Why Grammar Doesn’t Matter
Have you ever stared down a long page of verb conjugations? Have you ever created flashcards for article matching? Have you ever memorized the different usages for prepositions?
If so, you’re not alone. But like most language learners, all of this grammar study often leaves you more frustrated than when you started. And, unfortunately, the grammar drills probably didn’t improve your speaking fluency.
While grammar explains how language functions, the understanding of grammar is not needed to communicate clearly and correctly.
Before I dive into the reasons why you should stop stressing about grammar, let me be perfectly clear — I love grammar.
In undergrad, one of my favorite courses was History of the English Language and Grammar. Learning how English has developed and changed from its Germanic roots fascinates me. And if you ask me to diagram and explain the grammatical structures of the sentences I use in my writing, I could do it, but I rarely think about it as I compose. Even though I understand the grammar, I speak and write English without ever naming the parts of speech.
Not only do we not need grammar to communicate effectively, it’s also a waste of time.
Unless you’re a language enthusiast such as myself, most native speakers of their mother tongue would be hard-pressed to identify the modifying clauses or adjectival prepositional phrases in a sentence. Most, to be honest, might not even be able to distinguish between a noun and a verb.
But a lack of grammatical prowess doesn’t make anyone less of an English speaker.
While there may still be a marauding crowd of grammar sticklers out there, for the most part, we native speakers employ our language at a whim, unconsciously forming our thoughts into correct sentence order.
So why then, do so many non-English speakers insist on needing to learn the exact verb conjugations of irregular past tense verbs?
Or if your native tongue is English and you’ve ventured into learning other languages, why do you labor over determining masculine from feminine terms?
Why are we convinced we need to understand grammar in a second language if we hardly understand it in our first one?
If grammar study doesn’t work, why do language institutions and professors drill conjugation from day one?
Because drilling grammar gives us a sense of accomplishment. Because it’s a shortcut in teaching. Because we can easily check off a box.
From a teaching standpoint, it’s easier to pass out a vocabulary list every week and teach verb tenses that can be easily tested and marked off the curriculum guide.
But from a learning standpoint, we gain a false sense of accomplishment from memorization.
From both sides, it is more difficult to immerse in language within the classroom. And it’s harder to assess language acquisition without multiple choice tests.
When we jump into language learning and, for example, turn on a movie without subtitles or attempt to read a short article, we feel frustrated when we can’t understand. So we decide to disperse the negative feelings and pull out grammar lists to learn verbs, nouns, and adjectives.
But all the time spent learning the grammatical difference between past perfect and present participles, we have lost time that could be better spent immersed in language.
Even though grammar study can be fascinating and intriguing (as I find it to be) it is not necessary for true language acquisition nor for communication in a second language.
Grammar is merely a way of explaining what we already are doing in language.
If I could give one piece of advice that would change how you are learning a new language, it would be — Stop focusing on grammar!
Stop memorizing verb conjugations.
Stop writing out article agreements.
When you release yourself from the grip that traditional grammar study has on language learning, you free up room to actually begin communicating.
When you are constantly focusing on grammar, your brain is working twice as hard. You are first translating, arranging, and then attempting to diagram your way into a clear meaning. And by following this flawed method, you often end up with a jumbled mess.
At most, you speak in a jilted lilt as you weave your way through grammar syntax. At very best, you slowly communicate your ideas but have little time to listen to a response because you are already forming and arranging the next sentence.
The best grammarians in a second language come to it the same way we did in our native tongue — after speaking.
Grammar can be helpful if you want to write as your primary form of communication. But no one effectively understands grammar before speaking a language first.
The good news for those of you mastering a new language — you can stress less.
Put the grammar books away.
Find a podcast, Netflix series, YouTube channel, news article, children’s story — real world content that interests you — and immerse yourself in the ideas flowing over you.
You will struggle, and this will require you to surrender your need to understand everything.
Enjoy the language.
After weeks and months of language immersion for enjoyment and understanding, you will be communicating.
Remember — just as a babies listen before they speak, and children read picture books before they tell their own, absorb the language as much as possible.
Pair listening and reading with visuals and person-to-person interaction to gauge your understanding.
Not only will you find the real-world interactions less confusing, you will also find them more rewarding.
I guarantee you will struggle in the beginning, but the final feeling of fluency will be worth it.
Eventually, you will find that you are speaking without fear, communicating without translating, forming thoughts without pressure to use correct grammar.
And then, when you are speaking and understanding in your target language, you will finally be ready to return to those verb charts.