it or not, part  of language learning is habit formation. For correct speech habits to be formed, we need plenty of language turnover in comparatively little time (The for-construction again!). This is what the exercise provides. Count the number of sentences the students have heard and produced and compare with other exercises which take the same amount of time.

 Bilingual drills will be new for most teachers, who will have to learn, through trial and error, how to use mother tongue cues effectively, what cues work best and what cues are likely to cause interference errors from the native tongue.  Let me say it again: Should the students hesitate (searching for English equivalents), the teacher simply translates his own sentence and makes his pupils repeat it. This is a simple way of avoiding interference errors. Another way of making it easy for the students and allowing them to get into the habit of the foreign phrase is changing only little things as you go from one sentence to the next:

Es war richtig, dass sie weitermachten / weiter zu machen.

War es richtig, dass sie weiter machten?

Es ist richtig, dass sie weiter macht.

It was right for them to continue.


Was it right for them to continue?

 It is right for her to continue.

This is a way of playing it safe. But it can easily become boring unless the pace is rapid.

 Well, yes, this is pre-communicative practice, but see Butzkamm & Caldwell to show you how this kind of drill can lead a class right into message-oriented communication. There is no way to skip the groundwork.

 Just one more example. Years ago, I tried what follows with grammar school kids in their first year of English. The textbook introduced the past tense rather cautiously, restricting the new forms in a first step to was / were / had. Okay, this is grammar, but for the pupils was / were / had are simply new words with a clear meaning, just like bread or butter.

Die Party war fantastisch.

Die Party war wunderbar.

Die Party war großartig.

Betty war da.

Tim & Tom waren da.

Sie waren da.

Alle meine Freunde waren da.

Ich war in der Küche mit Tom.

Wir waren in der Küche.

Wir waren hungrig.

Wir hatten Würstchen.                  

Die Würstchen waren gut.

Die Getränke waren gut.

Ich hatte ne Cola.

Einige waren im Garten.

Es war ne warme Nacht.

Betty war nett / freundlich.

Sie war nett zu Tom.

Aber Tom war nicht nett.

Tom war schlimm / schrecklich.

Aber du warst da.

Ich war glücklich.

Es war 11 Uhr.

Die Partie war vorbei.

Zu schnell.

The party was fantastic.

The party was wonderful.

The party was great.

Betty was there.

Tim & Tom were there.

They were there.

All my friends were there.

I was in the kitchen with Tom.

We were in the kitchen.

We were hungry.

We had sausages.

The sausages were good.

The drinks were good.

I had a coke.

Some were in the garden.

It was a warm night.

Betty was nice.

She was nice to Tom.

But Tom wasn’t nice.

Tom was awful.

But you were there.

I was happy.

It was 11 o’clock.

The party was over.

Too soon.

Mother tongue stimuli here work better than anything else,because of their flexibility. We can even construct drills that tell a story, sort of.

I remember leaving the classroom in almost a state of euphoria, firstly, because the students obviously enjoyed the activity and were able to make their own sentences, and, secondly, because it confirmed a long-standing conviction of mine: the monolingual approach, which has been talked up for more than a century, is a fundamental error.

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