Grammar

I often get resistance to the idea that language learning should not emphasize grammar instruction. At The Linguist we believe learning should be driven by enjoyable input and a systematic approach to learning words and phrases. We also favour using writing and writing correction as the best place to catch problems and improve language accuracy. We do not believe in learning the language just by talking (the conversation club approach) nor do we believe instruction in grammar rules will promote fluency.

This idea does not got down well with many teachers and learners. “You have to learn grammar to stop making mistakes” is the refrain. However, just understanding the “why” of a grammar rule will not ensure accurate language. Chinese speakers regularly say “he” when they mean “she” and vice versa. They understand the principle, they just cannot say the correct word when speaking because spoken Chinese does not make this distinction. You would think that this rule would be easy to learn, but it is not. It is not the understanding of the principle, but the development of the correct language instinct that will enable the speaker to be accurate and fluent. Only enough exposure and the gradual training of the brain will make that possible. The emphasis is on the word gradual.

Learners can have a grammar book for reference, although the smaller the better. It is interesting and feels more helpful than it actually is, to look up different questions of grammar. I have often done so myself. I have looked up verb conjugations?? and noun declensions in languages like Spanish and German. It did not help me to speak. It did not help me to use the right declension or conjugation. I needed to learn phrases from real contexts, to notice phrases when reading and listening, and to repeat these phrases when speaking, in order to gradually improve. And the improvement was uneven, with frequent lapses. But I was happy communicating, or reading, or listening,?? and happy in the?? knowledge that I was getting better just by listening, reading and using the language. My lapses and inaccuracies did not bother me.

One of our learners was told by a friend that she needed to work on her grammar. She always said “deal a problem” rather than “deal with a problem”. She had problems with prepositions. But to me the problem was not one of grammar. Why do you “deal with a problem” but “manage a problem”? You cannot create explanations for every possible situation. The learner just needs to make “deal with” a phrase that she knows, uses and masters. Any rule would only get in the way.

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