The Best Way to Study Grammar
When people think about grammar they often think about rules. For many, learning grammar means learning all the rules. But is this the best way to study grammar? We don’t know all the rules of our first language(s) and we can form grammatical sentences effortlessly.
Most native speakers don’t know the grammar rules of their own language!
So do students need to learn them all to speak English well?
What Expert Speakers Know about Grammar
If we don’t know the rules, what do we know?
When we hear the language being used we can understand the meaning being communicate. When we speak or write, we think about meaning and choose the phrases that we think communicates this meaning clearly. When we think something is unclear, we think about other phrases or arranging our sentence differently to make the meaning clear.
What’s right and what’s strange.
When expert speakers do a grammar test designed to test if a student has learned a rule, we don’t use the rules ourselves. One answer simply ‘feels right’. It feels right because we are familiar with this pattern.
Students have the same basic requirements:
– understand the meaning
– familiarity: knowing what feels right and what feels strange
Understanding Grammatical Meaning
Grammar is a system. To understand a system, we need to know what the parts are and how they are related to one another.
What are the parts? Some people think of the parts as words, however, words often blend together. Instead, we can think in terms of phrases, and becoming familiar with these common patterns. For example, we can consider “do you have…” to be a part. We can learn it as a single chunk of language. We can then combine this with other chunks we know. “Do you have it?”, “Do you have a minute?”, “Do you have any questions?” etc.
We can compare the difference between phrases to understand the meaning.
What is the difference between:
“Do you have…”
“You don’t have…”
“Are you having…”
It’s good to start with simple sentences. Then when we look at grammar points such as tenses, we can look at the simple phrase (without the added grammar), and see the meaning the grammar point adds. For example, comparing “I have…” with “I had…” (thinking about the “d”, usually “-ed” that’s added and the meaning this contributes)
The best way to become familiar with the language is practice listening to and saying the common phrases that people often use.
You can’t beat the real thing. We can explain some of the details about language usage, but the best way to understand it is to experience it for yourself.
Reading is a good way to study because you can read at your own pace, and when there is something you don’t understand you can investigate to find out more. Taking a class is also good for this reason. A teacher will adjust their pace for the students and take time to focus on different parts of the language to meet the students needs.
A good teacher or a grammar resource (or both) that looks at these differences is extremely useful. Instead of trying to remember which phrase to use, think about the options the writer or speaker had and understand their choices. Would the meaning be different if they had chosen a different phrase? Or was the phrase they chose the simpler option? Understanding the choices expert speakers make helps students gain expertise.
To become an expert speaker of English, learn what the expert speakers know. Become familiar with each part of the language and understand what it means.
The Real Grammar Difference
In traditional grammar teaching, students form sentences that are grammatically correct and remember when to use them. The idea is that when they can use correct sentences in the appropriate situations they can communicate. Being grammatically correct is great, but usage is not something expert speakers have memorized. We use grammar the way we do because it helps us communicate. We try to communicate our ideas clearly and grammatical correctness is a byproduct of good communication.
The real grammar difference is the focus on understanding and communication. The best way to communicate clearly is to understand how the experts do it: what experts know and the choices experts make.
Real Grammar is about meaning. The explanations are of the core meanings that always hold true, there are no exceptions. These core meanings allow us to decode the language as it is used in real life. To communicate effectively with people in real life, start with understanding how they do it.