Guide Grammar for Teachers: A Guide to American English for Native and Non-Native Speakers

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Even when the sentence elements are new and unique, ones that native speakers have never before seen, they can use and adapt them according to the patterns of their language. The jaws that bite, the claws that catch! Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun The frumious Bandersnatch! The poem is famous for consisting of nonsense words mixed in with normal English words. What makes the poem so vivid and effective in many respects is the ability of the author to evoke images based on the grammatical knowledge of the native or highly proficient non-native speaker.

Jabberwock for instance, is preceded by the, a word, called a definite article, that in English precedes a noun. Both that clue and the fact that Jabberwock is capitalized, tell us that this nonsense word is a noun, specifically a proper noun or a name noun similar to Chicago or Italy. Like Jabberwock, this word is capitalized and preceded by the. However, we know intuitively that Jubjub does not have the same sentence function as Jabberwock.

Why is this so? After Jubjub we see the word bird. This is a word that we call a noun, specif- ically a noun that names a thing; in this case a thing that flies, has wings, and a beak. Jubjub is describing something about bird. Since Jubjub is written with a capital J , we can guess that it is telling us specifically what kind of bird is being referred to. In other words, Jubjub is functioning as an adjective before the noun bird. Because of its sentence position, Jubjub has a function similar to Siberian as in Siberian tiger. Similarly, we can guess that frumious is another descriptive word, describ- ing something about the proper noun Bandersnatch.

The sentence position of frumious before Bandersnatch is one clue. A different type of clue telling us some- thing about frumious is the ending —ous. This is an ending that is found in other words that describe nouns, such as famous, gorgeous, voluptuous, egregious, and pretentious. Native and highly proficient non-native speakers of English can understand and appreciate this poem without ever before having seen such words as Jabberwocky or frumious, and without necessarily knowing what the terms noun or adjective mean because they know the grammar of English.

The rules they are using to understand this poem are below their level of awareness. They need to begin by becoming aware that there are differences in how languages are patterned, and then work toward the goal of being able to subconsciously produce the new language without explicit reference to rules. In Discovery Activity 3 you will have the chance to see how much you know about English grammar. Using the previous analysis as a starting point: 1. What conclusions can you draw about the italicized words?

Explain why you reached the conclusions you did. And, as in uffish thought he stood, The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame, Came whiffling through the tulgey wood, And burbled as it came! One two! And through and through The vorpal blade went snicker-snack! Through the looking glass and what alice found there. This ability is part of your knowledge of the underlying patterns, or grammar, of English. Based on sentence position and endings, you probably concluded that uffish, tul- gey, and vorpal are descriptive words adjectives describing the nouns following them. In Chapter 2 we will examine word endings in more detail.

It comes after the verb went and is describ- ing something about the verb. We can also say that the alliteration of the sounds of the word easily bring to mind a sound such as a sword might make. Language as a Set of Rules versus Language as Rule-Governed Discovery Activity 3 demonstrates that there are two very different conceptions of grammar. The correct rules must often be learned and practiced, and may at times be contrary to what even educated native speakers use in formal language contexts. This is the prescriptive school of grammar.


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There is another school that sees grammar as a blueprint of language. As a blueprint of language, grammar guides speakers in how to string together symbols, sounds, and words to make coherent, meaningful sentences. This type of grammar knowledge is intuitive and reflects the innate ability of speakers to learn and use their native language. Children, for instance, do not memorize rules as they learn to speak; what they actually learn are the rules or patterns governing their language.

Grammar is what allows language users to create and understand an unlimited num- ber of new and original sentences. Furthermore, no language has only one grammar; each language has subsets of grammar, which are generally referred to as dialects. These subsets are often considered substandard forms, yet they are also just as rule- governed as the standard variety. This is the descriptive school of thought. A more in-depth look at the two different schools of thought follows.

Prescriptive versus Descriptive Grammar What are some examples of the differences between prescriptive and descriptive grammar? Prescriptive Grammar A key distinction between how linguists view grammar and how others do is the distinction between prescriptive and descriptive grammar. Prescriptive grammar is the grammar taught in school, discussed in newspaper and magazine columns on language, or mandated by language academies such as those found in Spain or France.

