The Utility of Linguistic Theory to the Language Teacher FSU
in the Limelight
Vol. 2, No. 1
October 1993

The Utility of Linguistic Theory
to the Language Teacher

Pininta Veronica Silalahi


This paper discusses about the utility of linguistic theory to the language teacher. The linguistic theory discussed in this paper will be limited to Transformational Generative Grammar which is first introduced by Chomsky in his book entitled "Syntactic Structures" (1957). The investigation of generative grammar described in Syntactic Structure was motivated in part by an interest in the capability of a native speaker of a language to provide and understand an infinite number of sentences which have never been heard or read before (Chomsky, 1976). This limitation is intended to focus the discussion on more specific things that generative grammar might contribute to the language teacher. The reason to limit the discussion to generative grammar is because it is not really clear whether linguistic theory especially generative grammar gives contribution to the language teacher. However, this does not mean that this paper will contain a thorough discussion on generative grammar, it will be limited to some extent of the aspects that might contribute to the language teacher or language teaching. This paper is intended to give a bird's eye view, it does not discuss about the details.

What is Linguistic Theory?

Let us begin with what is meant by theory. Hjelmselv (1973) says that theory can mean as a system of hypothesis and every theory is freed with a methodological requirement. Linguistic theory is a meta-theory dealt with the properties of linguistic description of natural languages (Fodor and Katz, 1964:19). SO we can infer that the aim of linguistic theory is to provide a procedural method in order to comprehend a given text through self-consistent and exhaustive description (Hjelmslev, 1973:206). In a simpler way, Corder (1973) says that linguistic theories are made to do two things, i.e. to explain language and to make descriptions of languages.

The description of the definition itself does not promise that it can be directly applied to elaborate how the linguistic description might be useful to language teaching. SO it is reasonable if one raises a question like, "Does linguistic theory--generative grammar--contribute something to language teacher or language teaching?"

Generative Grammar

If one talks about generative grammar, it means that it is sufficiently explicit to determine how sentences of the language are in fact characterized by the grammar (Chomsky, 1980a:220, in Cook, 1988:24). He further says that generative means that the description is rigorous and explicit. Allen (1974:63) says that Chomsky's grammar is generative in the sense that it constitutes a procedure for testing any combination of words in order to decide whether it is a sentence or not in a certain language. He added that the generation of sentences must be present in the rules themselves, the rules must be fully explicit.

Nevertheless, many teachers of English as a second language assume that generative grammar is pedagogically unadaptable to the needs of a secondary curriculum, it means that it is not applicable to language teaching. There are two important reasons for this, the first reason is that the explication of the theory is directed more towards linguists, psychologists and mathematicians than toward teachers of English. The second reason is that the criticism of this theory by other linguists made the concept more complicated.

The reasons might be plausible, but Thomas (1976) does not agree with the assumption that generative grammar is not applicable to language teaching. He conducted a summer course at Indiana University in 1961; the material is concerned with linguistic theory and the participants are teachers of various length of experience in teaching.

At the end of the course the thirty students are hoped to answer the question: "What do secondary school teachers--not professional linguists--think of generative grammar?"

The answer is positive, the students were convinced that certain deductions from Chomsky's theory could be applied to the teaching of grammar. The students have some strong reasons for this: The students found that the traditionalists were not united, even on basic definitions, and they concluded that there was no single traditional grammar, but they agreed that it provides a useful terminology. Their common on structural grammar was not much different from the traditional grammar, they said that the structuralists were as divided as the traditionalists. Structural grammar was far too complex to be readily adapted to the needs of secondary school.

At this point they realized that they were ready for any theory that would justify traditional grammar or simplify structural grammar.

The Contribution of Generative Grammar to Teaching Grammar

There are still some controversies when we are talking about the contribution of generative grammar to language teaching as it is explicitly stated by Allen (1974:63), "It is far from clear what contribution transformational grammar (Generative grammar) is likely to make to language teaching methodology."

