In the past, I was mildly irritated to get questions about grammar because I assumed they were from some misguided homework assignment, but now I recognize these requests as a plea from students who are justifiably looking for a road sign in their meandering search for meaning. Though grammar is fed to students as a forced vitamin regime, most students are simply searching for basic nutrients.
I am surprised to understand that most students have little grammatical understanding of their own language and are familiar with the notion only because it’s been covered in their English classes. Many might think that grammar is an English thing and has nothing to do with Lao.
As I understand it, grammar is not taught in Lao language classes. There is very little sign of it in the elementary texts. This explains why so many are not confident in writing Lao. It is commonly thought that if you can speak a language, you can write it, but without an understanding of word function and order, it is very difficult to construct a proper sentence, much the less compose a complex, yet logical argument. Granted, it’s always been easy to copy, but that doesn’t constitute an ability to write.
So when students attach themselves to grammar, it is a kind of cargo worship that has gained added value for the wrong reasons. Most learn grammatical terms without knowing what they’re for, yet pride themselves that they know the number of verb conjugations. Terms without functions are dangerous in the way we wouldn’t want to be treated by a doctor who knew the names of internal organs, but had no idea of how they function.
In experiments, I’ve found it possible to teach word order and function without using the grammatical terms. We point out the verb by calling it the “important” word. Using the verb as the gravitational center of a sentence, questions can help students to understand how orbiting words are related. For example if the sentence is, “Ms, Bua Kham raises vegetables in her yard so that she can sell them and make some extra money.” The teacher focuses on the verb “raise” and asks, “Who raises? She raises what? Where does she raise them? Why does she raise them? When she sells them, what can she get? Does she get a lot? Right, just a bit of extra money.” The verb connects the who, what, where, why and when and even gives sense to subordinate and conjunctive clauses, though such terms can be kept as a secret until they’re understood.
Teaching both form and function creates a biosphere of meaning. Meaning can take root and the brain is happy to use both sides. Research has shown that when one side of the brain is damaged, patients might know the function of the hammer without knowing the name. When the other side is decommissioned, the patient looks at a hammer, knows what it’s called and has no idea what it’s for. We need to understand both form and function.
Asking questions for comprehension in this way is easier done for Lao language lessons, considering the level of most English students. It’s not a bad idea to ask students to understand their first language before tackling the second. At present, most are doing it in reverse.
There are many things that can help us make progress. Sliding backwards is not one. We need the will and the way and then we can get us up that hill.