At times, prescriptive grammar rules are overextended to the point that speakers hyper- correct, that is, they apply the grammatical rules in situations where they should not. Take, for instance, the use of the pronouns I and me. For many years English teachers in the United States railed against the incorrect use of me, the object pro- noun, in subject position as in: 1 Me and John are going to the store.

There is a prescriptive grammar rule in English specifying that pronouns in sub- ject position must be subject pronouns I, you, we, he, she, it, they. In addition, the subject pronoun I should follow any other noun subject or subject pronoun. Thus, from a prescriptive point of view, Sentences 1 and 2 must be: 1a John and I are going to the store. In the last several decades, many native speakers, attempting to avoid the incorrect use of me tend to hypercorrect the use of me by substituting I , even in cases where me is called for because it is in object position.

John and I are objects of the preposition from. The prescriptive grammar rule requires the use of me and not I. You and I are the objects of the preposition between and again, as in Sentence 3 , and me rather than I must be used. The boys and I are the objects of the verb give.

As in Sentences 3 and 4 , me is the correct choice and not I. What we see in Sentences 1 through 5 is a difference in prescriptive grammar rules and descriptive grammar rules. Prescriptive rules sometimes referred to as usage rules are those rules that explain what users of a language are supposed to do. These are often the rules that: r are explicitly taught and learned in formal school settings.

Change is vital to a living language. As the substitution of I for me in the object position becomes increasingly widespread, it may well become an accepted language form in the future, except perhaps for the most formal of contexts. Who versus whom How is the difference between who and whom related to prescriptive grammar versus descriptive grammar? An example of a change that has become more widespread and accepted is the loss of the distinction between who and whom.

Most native speakers of English do not make this distinction consistently. A prescriptive grammar rule maintains that whom is the object form of who as in: 6 The author, whom I met last year, signed several copies of the text. In Sentence 6 , whom is the object of the verb met. In Sentence 7 , it is the object of the preposition for. In spoken and written English, native speakers commonly produce such sentences as: 8 Who did you see last night at the movies? From the perspective of prescriptive grammar, the correct form in Sentences 8 and 9 is whom, not who. In both sentences whom is functioning as an object and not as a subject.

In Sentence 8 , who is the object of the verb see and in Sentence 9 , who is the object of you really need to talk to. Thus, from a prescriptive perspective, these sentences should be: 8a Whom did you see last night at the movies? The distinction between who and whom is a prescriptive grammar rule requir- ing conscious attention and effort which is often incompletely applied. In both sentences, the correct form is who, not whom.

In Sentence 10 , Who it is the subject of the verb ordered.

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In Sentence 11 , it is the subject of will be walking. Learners of English who have begun their study of the language in their home countries are often more aware of the difference in use between who and whom because their instruction has been more prescriptive. Also, since their exposure is frequently limited to classroom instruction, they may have had less exposure to more informal forms of English.

There are several factors to consider in answering this question. For example, are the students preparing to take certain exams that test knowledge of prescriptive rules? Additionally, how much does not observing this distinction between who and whom interfere with understanding? Since native speakers routinely do not observe this distinction, the answer is very little. Prescriptive versus Descriptive Grammar 13 Descriptive Grammar Descriptive grammar rules, in contrast to prescriptive rules, describe how adult native speakers actually use their language.

From this perspective, grammar is what organizes language into meaningful, systematic patterns. These rules are inherent to each language and are generally not conscious rules. However, they are readily observable for those interested in looking. What we must consider is the purpose for which a speaker is using language. If a person is at a white-collar job interview or sending in a college application, using stigmatized language forms is inappropriate. On the other hand, if the person is among a group of peers, using a different variety of language is part of in-group acceptance and identity.

This is not to say that there should be no grammar rulebooks, manuals of style, or standards of usage; on the contrary, there is a need for standards, especially in formal language contexts and when we are teaching English to non-native speakers. The needs of these learners are very different from those of native speakers. Native speakers and textbooks geared to them focus on prescriptive grammar.

Why do I need to know grammar? Teachers need to be able to talk about how sentences are constructed, about the types of words and word groups that make up sentences, and about the functions of these words and word groups within sentences and in larger contexts. With this knowledge, teachers can help their students understand the language and know what their students need to learn in order to acquire it.

