When you were a young child and you said your very first words, such as “I want cookie”, your parents didn’t say, “Oh, wow! You’ve just said your very first pronoun, verb and noun!” Instead, they probably clapped, called their spouse and reinforced what you said, “You want cookie? Ok, mommy will get you cookie”. Most likely, at this point, your mother or father didn’t correct you, saying that you missed the word a, the article in the sentence that would make it correct: “I want a cookie”.
Without any fear of grammar, you started speaking your own language naturally. You probably never even thought about the parts of speech or grammatical rules; that started in school.
However, you did learn grammar for a good reason: it helps you talk about your language and understand how and why your language works the way it does. “Of course, you can get by without learning grammar, but it’s like driving without knowing the names for the parts of your car”, quotes Rebecca Lane of Oxford Dictionaries. To be honest, I don’t know anything about a car except how to open the windows and door!
Nevertheless, at some point, grammar became boring and even scary. It’s even uncomfortable for some italki tutors. I believe that grammar takes on a scary role because it is separate from the rest of the language you’re learning.
Here are some methods I’ve used with my students to make grammar less painful:
1. Integrate Grammar into your Language Learning
Don’t see grammar as a separate part, because truly, it isn’t. Look at it as you do vocabulary: a way of learning your target language. Remember the first two sentences you probably learned and said in your new language:
- “Hello, my name is Sara. What’s your name?”
You were using grammar and didn’t even know it. By repeating sentences you hear from native speakers of your target language or from your italki tutor, you will naturally learn a lot by not focusing on the grammar.
2. Start Simple
After you’ve listened to your new language for a while, you’ll naturally take note of how the sentences are structured, such as present, past and future. At some point it will hit you (you’ll realize) that your new language may have some sentence structures similar to your own language. And then, you may discover that grammar isn’t so bad. Or, you may still not even realize you’re using it!
One of the things I do with beginner students (in English) who seem wary of grammar, is give the tenses different names. There’s no reason yet to get students to learn the actual names of the tenses; it’s more important for students to use them.
For example, instead of using the present, past and future, I call them “now, yesterday and tomorrow”. Soon students learn that these are the simple tenses they use every day in their own languages. For example, the past can mean:
- A few weeks ago
- Last year
- Five minutes ago
Using a calendar or clock to point out the present, past and future. This can help explain simple tenses while incorporating sentences to them.
Remember, just trying to memorize grammar from a textbook doesn’t work because it makes it too abstract. Suddenly it’s that grammar again. But if you use these tenses with things happening in your own life, such as “I went to the store yesterday”, the sentence will have significant personal meaning to you, with or without the true grammatical structures that scare students.
I also warn my students that sometimes I can’t even recall some of the more difficult tenses, but I do know how to use them to get my point across. This is, in fact, very common with native speakers who teach others to speak their language. Does this sound familiar? Do you know the precise names of your target language’s tenses but can’t apply them to your speaking?
When we want to express ourselves in a more sophisticated way, I use a timeline to show different phases of the past or present. One example is the present perfect (i.e., I have been waiting all day). Instead of explaining in typical grammatical form, I call it “something happening before and is still happening now”. We can do the same thing with other tenses.
But please don’t do what I observed, from someone, what he was doing. The person was an Asian speaker and Uber (private taxi service) driver. At every stoplight he would open an English grammar book and try to memorize different grammar rules. Since these rules were totally out of context, I would imagine that he did not progress as much as he wanted to from when he first started to learn English. The grammar actually held him back.
Grammar in the Real World
Wait until you’re really ready to learn grammar. That means you want to express yourself in a more sophisticated way or you hear native speakers communicating with a higher level of English. Or maybe you need to learn more formal English for your job. You will need to learn grammar more officially when you begin to write. To make grammar less scary at this time, I suggest learning all the aspects of language together: understanding, speaking, reading, and writing.
You can learn to speak your target language better (including using grammar) by doing what we always suggest: go to the movies and listen to your target language. Read easy (even children’s books) in your target language. Force yourself to speak to native speakers where you will hear all aspects of your new language naturally.
Have Fun with Grammar
You would never believe that grammar could be fun, but it can be if you participate in one of the many grammar games online. Below is one of hundreds of grammar games for adults. There are also many for children, as you can imagine. Just look up “grammar games” on your search engine and you’ll find more than you ever believed existed.
These games are designed to get students to repeat targeted grammar structures. Posts include:
No, grammar doesn’t have to be torture. Just learn it as one of the of the many topics you learn for your target language. Don’t separate it and a make a big deal out of it.
Although you’re certainly not a child, learn your target language as if you are a child: naturally.
Ilene Springer is a long-time italki teacher specializing in upper level and advanced language students. She is a writer and author of The Diary of an Expatriate (AUK, London). Visit her website Chocolate English.eu.