There might be still many other linguists who are in the same position with Allen, but I would concentrate more on the opinions which can see the contribution of generative grammar to the teaching of grammar.

Saporta (1973:271) claims that the main contribution of generative grammar is to provide relevant data which enables textbook writers to base their material on the most adequate description. If one wants to apply this generative grammar, there should be a clear difference between scientific grammar and pedagogical grammar.

A scientific grammar enumerates the grammatical sentences of a language and provides each with a structural description and a semantic interpretation. It is based on a formal theory of language (Allen, 1974). He further defines that a pedagogic grammar is a collection of material extracted from one or more scientific grammar and used as the basis for language teaching. It attempt to develop the native speaker's ability to recognize and produce sentences. The explanation can be interpreted that it is possible to elaborate and apply generative grammar in the form of pedagogical grammar. Daily experience says that when we study grammar, we study how to construct grammatically correct sentences.

Related to the above description, Thomas (1976:412-413) who is convinced with he contribution of generative grammar, suggests that we teach the use of kernel sentence first (simple, declarative, active with no complex verb or noun phrase). Later on the students are taught to construct passive, negative sentences.

If we relate the proposition suggested by Thomas concerning the application of Chomsky's theory to the teaching of grammar, it seems that it meets the requirement of the goal of linguistic theory formulated by Hjemslev (1973:208):

Linguistic theory end by constructing several possible methods of procedure, all of which can provide a self-consistent and exhaustive description of any given text and there by of any language whatsoever, then among those possible methods of procedure, that on shall be chosen that results in the simplest possible descriptions.

The Utility of Linguistic Theory According to Chomsky

Chomsky (1973) wrote and article which discusses about the utility of linguistic theory to the language teacher. From the beginning he frankly confesses that he is not an expert on any aspect of the teaching of language; he is an expert on the structure of language and the nature of cognitive processes. According to him, linguistics and psychology play important roles related to language teaching; although the two subjects or disciplines are in a state of flux and agitation.

Within psychology, the view which has been long accepted i.e. principles of association and reinforcement, gestalt principles, the theory of concept formation are nowadays sharply challenged in theoretical as well as experimental work. And Chomsky himself could not accept the view that linguistic behavior is a matter of habit which is slowly acquired by reinforcement, association, and generalization. Chomsky has a strong reason not to agree with this theory. This theory does not account for the creative aspect of normal language use. He added that there is no obvious analogy between the experimental results obtained in studies of concept formation and the actual processes that seem to underlie language learning. His point in case is that the relevance of psychological theory to language acquisition is a questionable matter; nevertheless, teachers can certainly draw what suggestions and hints they can, with a constant realization that the principles are fragile and tentative.

The same situation happened to linguistics which had its share in retaining myth that linguistic behavior is habitual and that a fixed stock of patterns is acquired through practice and used as the basis for analogy. He said then, anyhow, it must be recognized that well established theory, in fields like psychology and linguistics is extremely limited in scope.

So, he is always sure and claiming that one of the qualities that all languages have in common is their creative aspect which provides the means for expressing indefinitely many thoughts (Chomsky, 1965:6). And language teaching cannot be separated from linguistic theory and language acquisition; so according to him there are some tendencies and development within linguistics and psychology that may have some potential impact on the teaching of language. They can be summarized under four headings: (a) the creative aspect of language use; (b) the abstractness of linguistic representation; (c) the universality of underlying linguistic structure; (d) the role of intrinsic organization in cognitive process.

According to him, generative grammar can give explanations to the four tendencies. The first step is to recognize whether the native speaker of a language has internalized a generative grammar--a system of rules that can be used in new and untried combinations to form new sentences and to assign semantic interpretation to new sentences.

The first tendency has been discussed above, now we turn to the second and third tendencies. It is the task of linguists to discover the rules of the generative grammar and the underlying principles on the basis of which it is organized. And it must be remembered that in order to be universal, any theory of language must be in close combat with the fundamental property of normal language.

