Introduction to Linguistics for TESOL Educators:

English Grammar and Language

About this course

This course offers an introduction to the history and construction of languages and to the basic linguistic concepts of learning a second language, such as grammar, pragmatics, and syntax. Linguistics provides an introduction to language evolution and to an appreciation of human language. Participants improve their own (English) language mastery, gain insight into English in comparison with other languages, examine grammatical categories and processes of other languages, and discover the rich array of languages and language types spoken worldwide. Key topics include grammar, syntax, semantics, sociolinguistics pragmatics (the speech setting: assumptions, body language, etc.), dialects (areal, social, professional, creole, and pidgin languages), writing systems, and computational linguistics.

Course Key Notes

Linguistics is the systematic study of human language. Language is a patterned activity with three types of organization: sound patterns (phonology), word patterns (morphology and syntax), and meaning patterns (semantics). The word grammar refers to all three patterns combined; it is not limited to word order and word endings only (as it used to be in the past).

Here is what we know about language:

  1. Language is very complex.  Consider the complexity of any complete English grammar book.
  2. The model for language learning is imperfect.  Mothers use caregiver language; friends use baby talk; children use modified grammar.
  3. All humans learn a spoken language (NOTE: Chomsky does not claim that written language is innate).
  4. No animals learn a human-type language.  However, some animal languages are impressive.
  5. There is a critical age for foreign-language acquisition (around puberty), but that doesn’t mean that adults cannot learn languages. They, in most cases, won’t be able to achieve accent-free pronunciation.
  6. There is a sequence in language acquisition (holophrastic, pivot-open, telegraphic, adult).
  7. Human language is very creative.  Except for small-talk, almost all sentences are novel.  Language can adjust to new situations.

Descriptive and Prescriptive Grammars

Descriptive grammars contain unconscious linguistic knowledge of the speakers, i.e., they describe how language is used. Prescriptive grammars try to impose rules and prevent changes in a language from being accepted as standard forms. The idea of “absolute” correctness is completely foreign to linguists. It is also impossible to stop changes since language doesn’t exist in a vacuum – it reflects social changes and has a strong creative aspect.

Almost all humans acquire their first language without much effort. Although the two processes are not identical, knowing how the first language is acquired helps a lot when teaching the second. 

There are three major views on how language is acquired. The term acquired usually refers to the first language and is contrasted with learned.

The three major views on language acquisition, behaviorist, innatist, and interactionist, should not be considered mutually exclusive although a major proponent of each may often present it as such. 

  • Behaviorists claim that acquiring a language is nothing more than habit formation. that behaviorism explains some more routine aspects of language.
  • The innatist position offers a different explanation. It claims that we are biologically programmed for language and that language develops the same way other biological functions develop. Originally, Chomsky referred to it as the Language Acquisition Device (LAD). Nowadays, it is better known as Universal Grammar (UG) – a set of principles common to all languages. What children have to learn is the way their own language makes use of these principles.
  • The interactionist view assumes that language develops as a result of interaction between the child and the environment. Language adapted to the capability of the learner is a crucial element in language acquisition.



  • Morphology – the study of words.
  • What is a word? A widespread concept is difficult to define.

Is hasn’t one or two words? Is merry-go-round one or three words?

  • Words are perceptual, not physical units. Picking out individual words in a new language can be very difficult.
  • Morphemes – smaller meaningful parts of words
  • Trees: morphemes: tree = a tall plant s = carrier of plural meaning.

Free morphemes – can stand alone as words (tree)

Bound morphemes – must be attached or bound to a free morpheme (s in trees is a bound morpheme;  -ify in purify). They can be either prefixes or suffixes (affixes).

Affixes can be inflectional or derivational. 

Inflectional affixes add to a word without changing the part of speech (for example, third-person singular – he speaks, or possessive ‘s – teacher’s). Limited to suffixes only.

Derivational affixes can change the part of speech (work+er=worker) or change the meaning (tie, untie).

Back-Formation A complex word exists first, and a simpler word (the one without an affix) appears later – for example to edit from the editor, to swindle from a swindler, etc.

Blends are created by blending two existing words to form a new one – brunch (breakfast and lunch), smog (smoke and fog), infotainment (information and entertainment), etc.

