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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5 thoughts on “A Note on Grammar”

  1. Richard Lankenau

    Very good article. Based on some of the communications received from Brazil for over the last couple decades, I’d say there is much need for improvement in proper use of language and writing there too. Then, of course, there’s the on-going “battle” between Portugual and Brazil regarding the “correct” use of the language. What is really amusing, if it didn’t seem so petty, is how European interpreters make a point of specifying that they are using “European” Portuguese as opposed to Brazilian Portuguese. This is so reminiscent of the old arguments for “Kings” English versus American or other vernacular. The biggest notable differences between European and Brazilian Portuguese have more to do with spelling and use of some of the 5000 words of indigenous Brazilian or African origin that give the language more musicality and richness. Proponents of wanting Portugal to be the standard may not realize that they are outnumbered. So, find a happy medium and the rest of us will go on with the Portuguese we are using unless the client specifies wanting only European. In over a quarter of a century this has yet to happened. If the grammar used is proper and makes the text comprehensible the client is satisfied and remunerates accordingly.

  2. Myrna Stainer

    I liked very much the article. And I found especially very good the last phrase: “If one wants to play the game, one has to know the rules”.It’s a summing up of our need of a grammar.

  3. Jenny Marshall Rodger

    Quite agree! No way you can build any kind of house without the right bricks and in the right order!! For goodness sake, let’s get some grammar (call it structure if you like) back into English classrooms! What on earth do English children learn at school if they don’t learn how their own language works? What a wasted oportunity. The only grammar that English people ever know, it seems to me, is what they pick up through learning a foreign language. Isn’t that a rather roundabout way of doing things? I know for a fact that without my sound base in grammar I would not have the high level of Portuuese, Spanish and French that I have. It is a necessary tool and does not have to be boring at all, if it is done properly and meaningfully.

  4. Meta language. Exactly. That’s what studying grammar is for. Because otherwise, how can you compare, talk about, describe (or even understand?) in detail, your various languages?

  5. I completely agree with all the comments about grammar. Having been educated primarily in Britain and then educated in the Caribbean for some time, grammar was certainly glossed over when I was at school in the UK. Studying other languages is probably the only reason I know a little more than the average person, but it does make it harder to get do grips with other languages when you knowledge of grammar is limited. This is perhaps why as Brits we are less keen, or find it less natural to pick up other languages!

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