The last heading is supposed to be one of the most important, the reason is that even a native speaker has internalized a generative grammar, he is not aware of the facts or properties of the language. The problem facing the linguist in this case is to discover what constitute unconscious, latent knowledge or the speakers' intrinsic linguistic competence. It is claimed by Chomsky as the generative grammar, the theory of speaker's competence.

This shows that the underlying principles of generative grammar are not acquired through experience and training. Chomsky argues that it must be part of the intellectual organization which is a prerequisite for language acquisition. It can be inferred that they must be universal properties of any generative grammar.

Teacher's Attitude

Concerning the teacher's attitude, Chomsky has the opinion that teachers have the responsibility to make sure that any ideas and proposals of theories are evaluated on their merits and not passively accepted on grounds of authority, real, or presumed. He has the reason not to say what the teachers should do dealt with any theories as many people claimed that language teaching has been going on a long time quite satisfactorily without teachers knowing about linguistics (Corder, 1975:275).

Another thing that he thinks important is that principles of linguistics and psychology may supply insights useful to the teacher, but this must be demonstrated and cannot be presumed. The conclusion is that it is the teacher's decision to validate or refute any specific proposals as they are directly involved in the application of those.

If Chomsky does not talk explicitly about the direct relation of generative grammar to language teaching. Newmark (1964:70) suggested that ordering rules in a transformational grammar has implications for the ordering of material in a teaching syllabus which may be different from conventional principles of grading.

Viewed from the concepts of scientific and pedagogic grammar, I have the opinion that any theory of language can be transferred into practical teaching material. The problem is, "Do teachers of language have a strong will and capability to grasp the whole idea of the theory?" Perhaps, the perception and recognition of the concept of the theory and the enumeration of the theory is the most difficult thing to grasp. If an understanding of a theory is well established, teachers will be able to decide what hints they can draw from it.

For instance, I have the experience that the teacher training college will not focus the curriculum on linguistics. Linguistics is given very little, only the surface, so when they become teachers another question might be raised, "how many of them will do their best in understanding a theory by their own effort?"

This situation might be found in any teacher training colleges, not only in Indonesia. It is clearly known that the teacher training colleges educate their students to be teachers, not to be linguists. Maybe the best way to do is to carry out an intensive cooperation between linguists applied linguists, and language teachers. But, in the meantime, I could not propose the real form of cooperation.

I believe that it will be more valuable if every teacher is provided with a clear concept of theories of language which are already known up to the present time. And the last decision remains on theory hands as the language teachers.


Allen, J.P.B. 1974. "Pedagogic Grammar" in J.P.B. Allen and S. Pit Corder (Eds.). Techniques in Applied Linguistics. London: Oxford University Press.

Chomsky, Noam. 1965. Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. Cambridge: M.I.T. Press.

-------------. 1973. "The Utility of Linguistics Theory to the Language Teacher." in J.P.B. Allen and S. Pit Corder (eds.), Readings for Applied Linguistics. London: Oxford University Press.

-------------. 1976. "Some Methodological Remarks on Generative Grammar." in Harold b. Allen (ed.), Readings in Applied Linguistics. New Delhi: Amerind Publishing Co. Pvt. Ltd.

Cook, V. 1988. Chomsky's Universal Grammar. New York: Basil Blackwell.

Corder, Pit. 1973. "Linguists and the Language Teaching Syllabus." In J.P.B. Allen and S. Pit Corder (eds.), Readings for Applied Linguistics. London: Oxford University Press.

Fodor, Jerry A. and Katz, Jerold J. 1964. The Structure of Language. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall Inc.

Hjemselv, L. 1973. "The Aim of Linguistic Theory". In J.P.B. Allen and S. Pit Corder (eds.), Reading for Applied Linguistics. London: Oxford University Press.

Pininta Veronika Silalahi, lecturer at the Faculty of Letters, Universitas 17 Agustus 1945 Surabaya.