Learning Grammar:

I suggest that you will acquire language best when you study in such a way that you 1) listen to large amounts of comprehensible input, 2) have opportunities to use the target language to communicate with others, and 3) support your learning with some grammatical learning (focused on making input comprehensible and developing awareness).

In days old, teachers and students spent countless hours talking about grammar. Often these students had a lot of knowledge about the language, but little ability to use it. In recent times, some teachers (mostly in the west) have claimed that grammar teaching is useless. Grammar will be learned naturally through listening to comprehensible input and interacting with others. Often students taught in this way can communicate very well, but often do not speak accurately. What is the right way to study grammar?

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I believe grammar study should focus on two areas: 1) making input comprehensible and 2) developing awareness to help the learner notice the grammar of the input.

First, a little knowledge of grammar can make input a lot more comprehensible. For example, when I studied Chinese, I had great difficulty with the passive voice. When I first heard it in a listening passage, I had no idea what the sentence meant. It was completely incomprehensible to me, and therefore simply noise. Now, if I listened to hours of input, I might have been able to eventually learn the passive voice. But that is too long and difficult. Instead, the textbook gave me a little information on passive voice sentences using “BA” and “BEI”. After reading the explanation, I could comprehend these sentences. A little knowledge of the grammar made the input comprehensible. I went on to learn the passive voice very well and much quicker than if I had not studied any grammar.

Second, when learners are concerned only with communicating their meaning, they often do not need to be grammatically accurate in order to accomplish their goals. For the passive voice, I needed to know the grammar in order to understand what was being said. But for other aspects of language, this is not the case. For example, in English, subject-verb agreement is completely unnecessary to comprehend the meaning of the sentence. Thus, because a student can subconsciously ignore the grammar, he may not learn to speak accurately. This phenomenon is called “fossilization.” Fossilization is when a student, though he may speak fluently, continues to make the same mistakes over and over again even though he has heard the correct way to say them a thousand times.

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Some scholars believe that when students learn about grammar, this knowledge can help them “notice” (pay attention to) not only the meaning of the input but also its grammatical form. Even though they might not yet speak the form correctly; if they are aware of the correct form, they can then “notice” it in the input. Eventually, after “noticing” a grammatical feature enough, they will use it correctly.

Although unable to test this idea of noticing directly, I wondered if there was a difference between successful and non-successful students in the amount of time they spent studying grammar.

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Question: On an average DAY of study, how much time did you spend studying English GRAMMAR? A: 0 hours B: Less than 1 hour C: 1 hour or more
Successful Learners; 24.24 % 66.67 % 9.09 %
Non-successful Learners; 36.36 % 30.30 % 33.33 %

Apparently, successful learners claim to spend more time each day listening to English than studying grammar. Therefore, a reasonable inference is that the majority of successful language learners in this study use grammar in a subordinate role; their primary focus is on communication, using English as a tool to receive and send messages.

Accordingly, if the goal is to improve your spoken English, you would do well not to let the memorization of grammatical rules and such activities dominate your English study. Rather, make listening and using the target language the focus of your study. I recommend studying grammar for the following reasons: 1) to make input comprehensible and 2) to develop awareness to help the learner notice the form of input and their own output. This may help you eventually internalize these grammatical rules rather than storing them up in your short-term memory where they will be quickly forgotten after the test.

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Remember, the advice for studying grammar here is designed to help you improve the accuracy of your spoken English. You may need to study grammar in additional ways to prepare for certain exams or writing projects.

Tips for Grammar Study:

  • Study grammar to help you understand input.
  • Study grammar to help you notice grammatical features in input.
  • Do not be frustrated that you cannot apply the grammar rules you learn in spontaneous speech. This is perfectly normal. Continue to notice these troublesome features in input.

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