Find the verbs and underline them. How would you explain these verbs in these sentences to a learner of English? Do you drive to New York? The flight is leaving in the next 20 minutes. After you have checked your answers to Discovery Activity 4, try Discovery Activity 5.

Discuss your answers with your classmates; then compare your responses with those found in the Answer Key. This will then conclude our introduction to grammar. How would you explain the italicized words in these sentences to a learner of English? The child painted a big, beautiful, wooden box. That is a stone fence. Mary drove fast but stopped quickly at the red light. These rules are learned as part r determine what word, phrase or construction of the process of growing up as a native is or is not correct according to a particular speaker of a given language.

These rules often exist on a con- i. Some grammarians are slower to accept change than others. Examples of this are Latin and Sanskrit. Can you find at least 5 and discuss how they entered the language and whether they are considered standard or slang words. For example, Internet and to boot up have recently entered the English language to describe computer use. As another example, the popular Harry Potter series by J. Rowlings has made muggle a commonly accepted term designating ordinary people without special magical powers.

Although there was such a word in the English language prior to the publication of the first Harry Potter book, it was an obscure term with very different meanings. The new and popular meaning of muggle has come about through literary means. Activity 2: Language Intuition 1.

Look at the following list of nonsense words and English words. On a separate sheet of paper, create 5 original sentences using only these words but all of these words in each sentence. Ask at least 2 other people to make up 1—2 sentences using these words. Compare your sentences with those you collected from your informants. Why or why not? Bring your sentences, the sentences your informants wrote, and their comments to class.

Compare these with those other classmates gathered. Practice Activities 17 5. Some mishiffen gwisers were stoshly drinking a frionized keg. Which two words refer to things nouns? What clues are there to help you decide which words refer to things nouns? Which words do you think are describing the things nouns in this sentence?

Activity 4: Prescriptive Grammar 1. Share this list with at least 3 other native or near-native speakers of English. Ask them to tell you which sentences they find incorrect and why. Compare your list and those of your classmates. She no like pancakes. She go when? She move to farm last year. Activity 5: Gender and Pronoun References Write a reflective essay on the following situation.

Use the questions below to guide your thoughts. As a teacher you have conscientiously taught the use of the singular male pos- sessive pronoun in such sentences as Everyone needs to bring his book to class tomorrow or Anyone who wants his grades can come to my office on Friday. Several students come to you with the situations below: r Student A was watching a movie. The student notices that everyone in the movie said such phrases as Someone has to share their room or no one goes out without paying their parents and asks you why they are using these forms.

In one part the author has written If each and every person had his way, there would be chaos. How do you explain the differences to them? Consider the differences between prescriptive and descriptive grammar. Take into consideration any standardized testing these students might be taking. How might you deal with issues related to prescriptive versus descriptive gram- mar? What changes if any would you make in your teaching?

Justify your decision. In English, to form a present tense negative sentence, we need to use what is commonly called an auxiliary or helping verb, or do. See Chapter 5. You do not walk. German Ich laufe. I walk Ich laufe nicht. I do not walk. Chinese Ni xi huan. You like it Ni bu xi huan. You do not like it. In English, to form a question in present tense, we need to use what is commonly called an auxiliary or helping verb or do.

You walk. Do you walk? German Du sitzt. You sit. Sitzt du? Do you sit? In other languages, a word is added at the end of a sentence to indicate that it is a question: affirmative question Chinese Ni xi huan. You like it. Ni xi huan ma? Do you like it? This is a verb form that refers to indefinite time or time in the recent past. We will see exactly what this means in Chapter 6 when we examine time, tense, and aspect. Compare these two sentences: a I am hot. The time referred to in the two sentences is different because of the phrase about to. This phrase changes the time of present tense am to indicate that an immediate future action is taking place.

Normally we would say that is leaving refers to something happening now. How- ever, as in Sentence 4 , the addition of a phrase, in the next 20 minutes, changes the time reference to the immediate future. See Chapter 6. Discussion: Discovery Activity 5 1. Adjectives descriptive words follow a certain order when there is more than one. Saying The child painted a wooden, beautiful, big box sounds awkward to native and highly proficient native speakers because it does not follow normal English word order for multiple adjectives.

