When grammar is obsolete...

Last week, I had a lesson with one of my B2 students. She is quite fluent and can pretty much talk about any topics using appropriate vocabulary and grammar. At the beginning of the class, we were talking about what her daughter does on a daily basis and she kept omitting the -s at the end of each verb: she play basketball, she see her friends, etc... I kept correcting her, feeling a little impatient because she knows the rule and I felt that at this level, this sort of mistakes shouldn’t happen so often. After the lesson, I had to take some time and reflect on this. Should I do a lesson on the present simple in the third person? Or should I let it go?

The first thing we need to remember at this level is how hard it is to correct mistakes which have been made for so long. Fossilisation is probably the hardest thing upper-intermediate/advanced learners have to deal with. I see it time and time again, learners with amazing levels of English making the most basic mistakes and finding it difficult to rectify. What advice could we, as teachers, give them?

The problem with fossilisation is that most of the times, students at that level actually know the rules in theory. Therefore, in the case of my student, reviewing the rules of the present simple will not be useful, she will not get much out of the lesson because she knows and understands the rules and knows what form of the verb she should use. I think the most important thing we can teach more advanced students is to think analytically and critically about the language they use. When they start listening to what they actually say word by word, they are more likely to hear the mistakes they make and then start to make the mental effort to correct themselves.

Then I started thinking that it is easier to correct a mistake when said mistake has a real impact on communication and being understood. Forgetting the -s at the end of the third person singular in the present tense does not, in my opinion, hinder understanding and communication. I knew what my student meant, the missing -s did not make it hard for me to understand what she was talking about. So my next thought was: is the -s really necessary? As students are definitely more likely to speak English with non-native speakers who will more often than not make the same sort of mistakes, shouldn’t the ability of being understood more important than being accurate? And if everyone understands each other, isn’t it time to ditch this spelling rule? I know, it is a controversial thought, however, when I started learning English 30-odd years ago, ‘if I was’ was a grammatical mistake and would not be seen in any grammar books. Nowadays, it is widely accepted and I saw the option in some grammar books:

Maybe it is time for English to do what it does best, reflect the way people use the language and make appropriate changes to what could be seen as an obsolete grammar rule.

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