The study of grammar all by itself will not necessarily make you a better writer. But by gaining a clearer understanding of how our language works, you should also gain greater control over the way you shape words into sentences and sentences into paragraphs. In short, studying grammar may help you become a more effective writer. Descriptive grammarians generally advise us not to be overly concerned with matters of correctness: language, they say, isn’t good or bad; it simply is. As the history of the glamorous word grammar demonstrates, the English language is a living system of communication, a continually evolving affair. Within a generation or two, words and phrases come into fashion and fall out again. Over centuries, word endings and entire sentence structures can change or disappear.
Prescriptive grammarians prefer giving practical advice about using language: straightforward rules to help us avoid making errors. The rules may be over-simplified at times, but they are meant to keep us out of trouble–the kind of trouble that may distract or even confuse our readers.
We learn grammar from birth
How did you learn grammar?— Lord Vincent Van Mendoza (@digitallourd) April 21, 2022
British linguist, academic, and author David Crystal tells us that “grammar is the study of all the contrasts of meaning that it is possible to make within sentences. The ‘rules’ of grammar tell us how. By one count, there are some 3,500 such rules in English.”
Intimidating, to be sure, but native speakers don’t have to worry about studying each and every rule. Even if you don’t know all the lexicographical terms and pedantic minutiae involved in the study of grammar, take it from noted novelist and essayist Joan Didion: “What I know about grammar is its infinite power. To shift the structure of a sentence alters the meaning of that sentence.”
Grammar is actually something all of us begin to learn in our first days and weeks of life, through interaction with others. From the moment we’re born, language—and the grammar that makes up that language—is all around us. We start learning it as soon as we hear it spoken around us, even if we don’t fully comprehend its meaning yet.
Although a baby wouldn’t have a clue about the terminology, they do begin to pick up and assimilate how sentences are put together (syntax), as well as figure out the pieces that go into making up those sentences work (morphology).
“A preschooler’s tacit knowledge of grammar is more sophisticated than the thickest style manual,” explains cognitive psychologist, linguist, and popular science author Steven Pinker. “[Grammar should not] be confused with the guidelines for how one ‘ought’ to speak.”
The learning process
However important and necessary it is for teachers to have a comprehensive knowledge of their subject matter, it is equally important for them to understand their students’ learning process.
This understanding can be partly informed by insights from second language acquisition (SLA) research concerning how students naturally develop their ability to interpret and produce grammatical utterances. Four insights are germane to our topic:
Learners do not learn structures one at a time.
It’s not a case of amassing structural entities (Rutherford 1987). It is not the case, for example, that learners master the definite article before moving on to the simple past tense. Learners may grasp one of the definite article’s pragmatic roles, such as signaling the uniqueness of the following word, from their first experience with it. However, even if they are capable of doing so, it is unlikely that they will always create the definite article when it is required, as learners often need a long time to master this skill. As a result, learning is a lengthy process including the mapping of form, meaning, and use; structures do not appear completely developed and error-free in learners’ interlanguage.
Even when learners appear to have mastered a particular structure, it is not uncommon to find backsliding occurring with the introduction of new forms to the learners’ interlanguage.
For example, a learner who has finally mastered the third person singular marker on present-tense verbs is likely to apply the rule to newly developing modal verbs, resulting in errors like She can speak Spanish. As a result, teachers should not be discouraged by their students’ regressive behavior. Once the new contributions have been absorbed and the system has self-organized or restructured, well-formedness is usually restored.
Second language learners rely on the knowledge and the experience they have.
They will rely on their LI as a source of assumptions about how the L2 works if they are beginners; as they develop, they will rely more on the L2. When a teacher realizes this, he or she knows that there is no need to teach a group of pupils everything there is to know about a structure; instead, the instructor can build on what the students already know. As a result, depending on the students’ L1 backgrounds and level of L2 competency, the hard dimension for a given grammatical structure will vary from class to class. Identifying the relevant difficulty for a certain set of students is an important aspect of effective teaching.
Different learning processes are responsible for different aspects of language.
Indeed, given the complexity of language, one would not anticipate the learning process to be any easier. Treating all grammar acquisition as occurring from habit or rule building is certainly an oversimplification. Knowing that diverse learning processes contribute to SLA implies that the teaching method must take these distinctions into account. Next, we’ll look at how the nature of the language barrier and the learning process influence teaching decisions.