See Chapter 4. The and an are used before nouns. The refers to a specific object; an refers to an unspecified object and is used before a vowel sound as in eraser, orange, ink, apple. In English we often use two nouns together. The first noun describes something about the second noun. We can say stone fence, wooden fence, iron fence, garden fence and each time describe a different type of fence. See Chapter 3. Mary stopped quickly at the red light. Quickly describes the action word verb in the sentence.

Such words are gen- erally labeled adverbs See Chapter 4. They often, but not always, end in —ly: happily angrily jokingly sadly loudly Fast is an example of a manner adverb that does not end in —ly. Fast is also an example of a word that has the same form as an adjective and as an adverb See Chapter 4.

Section 1 focuses on word classes and includes a brief introduction to some of the basic parts of speech to aid in our dis- cussion of the next section. Section 2 focuses on morphology, which is the structure and form of words. Section 1: Word Classes For many people, words are the center of language. This comes as no surprise if we consider that the most obvious, concrete and recognizable parts of any language are its words or its lexicon. In any given language there are tens of thousands of words, although most speakers will know and use only a relatively small number of them.

A primary concern of grammarians is the classification of words into groups or categories. Traditional English grammar, based on Latin, adopted terminology and classification systems that often do not reflect the actual grammar of English. However, in order to discuss the different elements and structures of English, we need to employ some sort of terminology, so we continue to use the traditional labels and classification systems which have their usefulness in that they provide a common vocabulary for discussing the words of language.

For example, you have probably learned that different words are classified into parts of speech and many grammar texts still use this classification. However, many grammar texts prefer to think of parts of speech in terms of form and structure classes. The form classes are composed of the major parts of speech: nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. These are the words that carry the content or meaning of a sentence.

The structure class words are composed of the minor parts of speech: prepositions, pronouns, determiners, conjunctions, qualifiers and other subsets. These structure words generally accompany specific form classes. On a separate sheet of paper, make 4 columns.

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Without using a dictionary or any other reference tool, try to place the different words that you think belong together in the different columns. The first four words have already been done for you as a sample. After you have categorized as many words together as you can, explain why you grouped them as you did.

Now take your paper and make two new columns, Group A and Group B. Using the new list of words below, try to place the different words that you think belong together in the different columns.

There are just two groups this time. Try to explain why or why not. Even without knowing the labels for each group, you should have been able to place the words in the list together with other words performing the same function. Context and Function 23 Your grouping of the words in the second list should look like this: Group A Group B harm harm remind cancer cup cup scream scream date date struggle struggle queen poison poison announce style style write Here Groups A and B again represent different word classes.

Group A represents words that are verbs and Group B words that are nouns. Some of the words fit into both groups; for example harm can be either a verb or a noun. You can harm verb someone or you can suffer harm noun. While you may recognize that a word can fit into more than one group, you may not be able to do so without thinking of a sentence or context for that particular word.

In English, the group or class to which a word belongs is not always obvious without context, as you were most likely aware of when doing Discovery Activity 1. Unlike many other languages, English does not always rely on word endings or word forms to determine part of speech. The form of a word in English does not necessarily tell us the function of that word. However, context and sentence position are key to clarifying the function of a word or phrase in English because word order is highly fixed. As we saw in Chapter 1, words need to be placed in a certain order.

This helps us to understand their function and meaning. These are two central themes we will revisit throughout this text: Form in English does not necessarily equal function; and, word order is fixed, meaning that words in English have to occur in a particular sequence. Context and Function How are the sentence position of a word and its function related? As the Jabberwocky activities and discussion in Chapter 1 illustrated, the sentence position of some of the nonsense words told you their function.

The context let you guess what word class some of these words belonged to. In both sentences you can see that the same word appearing in different contexts has a different function: 1 She made a wish on a star. In subsequent chapters we will be analyzing the clues that help us decide which function words have in different contexts. Word Plays and Context: An Additional Illustration Newspaper headlines are famous for using short, catchy phrases with words that have different meanings depending on context.

The actual mean- ings only become clear after reading the articles themselves. Discovery Activity 2: News Headlines r Look at the newspaper headlines. City Fires Director for New Look 2. Kidnapped Child Found by Tree 3. British Left Waffles on Gibraltar 4. Kids Make Nutritious Snacks Discussion: Discovery Activity 2 In order to see the double meanings implied by the headlines, consider the questions below: How you answer determines what words you might want to insert to clarify the exact meaning. The director or some thing or place in the city?