Compounds are new words created by joining two or more words. English is flexible in allowing different parts of speech to combine: bittersweet (adjectives), homework (nouns), sleepwalk (verbs), overtake (preposition and verb), etc.

Linguistic grammar is the study of syntactic structures.

 Weaver (1996) lists four meanings of grammar:

-a description of syntactic structures – as studied by linguists

-prescriptions for how to use structures and words – teachers used to believe that if students learned about the language (the labels and the rules), they could apply them to their speaking and writing. This belief was not confirmed by research.

-rhetorically effective use of syntactic structures – grammar taught in context. Students are taught grammar in the context of writing assignments, not in isolation.

-functional command of sentence structure that makes it possible for us to understand and produce language – through exposure to language in meaningful contexts, people are able to internalize language rules. These are not traditional prescriptive rules but a set of subconscious notions that match the norms of the speaker’s language community.

Semantics is the study of the linguistic meaning of morphemes, words, phrases, and sentences. Semantics is interested in the conceptual meaning of a word. That’s the basic, literal meaning of a word we might find in a dictionary. The associative meaning of a word is the meaning we associate with a word, also known as connotation. For some people, the word “dog” may mean “man’s best friend” while for others, it may evoke “an animal that barks loudly late at night”.

Pragmatics is the study of how context affects meaning. It means to use the language for different functions, to appropriately change language according to the listener or situation, and to follow the rules for conversation and narrative (different kinds of discourse). Pragmatics largely depends on shared assumptions and expectations between two (or more speakers).

Some words carry multiple, ambiguous, or debatable meanings. The challenge in learning the vast vocabulary of English is to distinguish denotations, connotations, and the meanings in-between.

COOPERATIVE PRINCIPLE makes it possible for us to have meaningful communication. It consists of the following four conversational principles originally formulated by the British philosopher H. P. Grice who said that we should be communicative, relevant, brief, and truthful.

The Gricean maxims: 

-QUANTITY:  Say neither more nor less than the discourse requires.

-RELEVANCE: Be relevant.

-MANNER: Be brief and orderly; avoid ambiguity and obscurity.

-QUALITY: Do not lie; do not make unsupported claims.

You are most probably familiar with the concepts of BICS and CALP, formulated by Jim Cummins in1979. BICS, Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills are language skills and functions that make it possible for students to communicate in everyday social contexts. Cummins considers BICS context-embedded since the participants provide clues to each other, and the situation itself provides a lot of clues for understanding. BICS are conversational skills students need to communicate with each other and with their families.

However, the language needed for school and the completion of academic tasks is much more complicated. CALP, Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency, requires more abstract and de-contextualized language. In order to understand the meaning, students have to rely primarily on language. For Cummins, CALP, in its essence, is context reduced, ad that is one of the things that makes it hard. CALP is developed mostly at school, and its growth depends on teachers’ assistance. Without CALP, students are not able to attain in-depth knowledge of academic subjects. CALP requires critical thinking, particularly the three top-most levels of Bloom’s taxonomy – analyzing, evaluating, and creating.

It is assumed that it takes about two years to attain BICS, while five to seven years are needed for CALP to develop.

Grammatical competence refers to sentence-level grammatical forms and the ability to recognize and use language’s lexical, morphological, syntactic, and phonological elements. Learners display grammatical competence not by explaining a grammar rule but using the language correctly.

Discourse competence is not concerned with single words or phrases but with connected language utterances or written text, with language as a whole. When comprehending a text, two closely-related processes are at work: top-down – understanding the theme or the purpose helps in understanding individual words or phrases, and bottom-up – identification of isolated words and sounds, which contributes to the interpretation of the whole.

Sociolinguistic competence requires an understanding of the social context in which language is used, the roles of the participants, the information they share, and the function of the interaction.

Strategic competence incorporates strategies learners use in unfamiliar contexts to overcome their limited language skills.

Morphology Tree

My Homework

Awareness of morphological structure
English Pronunciation Problems

My Project

Lesson Plan

Grade/ Age of learner: 8-12 years old Beginner


Subject/Topic: Learn past simple tense structure

Reflection & Debriefing

Reflective teaching is an important part of improvement

Discussion Questions

Go along with my beliefs

What insights can you give about how someone can best learn a second language? What are the classroom implications for your current beliefs about how someone learns a second language?

