December 21, 2023

What is the grammar of a language? Is learning grammar a good idea?

by Mateusz Wiącek

I love grammar. As a teenager I was fascinated by German grammar. I loved everything about it and I wanted everything to be perfect when I spoke. My attitude towards grammar changed when I started learning Italian. I focused solely on communication and did not care if I was correct or not.

In language learning there are two schools of thought when it comes to learning grammar. Some people say it is very important, while some others say that it is not.

So which approach is better?

Here is a thought for you: grammar does not exist! At least not in the sense that you think it does.

In this short article I will tell you what grammar is, what it is not, and how learning rules is not good for you.

Do we need grammar to speak a language?

Early languages, thousands of years ago, did not have grammar at all! “Grammar” evolved as our world became more complex to allow humans to describe in detail what they thought. Early humans would probably say “drink coconut oo tiger” instead of “I was drinking a coconut when the tiger arrived.” And even today the first sentence is completely understandable. 

Grammar is not necessary for communication. And communication is far more important than correctness.

What is grammar?

So what is grammar in the end? It is a set of rules that define what is correct and what is not in a given language. Right? Not really … 

The grammar of language, that you think of in terms of “the police” that tells you whether to choose “simple past” or “present perfect” in order to be correct, exists only in theory and is known as “normative grammar.” You need it only if you are a linguist or want to write books.

But real grammar isn’t rules – it’s a statistical structure of a language. Rules (and their exceptions) are only an attempt to describe this structure – they’re not the structure itself. Grammar does not define language, grammar just tries to describe it, and you can describe it in other ways as well, e.g. with statistics.

In communication you yourself choose what you want to say; nothing is really correct or incorrect without a proper context.

But there is more to it!

Are rules natural?

Learning grammatical rules is against our nature. It’s the most tedious part of learning a language. It’s also one of the main reasons learners quit.

Our brains have been evolutionarily designed to discover the structure of language through pattern recognition –  by taking lots of sentence examples and spotting differences and similarities. Or more generally – by computing statistics. This is exactly what happened when you learnt your native language as a child. You heard lots of examples and developed reflexes that allowed you to intuitively create “grammatically correct” sentences.

Don’t get me wrong, grammatical rules can be helpful, but they should be used only for reference. 

It’s like riding a bike. You don’t learn rules about balance and torque in order to cycle. You get on a bike and you try it out. Only after you’ve practiced might you go to a book to solidify what you’ve experienced.

Do you really think you can apply the rules about past simple and present perfect during conversation? Do you hope that they come to your mind and you will build your sentences according to them and on time? Well, good luck! Your speaking partner will have arrived home 3 times before you start speaking.

So what should you do?

So what to do?

During conversation you use what we have trained and memorized, even at the cost of error. That’s just the way our brains work. So if you don’t practice you will struggle. And this is really the case with any issue in language.

First you should learn a large number of sentences, to give your brain a chance to do what it was created for. 

Language is an instinct. And grammar is what native speakers are feeling. And you cannot “learn” a feeling, because feelings do not exist objectively. You have to develop it through repetition and trying it out in real situations.  

At Taalhamer we train you on exactly this. Through repetition of carefully created content you will start speaking without knowing the grammatical rules.

Try it out for free today!


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