One of the most difficult aspects of learning another language is grammar. Grammar is the systems and structures that are used in a particular language.

Perfect grammar is not always essential for communication. We can convey simple ideas and requests with a minimum of grammar. However, for more complex communication in spoken conversation,and especially in writing, correct use of grammar is important to make sure that ideas are conveyed clearly and without any potential for misunderstanding.

How do most people learn grammar?

When we learn our first language, as children, we don’t need to have a formal understanding of grammar at all. We acquire our first language naturally by listening, copying and experimenting. We learn by listening first, whereby we get input of language. Next, we start to speak, by imitating and repeating. Reading and writing come later. There is a lot of trial and error and gentle correction from our parents. A good example of this is with irregular verbs. A child might say something like “I eated the apple” to which a parent might say, “You ate the apple”. The child notes the correction and from then, with a bit of luck, uses it correctly in the future.

How do we learn grammar in a new language?

There is a strong argument that the best way to learn a second language is as closely as possible to the way we learn our first language, that is, without actually focussing on the grammar but absorbing it as part of the language as a whole. 

What are some good ways to learn grammar?

These days many people learn a lot of their English from watching movies, television series and other video content. They learn to identify what “sounds right’ and when they notice themselves saying something ungrammatical, they are able to correct it themselves because it doesn’t “sound right” in the sense that it doesn’t sound similar to how they have heard native English-speakers use that particular language.

However, it is a bit idealistic and unrealistic to imagine that it is possible to simply absorb all elements of grammar like a sponge and not have to study it directly at all. It is really helpful to at least understand the names of different parts of speech or word classes and also the names of the different tenses. 

Do I need to learn how to explain grammar?

Knowing the names of the various parts that we use makes a big difference if we want to look up information or discuss it with teachers or other students. It is a little bit similar to building a house. If I can go to the building supply shop and use the correct names for the parts that I am looking for and discuss them with the supplier, then I am able to learn and also to teach myself. If I don’t know the correct terminology or jargon, I can’t do that. 

It can be really frustrating that native English-speakers mostly have very little knowledge of the grammatical systems of their own language. Because they learned the language naturally as children, as native English-speakers, they don’t need to know why we say things the way we do, they only need to know how to say things the way that we do. Frustratingly, they know this instinctively.

If you went out into the street and randomly asked a thousand people about the difference between first conditional and second conditional sentences, I would be fairly confident that virtually all native English-speakers would say; “What’s a conditional?” They don’t need to know, because, as native English-speakers, they will always choose the correct structure instinctively, although they don’t know why.

You might be wondering how this is useful to you, someone who is learning English as a second language, probably as an adult. In my opinion, the best way to learn English grammar is to use a combination of approaches. 

Will reading help my grammar?

Expose yourself to as much English as possible through reading and viewing. Watching movies and other video content with subtitles in English is an excellent way to observe English grammar in use and develop an “ear” and an “eye” for what “sounds right” and “looks right”. 

However, a certain amount of structured study of a conventional grammar text is also useful. It will help you with the more difficult and more irregular aspects of grammar. Most English is quite logical and follows regular patterns. These are the structures that you can “pick up” to a large extent on your own.

For the more tricky aspects, if you know the names of what you want to know about, you can look it up online. There is no shortage of really good material available. However, you do need a basic grounding so that you have the necessary vocabulary to be able to search for your answers.

Will speaking help my grammar?

Probably, the best resource is native English-speakers. If you have friends or workmates that will let you know when your use of grammar is not quite right, that is enormously helpful. Just knowing when you are not quite correct is enormously helpful because you can then look up your errors and work towards rectifying them. 

Should I worry about my grammar?

Don’t stress too much about grammar. If you worry about it too much, your fluency will suffer. It is better to make a few grammatical errors than to not speak at all. In time, all of your grammatical issues will be resolved. The most important thing is to communicate and to practise. The more you communicate and practice using your English, the more it will improve. 

Peter Ward