How to learn grammar

Introduction

Grammar is an aspect of language about which learners have different opinions. Some learners are very interested in finding out or learning grammar rules and doing lots of grammar exercises. Others hate grammar and think it is the most boring part of learning a new language. Whatever opinion you have, however, you cannot escape from grammar; it is in every sentence you read or write, speak or hear. Grammar is simply the word for the rules that people follow when they use a language. We need those rules in the same way as we need the rules in a game. If there are no rules, or if everybody follows their own rules, the game would soon break down. It’s the same with language; without rules we would not be able to communicate with other people.

So you cannot escape from grammar, but the key question here is: what is the best way to learn grammar? You can learn the rules of a game by simply playing the game. You will certainly make mistakes; you may even get hurt. Eventually, however, you will know how to play. Of course, the rules of a language are very much more complicated than the rules of any game, but in fact this is exactly how you learned your own language. Nobody taught you the rules of your mother tongue as you were growing up but now you never make a grammar mistake.

It is possible to learn a second language in the same natural way, if you have enough time and you live in the right place. For example, if you are a Korean boy and you move to Russia at age 6, attend a Russian school, play every day with Russian friends, you will probably learn all you need to know about Russian grammar by the age of 15 without ever having a grammar lesson or reading a grammar book.

Most people learning a new language do not have so much time and such an ideal situation; So what IS the best way to learn English grammar? Unfortunately, there is no easy answer to the question. There are just as many different opinions about teaching grammar as there are about learning grammar. Many teachers believe in the importance of grammar lessons devoted to a study of language rules and lots of practice exercises. Other teachers feel that grammar is best learned by doing different language activities without focussing so directly on the rules. Whatever your opinion about grammar, and whichever is the way you are taught, here is some advice that may help you to learn grammar more effectively.

What you can do

  • Be aware of grammar. Think about grammar. Notice the aspects of English grammar that are the same as or very similar to those in your language. (The use of the articles in German, for example, is similar to their use in English.) Notice also the way that English expresses an idea differently to how it is done in your language. For example, English uses the present perfect to express a period of time that started in the past and continues in the present (e.g. I have had this watch for 10 years). Many other languages use the present tense to express the same idea; (e.g. German: Ich habe diese Uhr seit 10 Jahren.) If you notice grammar similarities and differences, you will probably learn the rules more quickly.
  • Read a lot of English books – this may sound strange but in fact all the time you are reading English (and also listening to English), you are taking in models of correct grammar that will help you in your own writing and speaking. It will help you when you express your ideas and when you come to check your work. Of course, it is even better if you can read with the grammatical awareness discussed in the last paragraph. By this I mean that you say to yourself from time to time: Ah, so that’s how you do this in English!
  • Concentrate on the aspects of grammar you personally find most difficult. (If you don’t have any idea what aspects of English grammar cause you most problems, ask your teacher!) Particularly in your writing you can focus on these aspects for special care and attention when editing your work. It is more difficult in speaking, of course, but even here you can sometimes take a fraction more time to try and get that particular element right. For example, if you are retelling a story in the present tense, you could keep reminding yourself that you need an -s in the 3rd person singular.
  • If you don’t like to do grammar exercises or to be taught grammar, then it’s more important that you follow the advice in the paragraphs above. You should try to work out the patterns and rules of the language for yourself.
  • If you do like to do grammar exercises, then go ahead. But being good at grammar exercises does not mean you will not make mistakes in your own work. You could be like someone who has learned how to play tennis by reading a book, but once he is on the tennis court, he can’t hit the ball properly. If you decide to do grammar exercises, try to go beyond just filling in gaps or doing multi-choice answers. Write out some sentences of your own that follow the same rule that you are practising.

There are thousands of grammar pages on the web, including the pages on this site. Click here to go to a short index of these sites.

If you can use these verbs automatically, it will give you more time to concentrate on other aspects of what you want to say. They are easy to learn if you say them to yourself many times.

  • Only read this last section if you are very, very interested in grammar!

There is a computer program called a concordancer which can help you learn about how words are used and how grammar works. When you type words into the concordancer, it shows you hundreds examples of those words in short sentence extracts. For example, if you want to learn more about how the present perfect continuous is used, you can type in the words I have been and the computer will give you a list of extracts from books or newspapers containing those words. For example:

    • I have been waiting for two months for a letter from my pen-friend.
    • I have been living in Germany for 3 years.
    • I have been learning English since 1999.
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