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Review of  Deutsche Grammatik verstehen und unterrichten

Reviewer: Daniel Walter
Book Title: Deutsche Grammatik verstehen und unterrichten
Book Author: Matthias Granzow-Emden
Publisher: Narr Francke Attempto Verlag GmbH + Co. KG
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Subject Language(s): German
Issue Number: 24.4489

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“Deutsche Grammatik verstehen und unterrichten” (“Understanding and teaching German grammar”) is an instructional textbook primarily intended for those teaching German grammar to first language German students. It is particularly well designed as a course book for teacher education programs, whose students may not have extensive explicit knowledge of German grammar.

This book is divided into fourteen chapters, laying out problems with traditional grammar instruction in German language classrooms and providing alternative explanations and teaching methods for different grammatical topics.

The first chapter, “Wege zur Grammatik” (“Paths to Grammar”), dispels common myths about what people see as “good” versus “bad” German, emphasizing differences in language forms in different social contexts. This allows the author to discuss “Standard” in a way that highlights its importance in academic contexts without disregarding the importance of local dialects and natural speech. Finally, the author outlines his plan for instruction built not on semantic definitions to explain syntactic elements but rather the use of word groups and their syntactic relations to explain the grammatical make-up of German.

The second chapter, “Das Verb als Schlüssel zum grammatischen Verstehen” (“The Verb as the Key to Grammatical Understanding”), places the understanding of the importance of the verb at heart of German grammar instruction. First, the author describes why the common description of a verb as an “action” word is incorrect and leads learners down the wrong path. Instead, the author describes the verb in terms of valence theory and shows its role in connecting different sentential elements. This syntactic-relational explanation helps teachers and students avoid a semantic definition for the syntactic function of the verb.

The third chapter, “Grammatische Modellbildung” (“Grammatical Model Construction”), describes the importance of using exemplars to explain grammatical concepts and highlights the idea that these examples are more effective than grammatical “rules” which often come with so many exceptions that they are often hardly worth conveying.

The fourth chapter, “Die Feldgliederung als zentrales Muster der deutschen Sprache” (“Field Grouping as the Central Template of the German Language”), provides a five-unit model for the construction of German sentences. These units, in order from left to right, consist of the pre-field, left verb field, middle field, right verb field, and post-field. By describing the normal German paradigm as consisting of a two-part verb field with left and right positions, movement and placement of German verbs can be better described than in the standard left verb field base model.

The fifth chapter, “Formen und Funktionen von satzverbindenden und verweisenden Einheiten” (“Forms and Functions of sentence combining and referential elements”), focuses on the parts of speech that serve discursive and deictic functions. For example, the importance of conjunctions in creating rational relationships between clauses and how deictic elements refer across a discourse or discourses (e.g. he, she) and within a particular context (e.g. there, here).

The sixth chapter, “Eine neue Satzlehre fuer die Schule” (“A New Sentence Model for the School”), explains problems with current instruction based on three traditional sentence types: commands, questions, and declaratives. After problematizing current teaching methods, the author shows how his field description can overcome pitfalls of the traditional approach.

The seventh chapter, “Starke und schwache Verben und die verschiedenen Verbarten” (“Strong and Weak Verbs and Different Verb Types”), outlines the different verb types in German. The author proposes that using socio-historical explanations for the development of different verb types can help students understand the seemingly arbitrary nature of different verb forms.

The eighth chapter, “Formen und Funktionen des Verbs im Satz” (“Forms and Functions of the Verb in the Sentence”), discusses the effects of person and number on verb conjugation, as well as the verb’s relationship to time and aspect. This chapter also introduces the participle II form and the different verb forms in indicative and subjunctive moods.

The ninth chapter, “Übersicht zu den Verbformen: Aktiv- und Passivformen im Indikativ und Konjunktiv” (“Overview of Verb Forms: Active and Passive Forms in Indicative and Subjunctive”), provides detailed tables for each of the different verb combinations with a description of the requisite parts and an explanation of the semantics behind the use of these different combinations.

The tenth chapter, “Nomen, Nominal- und Präpositionalgruppen” (“Nouns, Nominal Groups and Prepositional Groups”), differentiates the noun as a lexical, semantically central element of language from its role as a syntactic element. Like the verb, the noun can also be split into two fields. The author argues that the left noun field plays an important role in linguistic pointing, i.e. which previously discussed information is being referenced, and the right noun field, on the other hand, is important in naming, i.e. indicating new information.

The eleventh chapter, “Attribute” (“Attributes”), discusses additional linguistic elements that complement the nominal group. These include morphological elements, like adjective endings, in addition to genitive, prepositional, relative, adverbial, infinitival, verb-final, and accusative attributes.

The twelfth chapter, “Kasus, Numerus, Genus” (“Case, Number, Gender”), discusses the interaction of case, number, and gender. The author takes a stance against the typical “Fragemethode” (“question method”), in which students pose questions using the question words Wer, Wen, and Wem in order to teach case. The author cites evidence that this method leads students to make false conclusions about case and pushes for instruction that looks at the government of different parts of speech over case, such as prepositions, verbs, adjectives, and nouns.

The thirteenth chapter, “Die Deklination der Nominalgruppe” (The Declension of the Nominal Groups”), provides detailed tables which show the different declension patterns in German across its four cases, three genders, and two number possibilities.

The fourteenth and final chapter, “Die traditionelle Satzgliedlehre” (“The Traditional Model of Parts of Speech”), reaffirms why this approach is useful in instructing students in German grammar, and notes the difficulty any new approach to grammar will meet once these students begin teaching. They will face the challenge of conforming to the traditions and norms of their school, as well as balancing what they know and think is right for their own classrooms, and it is up to each individual teacher to make decisions about what is best for their students.

Overall, this book does an excellent job of explaining German grammar in an easily accessible way. The numerous examples, practice sections, and thorough explanations behind this specific approach to grammar instruction make it an obvious choice for students and teachers with a limited amount of instruction in linguistics. In addition, this book balances the grammatical explanations necessary to help future teachers understand the grammatical concepts themselves with methods aimed at helping those future teachers to be able to teach those grammatical concepts in a classroom.

While this book, on the whole, is well suited for people with fairly limited explicit knowledge of German, it would not necessarily be appropriate for an upper level linguistics course. The explanations are clear, but there is little theoretical context on the different mechanisms driving these different linguistic forms. Some references for further reading on linguistic theory are included, such as Steven Pinker’s “The Language Instinct” and Vygotsky’s “Thinking and Speaking”, but this is not a major topic of the book. In addition, some of the theories cited differ significantly with regard to language development (e.g. usage-based vs. innate), but there is no explanation of this dichotomy.

For professors in German-speaking teacher education programs, this textbook can provide a clear approach to helping students understand and be able to teach different grammatical concepts could help to facilitate real change in future grammar instruction.

Pinker, S. (1994). The Language Instinct. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics.

Vygotsky, L. (2002). Denken und Sprechen. Psychologische Untersuchungen. Weinheim; Basel: Beltz.
Dan Walter is a Ph.D. student in Second Language Acquisition at Carnegie Mellon University. His interests include German as a second language, grammatical gender, and emergentist approaches to language learning.