(selected from an interview with Michael Swan)
CQ. How do you think it is possible to integrate grammar competence with communicative competence?
MS. The Communicative Approach which came in in the 70s was a healthy reaction against earlier methods which over-emphasized grammar, and which either taught about the language instead of teaching the language, or tried to achieve fluency by ‘behaviourist’ mechanical practice. The communicative movement did us a lot of good, but as happens in revolutions, many people went to the other extreme, over-emphasizing the similarity between first-and second-language learning, giving great importance to fluency activities, and moving grammar to a back seat or abandoning it altogether.
Unfortunately, most people don’t ‘pick up’second languages with total success from just using them, even in immersion situation, and purely ‘task-based’ or ‘communicative’ approach can be seriously inappropriate for foreign-language teaching in situations where learners have ,say, 3 hours a week, 35 or 40 weeks a year. In this kind of context, it is essential to emphasize structured input and controlled practice alongside freer, more communicative fluency work, combining the best features of traditional methods with the more sensible elements in currently fashionable approaches. The grammar practice books that Catherine Walter and I have written are intended mainly to help with the first part of this process, leading to an understanding and first-stage control of the structures presented. This is a vital starting point, but of course it needs to be supplemented by continued attention to key structures as they arise in more communicative activities, in order to improve the chances of learners’ grammatical knowledge carrying over into spontaneous use. In this context, people sometimes talk as it accuracy and fluency were alternatives. But of course, they’re not. Learners must be able to produce key structures reasonably correctly in order to communicate successfully (accuracy); they also need to be able to produce and interpret these structures quickly enough to keep up some fluency for the sake of greater accuracy, or vise versa. But without an adequate level of fluent accuracy (or accurate fluency, if you prefer), communication simply doesn’t work.