Why I am against teaching grammar

I am hoping to get some feedback on these views.

I often hear learners say that they want to know why a certain structure or sentence is wrong. They are disappointed when a native speaker cannot tell them “why”. There are all kinds of teachers who are specialized in explaining and debating English usage and the reasons why this or that is correct. Grammar is a discipline with its own rules and system, and probably quite satisfying for the practitioners of the discipline.

I am not sure if is useful for second language learners, however. I speak nine languages quite well and do not remember ever asking “why do they say it this way? Why is this wrong?”. I know that when I studied Chinese, learners around me who asked “why” did not learn the language well.

One reason is that structures in the new language that seemed strange and might occasion the “why?” question, usually started to feel normal with enough exposure. It was pointless to try to understand “why” before I was ready, and once I was ready I did not need to ask “why” anymore.

Grammar is a neat way to classify and categorize a language and is no doubt useful when there is nothing else to compare the language to. However, when I learned a new language I simply went by what the words in the new language meant. I inevitably referred to the equivalent meaning in my own language. “Oh, that is how they say ‘I would have gone’ in Chinese, Japanese or French’  ” I said to myself. I did not need to learn terms like modal verbs, gerunds, conjunction or whatever. I just noted that in the new language certain thoughts were expressed in certain ways. It seemed strange at first but eventually, with enough exposure, it became normal. In due course I started to acquire the logic of the new language.

I believe this is the fastest and best way to learn, directly from the language. Read and listen. Focus on the functions of different words and phrases in different contexts. Slowly you will penetrate the logic of the language. You will get a natural feel for how meanings are expressed. You will not have to refer to your memory of grammar rules every time you want to express yourself.

That is why in correcting writing at The Linguist now, we emphasize what we call CLEAN English; Clarity, Logic, Effectiveness,Accuracy, Normal Usage. Whether your grammar is perfect or not, your goal should be to achieve CLEAN English. If you do, the grammar will come along.

One concession. We do track the four most common grammatical errors for statistical purposes to help the learner. These are Article, Preposition, Verb and Punctuation. We also provide trigger words but we do not get into detailed grammatical explanations.

This approach is not appreciated by all students. Many have been trained in grammar, and even though many of them cannot speak as well as they would like, they still insist on seeing what they are used to. It is a constant battle to try to get people to focus on how to communicate effectively in the language rather than grammar rules.

Those that do accept our way feel liberated from grammar, and feel more confident about speaking in English. They do more things with the language, spend more time on reading and listening and speaking and less time worrying about grammar. They improve.

Send me your comments and questions directly. steve@thelinguist.com

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