I never made a mistake in grammar but one in my life and as soon as I done it I seen it.? Carl Sandburg (Cited at Online English Grammar).
Is it possible that someone can speak, write, and think in a foreign language without knowing any of the rules and complexities of that language?
Indeed, as a native speaker of English I consider myself to have a good grasp of the language, yet up until recently I did not know anything about grammar, nor did I see any value in learning about it. After all: I am communicating in English right now, I was communicating in English from an early age, and I will be communicating in English for a long time to come, so what would be the point of learning about tenses and things like that?
In response to the above, it may be fair to say that if someone wants to teach English then it would seem appropriate that he/she ought to have a little bit of background knowledge about the subject he/she is teaching. This means learning about (among other things) grammar.
So what is grammar? Well, the Cambridge Advanced Learners Dictionary defines it as ?(the study or use of) the rules about how words change their form and combine with other words to make sentences.? (Cited at Cambridge Dictionaries Online). Although this is a broad definition, the point being made is one of structure (Wilkinson, 1971). Certain things such as tenses, modal auxiliary verbs, reported speech, and the passive voice all fall under the term ?grammar?, and are easily recognizable once you have an awareness of their structure. These things can be taught implicitly, for example, if you were to stand in front of a class shouting at the students: ?You learned English, you learn English now, and you will learn English in the future!,? this is demonstrating to them (somewhat aggressively) the difference between past simple, present simple and future simple ? job done! A similar technique for teaching the modal auxiliary verbs (modals) may be to stand in front of the class but rather than shouting ?You must learn to recognize the modals!? try; ?You should learn to recognize the modals,? Or for the more encouraging teacher; ?You can learn the modals.? Hey presto: an effective but subtle demonstration of modal auxiliary verbs. A technique for teaching reported speech could be to tell the students ?Ed said that reported speech was not difficult to learn,? and the passive voice could be taught via the statement; ?The passive voice is being learned right now.?
Wilkinson (1971) suggested that in games such as chess, for each piece there are rules about how it can move. In terms of English, the language is the game in which the pieces are the words and the rules are the grammar. Alternatively, consider a musician who may be able to hold a tune, but is unable to read music. Although the musician can probably bluff his way through with an impressive repertoire, he falters when asked about why certain notes sound good with others, or why different timings, stresses, progressions etc, can change the overall mood of a song. He or she can still communicate (via music); however, his or her method of communication will not be as refined or well developed as, say, a musician who had taken the time to learn the specifics. This is essentially the point of learning grammar. Knowing the rules will help you.
In conclusion, it may be true to say that people can communicate in English without knowing a single thing about grammar. Indeed, some languages (such as Thai for example) have very little/no grammar, and the people can still make themselves understood. Maybe it is just one of the (many) peculiarities of the English language that we have this thing called ?grammar? and that everyone is supposed to know it and use it correctly. Without it however, I would wager that English speakers would not have been able to produce and enjoy some of the best literature, poetry, and song that there has ever been.
Cambridge Dictionaries Online ? http://dictionary.cambridge.org/
Online English Grammar ? http://www.edufind.com/english/grammar/
Wilkinson, A. (1971), The Foundations of Language, Glasgow; Oxford University Press
Author: Ed Horne
Date of post: 2007-02-06