Can a tree find a child or is the reference to the place where the child was found? Did the British leave an edible food item or are the leftists indecisive? Context and Function 25 4. Did EMT personnel help the raccoon or the victim? Are the kids the snack or do they prepare them? The writers of these headlines have deliberately played on the different meanings of the words to create humorous, attention-getting titles by omitting important words.

The actual meanings are within the articles, which provide the context for the correct meanings. Teachers need to be aware of what learners need to know about a language and why they need to know it. As Discovery Activity 2 highlighted, context is critical in determining meaning. Words without context can be difficult to understand.

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Isolated grammar rules with isolated sentences may be necessary at very low levels of English proficiency to introduce learners to a particular form. The next Discovery Activity highlights again the importance of context in under- standing meaning and function. Discovery Activity 3: Context Look at the following pairs of sentences. Use the questions below to help you. Are the two words, practice and talk, the same in sentences a and b? What differences and similarities are there between practice and talk in sentences a and b r How are they similar? Do they have the same function in both sentences?

How do practice and talk differ in the two sentences? What differences and similarities are there between present in Sentences c , d and e? Discussion: Discovery Activity 3 The purpose of this activity is to highlight the importance of context in understand- ing the meanings and functions of individual words. Words that look the same may have different meanings and functions depending upon where they occur in a sentence.

Talk is an action word verb referring to what I the subject is doing.

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It is being used as an adjective. In spoken English, there is a difference between present in Sentence c. The next part of the chapter will introduce the parts of speech. Different chapters will explore these parts of speech or word classes in greater depth. Parts of Speech or Lexical Categories As we mentioned earlier, English words fall into two main categories: form class words, which include the major word classes, and structure class words, which include the minor word classes.

The major category is the larger of the two categories. This category consists of the word classes commonly labeled nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs although not all linguists agree that adverbs belong in the major category. These major word classes are comprised of the words that carry the content or essential meaning of an utterance.

They are often referred to as content or form words. The minor category includes the minor word classes generally known as prepo- sitions, pronouns, conjunctions, and determiners. These words serve primarily to indicate grammatical relationships and are frequently referred to as structure words. Take a look at the following sentence: 3 Victoria ate a banana at the table. This sentence consists of seven words: four content words and three structure words. The three structure words, a, at, and the show the grammatical relationships of the content words; a before banana tells us Victoria ate one thing, at tells us where Victoria ate the banana, and the specifies the thing, namely a specific table.

The minor category includes fewer words than the major category, as we will see in the next section. Open Word Classes The major category is vast. It is so large because we frequently create new English words. Thus, the major word or form classes are called open classes because new words enter the language constantly. English is a language that readily borrows and invents new words, which generally enter the language as nouns, verbs, or adjectives. Often new words enter via informal language slang or jargon and with increased use become accepted into standard English.

The verb dis or diss , meaning to make fun of, show disrespect to, or disobey, is used primarily in informal speech. Emoticons refer to the icons used to display emo- tions in computer communications. The original emoticons consisted of keyboard characters such as :- for happy or :- for sad, but now also include ASCII glyphs. It is an invented word that combines the emot of emotion with the word icon. Technology is a common source of new vocabulary. Words such as mouse, surf, e-mail, and blog are other examples of words that have taken on new meanings or been invented in relation to the computer.

Look at the list below of words that have entered English in the last 50 years or so. How many of these words do you recognize? How comfortable do you feel using each word? It has taken on the meaning of becoming violent or going berserk, the latter itself a borrowed expression first entering standard English in the early s.

Closed Word Classes The second category, which consists of the minor or structure word class words, are referred to as closed word classes. First, they consist of small numbers of words that change very little over long periods of time and have been in the English language for centuries. Despite the fixed number of structure words, it is these words, along with the inflectional morphemes, that cause the most learner difficulties. Structure words are among the most common and frequently used English words. They include: r prepositions e. There is only one form for the preposition in.

In con- trast, a noun, which is an open class word, can be plural or singular e. Third, these words occur only in a narrow range of possible positions within a sentence and they must always accompany content words. There is no flexibility in word order. The must always precede a noun. It cannot follow a noun. We cannot choose to say dog the but must say the dog. Finally, closed word classes have little lexical or semantic function. The job of these words is to establish logical relationships between the different parts of sentences.

