I often hear Chinese middle school students complaining about learning grammar. In the background of exam-oriented education in Chinese Mainland, grammar is usually considered as a tool for exams, which has little use in daily life.
That is a misunderstanding of grammar. Grammar should not be that useless. Contrarily, it is a useful tool helping us to learn good English by guiding us to speak and write well. For English learners, grammar is a must that we all should learn.
Before talking about learning grammar, we had better know some fundamentals of grammar. Does grammar mean the rules in the language ready formulated and waiting to be dug up? Or is it arbitrary so that everyone can add, change and even delete those rules? If not, then what is grammar?
According to Encyclopedia Britannica, grammar is defined as “rules of a language governing the sounds, words, sentences, and other elements, as well as their combination and interpretation” (“Grammar”). In brief, it is a system of rules of a language (Kolln 4). Those rules mainly tell how we speak and write in a language.
Grammar is not arbitrary. It does not come from nothing, nor is it established in laws and regulations or epochal works by several people or special organizations; it is the accumulation of people’s everyday use of a language. Grammar is the description of inherent regularities in the structure of a language. The rules in the earliest languages could be arbitrary and changeable, but when the languages were adopted by a certain group of people as a way of communication, its form and content remained relatively stable, which nobody could change freely if he wanted to be understood.
Although grammar is a description and reflection of language regularities, it is not equal to them. Grammatical rules and language regularities are totally different. On the one hand, grammar cannot cover all the facts in a language without being self-contradictory. Every native speaker of English has his own rules and usages of English, and since English is so widely spoken, a grammarian can only capture one or several aspects of how English is spoken and written (Chalker 7). On the other hand, grammar cannot reflect language phenomena timely. Language is always changing, and every grammarian is trying his best to update his grammatical theory, but he could never predict which new usages will be accepted by the majority of people and which existing usages will disappear. That is why we have so many theories of grammar. Therefore we cannot say which usages are right and which are wrong, because there is no absolute standard to judge what is right and what is wrong. “No form of English is better than another” (Barry 1).
Then why do we need grammar if there is not a fixed standard?
Notwithstanding, we can still tell which usages are grammatical, i.e. in accord with the rules of grammar. The grammatical usages are widely accepted and easily understood, while the ungrammatical ones are either uncommon or ambiguous. It is grammar that makes us able to distinguish the grammatical from the ungrammatical. The basic goal of learning grammar is to achieve this.
Learning grammar helps us to read English texts more conveniently. It helps us find out the relationships of words, phrases and sentences. If we do not have knowledge of grammar, we get helpless when we need to understand a very long and complex sentence. Grammatical analyses, such as seeking sentences for predicate verbs and distinguishing subjects from objects, are necessary skills that we need in listening and reading.
Learning grammar helps us to speak English idiomatically. Grammar, especially colloquial grammar, teaches us how to speak as native speakers do, not in terms of pronunciation, but the way they make words into sentences. It helps us make our words clearly stated in order to be understood. Without an English-speaking environment, grammar can also make our words idiomatic.
Learning grammar helps us to write more precisely in English. Grammar helps us write more grammatically and make us understood, but that is not enough. A problem we have to face in writing is precision. As the American novelist and playwright David Wisehart pointed out, speech is a two-way communication in which, usually, audience can ask questions anytime if they do not understand, but this cannot be realized in writing (Wisehart). Writing deserves more formal words and more grammatical structure to make it fully understood. Such formality and grammaticality can be easily gained through learning grammar.
Learning grammar helps us to master English more efficiently. Systemized grammar learning tells us usages of English in the fastest way, and it is much more efficient than another common method of gaining usages—reading. Since there are so many reading materials available for us to imitate, we cannot quickly tell which of them are well written. Even if we manage to find some perfectly-written examples, it takes us much time reading them. What is more, we have to spend even much longer time on digesting and systemizing those grammatical points. Therefore reading is inefficient compared to learning grammar.
Learning grammar helps us to understand language better. Grammar tells us what the structure of English is like and how it works. An English major student in U.S. considered grammar equally important compared to history and math and regarded it as “a part of our way of life” (Echavaria). She reinforced her opinion by saying “In history we use our past to understand why and how our country has developed into what it is today. We need math to do everyday tasks such as counting out money. It’s the same with English. If we can understand the basics of grammar, we can better understand what we say and write on a daily basis.” We can even better understand and improve our Chinese if we compare it to English in terms of grammar, for modern Chinese grammar is largely influenced by English.
Learning grammar helps us to satisfy our curiosity. “We human beings are curious and want to learn more about ourselves” (Veit 2). When we study grammar, we are provided with significant insights into the nature of our minds and the way that we think. Particularly, “the discovery of how complex and yet elegant our grammar are will give us an appreciation of humanity’s achievement in creating this marvelous instrument”.
Some people think that grammar teaching in China is only for exams and actually unnecessary. They suggest that Chinese should imitate native speakers’ method of studying their mother tongue, that is, we need not learn grammar specially. This is also a misunderstanding. First, the language acquisition of native language and that of foreign language are different. We Chinese learn Mandarin or other dialects by living in Chinese-speaking surroundings where everyone else uses Chinese, and it takes us almost ten years or even longer to learn to speak and write well. It is the same with Britons and Americans learning English. Nevertheless, we have neither such surroundings nor that long time. Second, grammar is not made up by Chinese educators. Written grammar is invented by Westerners, and dates back to ancient Greece when Greek grammar was established. Third, native speakers have to learn grammar as well, even if they have had basic ability to speak beforehand. Hence grammar is especially important for Chinese students.
With English becoming more popular around the world, grammar is no longer the monopoly of grammarians. Oppositely, it has become a useful weapon for English learners in conquering English. If everyone learns a little grammar, if every English learner has a basic knowledge of grammar, we will have less difficulty but more convenience in reading, speaking and writing, and a better understanding of ourselves as well as language.
- Barry, Anita K. English Grammar: Language as Human Behavior. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1998. Print.
- Chalker, Sylvia. Current English Grammar. London: Macmillan, 1984. Print.
- Echavaria, Joslin. “Why Learn Grammar?.” Xomba. Xomba, 20 Jan. 2007. Web. 14 June 2010. http://www.xomba.com/why_learn_grammar.
- “Grammar.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Encyclopedia Britannica Online, 2010. Web. 09 June 2010. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/240915/grammar.
- Kolln, Martha. Understanding English Grammar. NY: Macmillan, 1994. Print.
- Veit, Richard. Discovering English Grammar. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1986. Print.
- Wisehart, David. “Why Study Grammar?.” Why Study Grammar?. 9 May 2008. Web. 14 June 2010. http://ezinearticles.com/?Why-Study-Grammar?&id=1166170.