This is one of my favorite lessons I had while I was being trained to teach English as a second language.
Our instructor handed each of us in the class a paper with a conversation between four native English speakers. This was a conversation that was overheard by a linguist, a person who studies languages. My instructor told us to look over (read) the conversation and tell him what we thought of the English grammar, vocabulary, etc. This was a conversation where one woman was telling some other people what happened when her little daughter lost her first tooth.
We read it over and we were surprised: there were quite a few grammar mistakes, incomplete sentences, wrong tenses, and vocabulary that was repeated over and over; this was speaking, not writing. But nevertheless (even so, still), it sounded like it was the conversation of some very uneducated English speakers.
Then our instructor said, “Do you know who these people were?”
No, we didn’t.
Then, here’s what he said: “This conversation was overheard in the cafeteria at Cambridge University (England) in the English department. These people who were talking like this were the people who actually write the official rules for grammar for the English language. These are the people who write the Cambridge exams like the IELTS that ESL students take and the textbooks that you will use to teach grammar to your ESL students!”
We couldn’t believe it. This conversation was from grammar experts? How could it be? Then we realized the lesson our instructor was trying to tell us: real English speakers make mistakes. Real spoken English -- even by grammar experts who write the grammar rules -- does not always follow the rules. Real, native English is different from grammatically-correct English.
Now, think about how you speak in your own native language. Do you always use perfect grammar?
This does not mean you shouldn’t learn correct English grammar. But, it does mean you don’t have to be afraid when you learn it. Here are some ways so stop dreading (hating to do something) or focusing too much on grammar:
1. There is no grammar god who will strike you down (kill you) if you make a mistake. Those Cambridge people spoke freely and made mistakes typical in informal conversational English, and all of them were alive and well when they finished their lunchtime chat.
2. Grammar is not a separate part of English. Every time you speak or write -- even one word -- you are using grammar. In a language, you learn words and then you learn how to put them together correctly. That’s grammar. That’s all it is.
Let’s look at the statement we just saw above. The sentence contains the words: god, no, grammar. Then, there are other words that we use to make a real sentence out of the words: is, there. We learn that if we put the words in this order, “There is no grammar god”, they make sense. That’s all grammar is: using words to make other words make sense.
3. Grammar is actually easier than learning new words. Grammar is just rules; it’s memorizing and using rules. Anyone can learn proper grammar. But, to become proficient (an expert) in a language, especially in English, you have to learn lots of vocabulary, expressions and idioms. Learning vocabulary is really up to the individual student and each student has to find his or her own way of doing it. So, grammar is really easier than vocabulary.
4. Don't avoid grammar. Embrace (make yourself feel good about doing it) it. I think the fear of English grammar comes from inexperienced teachers who are afraid of it themselves. And, they pass on this fear on to the student. Or, they teach the rules of grammar on a different day than teaching it along with other things in English. This makes grammar seems like a separate part of English, something hard, unpleasant and scary. Remember, grammar is what’s going to help you use all that vocabulary you’re learning.
5. Don't let the names of the tenses frighten you. It’s important to know how to use a verb tense (such as simple past) in English; it’s not important to know what to call it. When people speak, they don’t say, “OK listen, I’m going to use the present perfect.” No, instead, they say, “Have you seen that movie yet?” What they mean is: Did you see the movie anytime in the past and up until now? If it makes it easier to remember how to use a verb tense by when you need it, change the name to the “Up Until Now Tense” instead of the “present perfect”.
6. Grammar changes over time.
Tell me which is correct, a or b:
a. If I were you, I would go to the party.
b. If I was you, I would go to the party.
The answer is both. But, it wasn’t always like this. It started out as being, If I was you, I would go to the party because I usually goes with was (e.g., I was late). But, for some reason, English speakers were saying it wrong so often that it was finally accepted as right. So, don’t get too stuck on grammar, because it can change.
7. Learn grammar from native speakers. As I always suggest, listen to real grammar being used in real situations. Close your English textbook and listen to English speakers argue, talk on the phone, or gossip over coffee. Watch the news in English, and movies with or without subtitles.
8. If you feel you have problems with a certain grammar rule, ask your italki teacher for help. One technique is to repeat a sentence structure over and over so you don't have to think about it: Have you ever been to Italy? Have you ever sent the wrong SMS to someone? Have you ever walked into the wrong hotel room?
Someday you’ll be sitting down to lunch with some native English speakers. And, one of them will make a mistake in grammar. Please don’t tell the native speaker that he or she is wrong. Do what they do and learn to speak English naturally without fearing grammar.
Image by Sean MacEntee (CC by 2.0)