For example, if we say, I went to the store this sentence has a different meaning than if we say, I went by the store. The only difference between the two sentences is the change of prepositions from to to by, but it is these words which indicate a difference in the relationship between I went and the store. Because English depends on word order to show grammatical relationships, these structure words are essential sentence elements.

Discovery Activity 5 further illus- trates how prepositions function to signal grammatical relationships.

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Discovery Activity 5: Prepositions and Grammatical Relationships The following pairs of headlines have different meanings. Explain how the inclusion or omission of a preposition changes the mean- ing of each pair of sentences. Discuss what this tells us about prepositions and grammatical relation- ships. A quick reading could also lead one to read the headline as the bull having the axe. As you saw in Discovery Activity 5, the addition or deletion of a preposition in the headlines in alters the meaning. The activity illustrates the importance of the role of structure words in establishing grammatical relationships.

This role grows even more important as the complexity of the discourse increases. We will now continue with a look at the traditional parts of speech that make up the major word category. Overview: Major Parts of Speech The next section is a brief overview of the major parts of speech comprising the major word category and provides the basis for our discussion on morphology. Nouns The traditional or standard definition of a noun is a word that refers to a person, place, or thing.

On the surface, this definition has merit. Proper nouns are those nouns that name a person, place, or thing, and that are typically written with a capital letter: Person Place Thing Dr. Peters Everglades The Sphinx Spaniard Pyrenees Spanish The basic definition of nouns works well to a certain point, and will provide a starting point in determining which words are nouns.

However, as we will see in Chapter 3, it will be necessary to revise this definition to account for nouns that do not fit neatly into this initial definition. Adjectives Adjectives are usually characterized as descriptive or modifying words because of their function in a sentence. Words such as beautiful, hard, happy, and tall come readily to mind. These are the content words that function to create descriptive images or add color and flavor. Abstract nouns refer to nouns that refer to ideas, concepts, emotions, beliefs, precepts, or intangible phenomena such as intelligence, hate, fear, and honesty.

These cannot be counted because they do not refer to anything that has substance or that we can touch. Collective nouns include words that refer to sets, units, or categories of things. Examples of such nouns include audience, press, committee, or faculty. Audience or faculty can be thought of as a set or category, for instance, because each word refers to a group of persons or individuals. The press have become intrusive. The committee meets today. The committee meet today. At the end of this chapter you can find a chart listing the common types of noncount nouns.

Native speakers are gen- erally not consciously aware of the distinction between count and noncount nouns. As part of their innate knowledge of the grammar of English, they have no difficulty using these different nouns in a systematic, rule-governed manner. This distinction between count and noncount nouns, is however, a problematic area for non-native speakers for a variety of reasons. Concep- tualizing which nouns are count or noncount is difficult for speakers whose native languages have different ways of looking at nouns.

In some languages, nouns are categorized according to whether they are animate or inanimate; in other languages nouns are categorized according to shape and size. In many languages nouns are not categorized at all. Remember, as we saw earlier, know- ing which type of noun a given word is, is important because it affects other sentence elements, such as verbs, determiners, and quantifiers. Look at the following sentence. When looking for an English tutor or teacher, people often naturally gravitate towards native speakers. But are such perceptions founded upon facts?

Are native speakers better teachers than non-native speakers of English? Contrary to popular belief, the American or British accent does not automatically amount to "good English. However, because American English dominates popular film and television, it may be true that more people find it easier to understand the American pronunciation compared to other pronunciations and dialects. And since the purpose of a language is communication, you may want an English teacher that speaks English using a common pronunciation. With that said, keep in mind that there are many other ways to supplement practicing English pronunciation.

With videos and recordings as well as Skype teachers so easily accessible via the internet, students should find exposure to a variety of voices and pronunciations whether they have a native English teacher or not. Non-native English speakers may be better at explaining complex ideas and structures to students than native speakers who have never had to dissect their own language.

Many native speakers have only spent time learning grammar in their school years and have not had to think about it since. For native speakers of a language, they often don't think about the language in terms of the rules that make up correct grammar but instead, in terms of what "sounds right" which means they can't always explain the rules.