Image: Elephant Cave at Bendhulu from ‘Bali: The Isle of the Gods’, Jakarta, 1957

Why grammar matters and why it doesn't

Without necessarily knowing it, we use grammar every single day. From dawn to dusk grammar is everywhere. Without it, we wouldn’t be able to form a sentence. 

For this reason alone, grammar is important.

Right at the beginning, however, it’s good to point out that grammar isn’t the ‘be all and end all’ when it comes to learning a language

In fact, grammar is only one aspect of language that makes us proficient as speakers. Other areas of language proficiency that are also important are things like knowledge of vocabulary, knowledge of the sounds of language and an understanding of the way language functions socially.

On top of this, understanding grammar can make learning easier, but we don’t necessarily need an understanding of grammar to learn

For example, we can learn through observation that we need to change adjectives with gender in Spanish. We don’t need to know what an adjective or grammatical gender is to do this.

And we naturally correct the grammatical mistakes of second language speakers without even thinking about it. We can point out that something isn’t quite right, and often we can’t explain why.

So it doesn’t really matter that most of us don’t know what grammar is. The problem is that we don’t feel this way. 

'I'm no good at grammar'

Very few of us feel confident when it comes to grammar. Instead, we think it’s something you can be absolutely right or wrong about, and that chances are we’ll get it wrong, not right.

We also tend to see it as something difficult. And not just difficult but ‘too difficult.’  Notice that when we say this, it says less about grammar and more about how we feel about our capacity to learn. Too difficult for who? Too difficult for me.

So for most of us, rather than making us feel curious and inspired, it makes us feel inadequate. It’s something we feel we should understand but we don’t, and we feel a bit embarrassed about that. 

And not only does it make us feel like drop-outs but, because it’s so unfamiliar, it’s a bit scary too.

A beautiful elephant. Image: 'The Royal Elephant Madhukar' by Hashim, watercolour, ink and gold on paper, c. 1630-1640. The Fitzwilliam Museum

Why we fear it

If you attended secondary school in Australia since the 70s, this might be an explanation. Since then, grammar has largely been missing from the curriculum. It has been so absent in fact, that you may not have even realised it wasn’t in class. Grammar was ‘wagging’ (playing truant, skiving). It pretty much disappeared. 

And now, grammar is an elephant in the room.

('If you say there is an elephant in the room, you mean that there is an obvious problem or difficult situation that people do not want to talk about.' – Definition of 'an elephant in the room' from the Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary & Thesaurus, Cambridge University Press).

In our heads, grammar = pass or fail

Recently, I stumbled across this British entrance exam from 1899, required to be completed successfully by all secondary students before admission to university:

No wonder, on the other side of the planet, almost 100 years later, most teachers in Australia stopped teaching it. They probably feared it themselves.

Question No. 1: Explain carefully what is meant by the term “grammar”.

Don’t just explainexplain carefully. Watch out, be careful: language may contain traces of grammar! 

And reading between the lines, there is another fairly obvious message: ‘We know, you don’t. Prove yourself: pass or fail.

So whether grammar is absent or present in our education, something about how we have (or haven’t) learnt it makes us fear it and makes us feel not quite up to scratch. 

Of course something in us cringes when we get to the grammar pages of our ‘Aula Internacional’ or ‘ELE Actual’ textbooks.

And what a shame! Grammar is the best. :)

What makes grammar special

As a Spanish student, you probably already have a sense of what makes grammar special.

Think about the little moments in class when the light bulb goes on and you have a little moment of joy. Most of these moments are because you’ve worked something out for yourself – something you didn’t understand finally makes itself clear.

Understanding an aspect of grammar has this light-bulb-like quality.

And, I’ll go one step further: I can almost guarantee that if you’ve had the feeling ‘I get it!’ then 99% of the time it’s thanks to old-mate grammar.

Something to notice is that ’I get it!’ is not the same as ‘I got it right’

Our many light bulb moments. Image: ‘Lighting through the ages’ (detail) by Maurice Dessertenne, circa 1900. Source: ‘Eclairage’, in Nouveau Larousse Illustré, tôme quatrième.

So what's the difference between an entrance exam and a light bulb moment?

I reckon that in a light bulb moment, something about language, its underlying structure, the inherent beauty of its forms, makes itself spontaneously apparent. Out of the dim glow of almost getting it, there’s a spark and suddenly there’s the flickering of understanding.

In that moment, there’s a recognition of a basic human truth: grammar is woven into the fabric of our speech. It is ours, we made it, we make it everyday. It doesn’t belong to an institution, it’s not a matter of pass or fail. 

Over thousands of years, we've grown up with grammar

Grammar is one of things that makes us human. It’s part of who we are and because of that, its ours to discover. 

And not only that, intuitively we know how to use grammar. It’s something we do effortlessly, without much thought. If anything is missing in the classroom, it’s noticing and appreciating this fact. 

No doubt about it, the rules of grammar are useful – they can light the way as we learn. But it’s good to remember that what we really chance upon in our light bulb moments doesn’t come from a book.

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