Do we need grammar?

In this post, I consider whether maybe grammar isn’t all that important.  Will they take away my Bachelor of Arts in English for such a scandalous idea?stinking grammar

In an Oxford Dictionary article Why do we need grammar?”, the author makes the excellent point that we need grammar so that we have the terms to be able to discuss language. Thing-a-bob and whatcha-call-it only get you so far.

I tend to agree. Some of the first words I sought out myself to learn were parts of speech. I need to brush up on my grammar, because I haven’t spoken about it since college.


Grammar lets you describe language

Learning a new language, you are focusing on the language, how it goes together, and what types of words behave similarly.  You notice patterns.  You make discoveries.  You want the words to describe what you have found.  This is called grammar.

Professor David Crystal said, “Sentences exist to make sense of words; grammar makes sense of sentences”.

I’ve heard people object to learning grammar.  I never felt that way.  However, I like it better when I have seen a pattern myself, then I stumble across the grammar rule that explains it.  The grammar becomes a confirmation of my observation.  The grammar gives me a way to explain it to other people when I describe me language gem I discovered.

Language learning makes me bump into linguistical terms.  I learn a specific word with precise definition.  Then I can use that term as a shortcut to describe things.  Any profession has it’s specific terms that professionals use.  Language has it’s own terms too, of course!

On the other hand, I think you can get a long way learning a language by listening and speaking, without knowing the grammar rules at all.   We laugh at the mistakes children make at they are learning to speak.  They don’t know how to make plurals, use words in odd arrangements, and mix up verbs and adjectives.  Children acquire language by listening, repeating, trying to make their own sentences, and getting feedback on what is correct and what makes people laugh.  Children don’t have terms to describe it, they just learn intuitively how to do it.


Maybe we don’t need grammar

Glossika takes the approach of no grammar, just lots of sentence examples.

Most words have multiple meanings.  Some words just go together.  These word combinations (collocations) just sound right to a native speaker.  To sound natural in a second language, you need to lots of examples to understand in context.  That is the theory behind LingQ’s reading tons to gather vocabulary from real world sources and Glossika’s sentence-based approach that do not do word-by-word translations, but instead use the natural phrasing of a native speakers as the basis of their training.


Words don’t have meaning, except in context

After a lifetime in lexography, Patrick Hanks “reached the alarming conclusion that words don’t have meaning,” but rather that “definitions in dictionaries can be regarded as presenting meaning potentials rather than meanings as such.”

Since getting a language exchange partner and a mentor, I have become aware of how words group together, how certain words just sound right, and how perfectly innocent words can mean something else depending on context.

One example, I tried to say “Fun to learn together”.  I thought, “I know all three words, I have a shot at getting this sentence correct.”  NOT.  My word-by-word translation resulted in something very awkward sounding in Korean.  Here is the correct phrasing.

learn together

Another funny example, two business men were done work for the day.  The Korean said, “Relieve yourself .”  What he meant was ‘Take it easy’.  The European took offense. “‘Relieve yourself’ means to masturb*te!”  The Korean looked it up in the dictionary, which told him ‘relieve yourself’ means to pee.   The Korean couldn’t believe the same two words meant two different things.   (Read about bathroom slang terms).  The whole cultural difference discussion about attitudes towards normal bodily function was amusing.


Is it a choice between grammar and speaking?

So I agree with Patrick Hanks.  Words don’t having meaning, except as we use them in context.  I agree I need exposure to natural phrasing, not simply the way it appears in textbook.  I believe grammar is more essential in writing.  Rob Julian is right when he says, if it comes down to a choice between being understood in conversation and being slowed down trying to get the right subject particles, just let the grammar go. It is more important to start speaking than be hampered by not wanting to say anything unless you have perfect grammar.  Korean Digital Academy simplifies the language presented so that students can begin speaking right away, first class, and build conversational skills with each class.

‘Do we need grammar’ is the wrong question.  What do we need to communicate? It is some combination of hearing natural speech, figuring out speech patterns, gaining a large vocabulary, learning pronunciation, and some where along the way picking up some grammar so you can be understood.

I just want to talk to people.


I’ll just keep that goal in mind.  The rest will fall into place.


Dictionary Terms

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