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What exactly is GRAMMAR?

Updated: Nov 5, 2022


Generally speaking, it is the underlying structure of a language and the organizational patterns/rules that govern its sounds (Phonology), words and phrases (Morphology and Lexicology) and how these are sequenced, combined, and modified to create meaningful clauses and sentences (Syntax). Semantics (the study of meaning) and Pragmatics (the study of context) are also considered part of the systems of a language.

When learning a language, Grammar is like having a MAP of a place you are not familiar with. Can you explore new cities without a map? Absolutely. Can you find your way around by asking people for directions or even trusting your own instincts? By all means. (Get lost in Paris, they say.) That is actually the most enjoyable way to get to know and experience a new place, as it often leads to beautiful, serendipitous discoveries.


On the flip side, are you going to see everything worth seeing in that city if you do not have a map? Probably not. Will you be able to organize your sightseeing itinerary, optimizing your time, energy, and personal budget without knowing your exact location, nor your desired destination? I doubt it.


Having a map makes everything so much easier. It saves you precious time and energy and it helps you get oriented in terms of the whole travelling context. Similarly, when you are learning a new language, you need Grammar to signpost your current location (exactly where you are in terms of language proficiency), what your desired destination (language goal) is, and how to get there using the fastest rout (optimizing your time, energy, and finances in the best possible way).


The bad thing about maps, though, is that they can quickly become obsolete; you always need the latest version, otherwise you risk getting "detoured". Just like a map has to be updated, a language is a living and constantly evolving phenomenon. Its users may or may not follow the rules prescribed by its grammar. This is the reason we have prescriptive grammar (all the prescribed guidelines of how language should be used) and descriptive grammar (how language is actually used in real life).

Guess which one is taught by the traditional grammar syllabus? Prescriptive grammar exclusively. The grammar of written language, with its rigid, often obsolete rules and its obsessive focus on the verb.


What about spoken grammar? What about COMMUNICATION? What about the noun phrase or the prepositional phrase? What about the fact that more than 60% of language is lexical phrases/chunks/collocations; ready-made co-occurrences of strings of words, perceived and used as a single unit?


If the bulk of a language is lexical phrases, shouldn’t we be teaching those first? Wouldn't a wide range of collocations be more useful to communicate in a foreign language compared to years of sweating over grammar rules, most of which you would never use?


Grammar is NOT and has never been a prerequisite for communication. It is a by-product of it. Grammar comes out of speech, not speech out of grammar. Communication and meaning go first. Grammar only helps to sequence and modify words and expressions to bring more clarity and precision (in the absence of context). Grammar is more a matter of choice of expression than of slavish compliance with prescribed rules.


So, when it comes to learning Grammar, here's a rule to follow: meaning (lexis) goes first, but structure (grammar) clarifies the context. The clearer the context, the less the grammar.



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