A Note on Grammar

When I first met one of my most recent students, Russell, we had a very interesting conversation about grammar. Having studied Icelandic and Sign Language before, Russell knows the importance that grammar plays in the language learning process. I asked him to write a guest post about his view on grammar and here it is. Do you agree with him? Do you think it’s possible to learn a foreign language without learning grammar? What is your “relationship” like with Brazilian Portuguese Grammar? I would love to hear your thoughts.

A NOTE ON GRAMMAR“A few months ago there was an article in the Evening Standard entitled “I never did no grammar and it never did me no harm.” This (grammatically incorrect) headline was followed by a discussion by a journalist who went on to state that he disagreed with the return to a focus on grammar in schools, that it quashes creativity and expression. His assertion was that individuals can develop a high command of their native language and become articulate and expressive without having to worry too much about grammar. And sure, there is a validity to that theory. The potential caveat with this perspective is highlighted when we then go on to learn a second language and realise we cannot apply concepts to the target language we are learning because we don’t have the “meta” language, the language to talk about language. Like me, most people educated in Britain in the 70s and 80s experienced an education that glossed over grammar. We may have been taught the difference between a noun and a verb that went along the lines of “a noun is a person, place or thing and a verb is a doing word.” Unfortunately that was about as illuminating as it got. Stop your average person in the street and ask them what a definite article is or to give an example of a preposition or conjunction or to identify the subject, object or indirect object in a sentence and you will be met with a blank look. Our motivations for learning a new language are diverse. It could be about learning to function in a new linguistic environment, to communicate with a loved one, learn some holiday phrases, professional development or just for the enjoyment of learning something new. I do think there is a difference however, between being able to communicate or function in a new language and knowing a language. We can make ourselves understood and have relative communicative competence whilst still being grammatically incorrect. But if we really want to progress and create an infinite number of sentences and capture all the nuances and subtleties of a new language we need to arm ourselves with the building blocks. For those of us who don’t have the language to talk about language, it means acquiring this knowledge first so we know what to do when asked to conjugate, merge prepositions with definite articles or decline nouns in 3 genders and 4 cases. Yes, grammar can be laborious and can sometimes feel frustrating when we are faced with exceptions to rules just when we think we have nailed it. Saying a sentence in our new language can feel like pulling a linguistic slot machine and waiting for everything to line up. For me, grammar is at the core of language learning. After all, if one wants to play the game, one has to know the rules.”
Russell Aldersson
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