When Grammar Matters
For Language Students and Teachers
“Do Spanish speakers ever use indirect objects when speaking naturally?” an English teacher posted in a public forum for English teachers in Mexico. Then, he explained, “Because every time I try to teach indirect and direct objects in English, the students seem so confused, like they’ve never heard of them before.”
The responses came quickly — “Yes, of course, Spanish uses indirect and direct objects all the time.” But maybe, most likely, native speakers have no idea when they are using them.
And this is the conundrum when learning a second language — most courses focus on grammar concepts, which are often just as foreign as the language itself.
So when exactly does grammar become beneficial?
While it may sound counterintuitive, grammar only helps in language learning AFTER you are already speaking your target language.
Consider with me how you learned your native language. No one sat you down at two years old and said, “Listen, this is past tense. This is an irregular verb. Memorize this list of transitive verbs that need direct objects.”
Even the thought of this imaginary scenario seems absurd. So why then do we teach new languages in this way?
As a native English speaker growing up in the U.S., I didn’t learn many grammar concepts until high school, because my teachers took a whole language approach — no subjects, verbs, objects for me, just reading, giving speeches, more reading, and essay writing.
A whole language approach requires using the language in meaningful communication.
However, when I became an English teacher at age 23, the course material was grammar-based, so I was forced to finally learn what all that mumbo-jumbo meant.
Sure, my 16 year-old students may have known the difference between past perfect and present progressive verb tenses, but could they use them when needed?
Labeling language helps in analyzing what and why something is happening in speech patterns. But it does NOT help in learning how to communicate.
Likewise, in a foreign language — focusing on the sounds and systems and structures of the language first will help you far faster in your speaking confidence.
But then, when does grammar matter?
Now that I am about 6 years into my own Spanish language journey, comfortable in speaking with strangers, understanding the majority of podcasts, reading novels, and writing in small chunks — now I finally feel ready to conquer Spanish language grammar.
Now, finally, that I am speaking, I can analyze what I am doing correctly and incorrectly and label it into what I can fine tune in my speaking.
I can choose to focus on the indirect object placement in the beginning of the sentence or the reflexive verbs or the subjunctive tense — because now I understand what I’m lacking.
And as a language teacher — when students are already speaking and need a link to their native language, then we can explain the labels and how they are similar or different, but only if it helps.
If I see grammar terms confuse more than aid my students, we don’t focus on the labels, but we DO focus on the structures and patterns those grammar labels define.
This is no different than a child’s approach to language. If you have ever spent a lot of time around 10 year olds, they mispronounce and mis-speak all the time. They are inputting grammar concepts and getting feedback constantly from the adult world around them.
When I used to teach 5th graders, for example, I loved their creative spelling and imaginative grammar syntax. They were testing the language in a comfortable space.
So when learning that some verbs are “transitive” that require “objects” creates even more confusion for the English language learner — forget about it.
Put the grammar labeling on the back burner.
Even if learning grammar concepts seems easier because that’s how textbooks are designed — remember there are alternatives.
Sentence modeling is still the fastest way to understand that I need to say “Explain it to him again, please” rather than “Explain him it, please, again.”
Sentence modeling teaches the inherent grammar built into language in an understandable way.
By creating examples of correct usage and correct sentence order, students hear and see the grammar in use — in a whole language approach.
So be a language modeler not a grammar stickler — it will take you much farther in your communication goals.