Based on my own learning experiences, children should start English learning as early as possible. The consistent, persistent, and immersive learning environment should help children learn and speak English without stress.

Beliefs influence the strategies. I plan to use the Total Physical Response Method and Direct method to teach ESL in the classroom. Total Physical Response (TPR) is a teaching language or vocabulary concept using physical movement to react to verbal input. TPR aims to create a brain link between speech and action to boost language and vocabulary learning. The fun activities can reduce the stress people feel and encourage students to persist in their studies.

The Direct method can help students to learn English through observing actions and performing the activities themselves. The student’s understanding of the target language should be developed before speaking. Students are expected to make errors when they first begin speaking. Teachers should be tolerant of mistakes. Working on the fine details should be postponed until students have become somewhat proficient. Spoken language is emphasized over written language. Students will begin to speak when they are ready.

What are the implications of our knowledge about the brain for language teaching?

Based on the research, several brain areas must function together for a person to develop, utilize, and understand language. For example, Broca’s area allows a person to use verbal expression and spoken words. Wernicke’s area involves understanding written and spoken language. The primary auditory cortex is responsible for identifying the pitch and loudness of sounds. The angular gyrus is responsible for several language processes. A problem with these areas can cause a language learning, speaking, or reading delay.

On the other hand, learning and using language shape the physical structures of our brains. When two neurons respond to a stimulus (such as a word), they begin to form chemical and physical pathways to each other, strengthening or weakening depending on how often they are co-activated. This process of “neurons that fire together, wire together” is the basis for all learning.

For ESL teaching, making English learning fun can help the young brains grow. Singing helps with tone and sound. Pictures, videos, body movement help with memorization. Movies and posters help comprehension, etc. We need to leverage technologies and apply popular teaching strategies to help students feel fun learning. I like to use the Direct method, Inquiry-based learning, Total physical response (TPR), game learning, etc.

What are the differences between first and second language acquisition? How does first language acquisition influence second language learning?

The major differences between first language acquisition (FLA) and second language acquisition (SLA) are:

The first language is triggered from birth. Kids learn the language naturally and effortlessly by listening to their surroundings. The knowledge is stored unconsciously and naturally. Children certainly benefit from good modeling and direct conversations, but children have an innate ability to acquire the language they are immersed in. FLA is not dependent on intelligence or special ability. SLA is a personal choice. SLA is from a conscious study of a second language’s structure. It requires motivation and many other factors. Instruction is necessary and helpful. It is often difficult to reach a native-like fluency with the second language as an older person.

A popular belief is that the first language affects second language acquisition (SLA). If there are similarities in language one (L1) and L2, learners use L1 as a tool, and the learners have fewer problems and fewer errors in SLA. But if there are no or little similarities in the structure of L1 and L2, L1 can interfere with L2. Many factors cause interference, such as the similarities and differences in the structures of two languages, the learner’s background knowledge, learners’ proficiency in second languages, and the structures of consonant clusters in L1 and L2.

How has studying grammar helped your language learning? How was grammar taught in the classes you’ve taken? Do you believe it was effective? What is the best way to teach grammar?

Knowing grammar helps me to understand speaking and writing. Grammar rules allow me to make my communication more logical. Understanding the use of nouns, verbs, adverbs, adjectives, phrases, or clauses helps you write English better. By analyzing the grammar of sentences and paragraphs, I can read better.

In my English classes in China, teachers mainly applied the Grammar-Translation approach to teaching vocabulary and grammar. We read textbooks, memorized vocabulary and grammar rules in the class. All exercises focused mainly on vocabulary and grammar.

The advantage of the Grammar-Translation approach is better trains us in reading, writing, and comprehensive analysis. The disadvantage of Grammar-Translation is the neglect of listening and speaking. Knowing grammatical rules can’t ensure that students can use them appropriately in real communication situations. I think that the Grammar-Translation approach shouldn’t be the only method to teach grammar in ESL.

I will use incremental ways to teach basic grammar. When too many concepts are introduced, it is hard for children to digest. I will apply many exercises and interactive practices, including play, singing, movies, and videos, to let students feel fun to learn real-life conversations.

"If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head.
If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart."
- Nelson Mandela