Who's afraid of grammar?

Very often people are quite relaxed about the idea of learning vocabulary: the Italian for ‘table’ is ‘tavola’, the Japanese for ‘car’ is ‘kuruma’. OK, no big deal. You learn the words and you’re half way there.

The problem sometimes comes with the second half to get you the whole way there. That second half is perhaps what we generally call ‘grammar’. Conscious that this little word terrifies people, writers of course books sometimes avoid it altogether: instead, they have sections called ‘structures’ or ‘language patterns’. Although we at Euroasia don’t avoid the g-word in its entirety, we do re-assure people that we try to avoid the difficult stuff as much as possible.

In actual fact, far from being the language learner’s enemy, grammar is the learner’s friend. Instead
of complicating things, grammar simplifies them.

Just think a little about English grammar. Sometimes native speakers of English state, with undue modesty, that they don’t know much about English grammar, because they never learnt it at school. In fact, native speakers of every language have an excellent

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knowledge of the grammar underpinning their particular language. You learnt most elements of English grammar well before you started school; you acquired it alongside the words that you learnt as an infant.

Grammar is essentially the principles which determine how we put words together to form coherent
utterances. It’s grammar that obliges us to say, “Yesterday John spoke these words” and not, “Yesterday John speak this word”. It’s grammar that determines that we can put together a whole series of words and create a combination as amazing as, “Had I seen her, I might have been able to convince her.” If we were to describe the grammatical principles which underlie the various elements of that sentence and the way they’re combined, we’d need at least a full page in which to do so.

If it weren’t for grammar, language would just be a set of disconnected words, and much of the subtle meanings which we’re able to convey would be lost.

In identifying grammatical points, grammarians look for patterns. In English, for example, we say, “I sing’ but ‘he sings’ and ‘she sings’. Once it’s been seen that other verbs like ‘sing’ also add an ‘s’ after ‘he’ and ‘she’ in this particular tense, a grammar point is

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identified. Now we as native speakers of English know this instinctively: we didn’t learn it consciously. However, having identified the point, we can then proceed to use it when we explain the English language to people who are not native speakers of the language.

You might argue that, if native speakers of a language learn the grammar subconsciously (just by being exposed to it, in fact), we as adult learners of a language ought to be able to do the same. The trouble is that our brains are very different from infant brains – we’ve already been conditioned to relate to our own mother tongue, and other languages are in a sense quite alien. While we would probably pick up the grammar if we were exposed to it over a long period of time, it’s much easier for teachers just to draw our attention to it so that we can make an effort to understand, remember and assimilate it.

Grammar is a shortcut: it makes language learning easier, not harder. When teachers present grammar, or  when you read up on it in your handbook after the class, you’re benefiting from having various patterns pointed out to you. What we have done is to grade the patterns according to difficulty and introduce you bit by bit to the elements which you most need to know. (Actually, the best teachers initially encourage you to work out the patterns yourself from the examples which they have carefully selected and presented to you.) Instead of listening to hundreds of examples, all jumbled up, and somehow working out a whole range of underlying patterns, you have the patterns neatly ordered and spread out for your delectation!

And that is grammar – a series of beautiful patterns. Of course, you need to practise your grammar so that what may first of all come across as unusual eventually becomes second nature. The more you can go over the patterns to yourself, the quicker you will assimilate them. Try taking one basic pattern and then substituting one word for another. You know how to say, ‘I’d like some cheese’? OK, so now can you replace ‘cheese’ with another word and still get the grammar to work? One objection people raise to the idea of learning grammar is that there always seem to be exceptions. You carefully learn a pattern, see it working in a variety of contexts, but then, lo and behold, along comes an exception. It’s an irregular verb, or we need a different ending in this particular case. B****r! You didn’t tell me about that, did you? Well, no, we didn’t, because if we told you about every possible exception right from the beginning, the explanation would be too complicated, and you’d probably give up and miss out on all the useful patterns which work in 90% or so of all the situations you’ll encounter.

Take English, overflowing as it is with exceptions of every kind. Well, the plural of ‘sheep’ is ‘sheep’, of ‘woman’ it’s ‘women’, and of ‘ox’ (should you wish to use this word for some strange reason) it’s ‘oxen’. But isn’t it still worthwhile learning the basic pattern, which of course is that we form plurals by adding an ‘s’? After all, that’s the way most words work…

Don’t be scared of grammar. Go for it! Honestly, it’s there to help you.

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About The Author

Peter is Principal of Euroasia.

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