From the title above, it would seem like I chose a rather easy topic for my second systems LSA. Well, the actual title of the LSA was Teaching Past Counterfactual Conditionals to High-Level Learners. What the..?
‘What the..?’ is exactly what I said and felt when I heard the more technical term for conditionals.
More often than not, ESL books divide conditionals into four categories – zero, one, two, three. Easy peasy. This is also probably the terminology you are familiar with from when you studied grammar in school (or at least when I did, in the 90s in India). But of course, it is very likely that you were taught traditional grammar in a boring, non-communicative manner. However, as has been well-proven in my own experience and that of learners all over the world, a traditional approach to grammar teaching does not increase communicative competence.
In order to teach grammar more effectively, linguists and grammarians reimagined – or rather, borrowed from philosophers Roderick Chrisholm (1946) and Nelson Goodman (1947) – the terminology and the classification of conditionals into factual (zero conditionals) and counterfactual (one, two, three conditionals). From here on, counterfactual conditionals are further divided into the following:
a. Present counterfactual state, future hypothetical consequence:
I would go to the Bahamas for my next holiday if I could afford it (now).
b. Present counterfactual state, present hypothetical consequence:
If my grandfather could see me (today), he would be proud of the man I’ve become (today).
c. Past counterfactual action, future hypothetical consequence:
If I had won the lottery (in the past), I would set off on a world tour tomorrow.
d. Past counterfactual action, present hypothetical consequence:
If Trump hadn’t won the election last year, he would be back to hosting The Apprentice now.
e. Past counterfactual state, past hypothetical consequence:
If it had rained yesterday, we would have been caught in a terrible traffic jam.
So you see why this LSA turned into a mammoth research project for me once I had zeroed in on an area of grammar to teach. To my tutor, I said ‘conditionals’, and he replied wryly, ‘OK. Past counterfactual conditionals.’ Wha..?
Anyway, here’s the introduction to my LSA and if you’re happy reading more, the download link to the complete pdf is at the bottom of the post.
A speaker’s range and accuracy of grammar is a barometer of his proficiency in the language. With the growing emphasis on communicative competence, grammatical structures frequent in spoken discourse are afforded high priority while less common ones such as the past perfect and counterfactual conditionals are, in my experience, considered with horror, glossed over briefly, or dismissed as ‘unteachable’ and ‘unlearnable’. In a survey conducted by Covitt in 1976, conditionals ranked fifth (after articles, prepositions, phrasal verbs, and verbals) in terms of difficulty in teaching.
While conditionals are challenging at all levels, learners at an intermediate interlanguage “plateau” (Lewis 2001:10) find it particularly difficult to transfer these complex structures from their receptive to productive discourse. High-level Vietnamese learners often shy away from using them, particularly counterfactual conditionals, for lack of understanding and confidence. Intermediate Japanese and Taiwanese learners I taught avoided counterfactual conditionals at all costs, while an advanced Colombian learner dismissed them as “too complicated.” “Why use the past perfect when I can use the past simple?” she asked.
In this assignment, I have chosen to examine this area of grammar, and focus on expanding high-level learners’ range of grammatical structures to express different meanings, with the use of past counterfactual conditionals. After analyzing the meaning, form and phonology of these conditionals, I will briefly outline the most common problems learners face, and propose suggestions for teaching this structure.
And now that you are riveted, you can download the complete LSA 3 on Teaching Past Counterfactual Conditionals to High-Level Learners. 😉