You don't need to study grammar rules to master the grammar of the English language

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Imagine the following: Let's say you don't know how to ride a bike. Let's say that you've never had a bicycle, and that until now you've never ridden one. But gawd freaking dammit, you reaaaaaally want to learn how to ride one. It would be so cool and so useful!

You want to grab any bicycle and fulfill all your crazy cycling fantasies, like riding on the roads of your local park on a Saturday morning, feel the wind hitting you in the face, point and laugh at the miserable pedestrians who have to put one foot in front of the other to get form point A to B, hit some random dog, be sent flying and land PRECISELY on the concrete road instead of the grass, and because you didn't have your helmet on "cuz only babies use helmets #lolyoloswag360"... well... the following scene has been censored because of excess brains flying around everywhere...

Ok... that fantasy took a bit of a dark turn, didn't it O_O

But ANYWAYS. Let's say that for your birthday they give you your first bike with a helmet and chain lock. So exciting, you will finally make your fantasies a reality! But, hmm... you've never ridden a bike before... well, you still get on your bike and try to give it a quick ride. How hard could it be?

But not even a fraction of a second has passed and... you fall. At least you had your helmet on (lucky you!). You get on your bike and advance a little bit three more times, but you can't keep your balance, and you fall again. Ha, but those little failures don't discourage you. If anything, they encourage you to learn how to drive your bicycle really well.

Ok, now I'm going to show you two options that you could follow to learn to keep your balance on your bike, and to drive it very well as soon as possible:

Option 1: You buy a thick manual called "Hot to ride a bicycle: Theory and applied exercises". This manual shows you the name of all parts of your bike: The handle, the wheels, the pedals, the chain, etc. Then you find a section that describes how to do the pedaling, how to maintain your equilibrium, how to "find your gravity center", and there is even a section that describes in physical terms (Strength, Mass, Acceleration, etc.) how you have to maintain your equilibrium while you pedal.

After studying these concepts and being armed with all that new knowledge you get on your bike and try again...

Option 2: Just get on and try to keep your balance again. And you keep trying, and trying, and trying.

What option do you think will give you the best results?

Option 1 sounds good?

Option 1 sounds tempting. S/he who has all that knowledge has a much bigger advantage than the one who hasn't studied anything, right?

That's how it would sound in theory... but in reality, if you try to consciously apply all those things you studied, when you get on your bike you will start thinking...

"Ok, now I have to exert a pressure of 4.27 Pascals (I have no idea whether that's too little or too much :P) on each pedal making sure that they elevate 12° while I push them, and I have to keep my torso parallel to the z-axis of the bike, and now according to the calculations I did with my mass and stature then my center of gravity would be located in...", and when you come back to your senses, you will be smooching with the floor again.

In contrast, if you take option 2!... you will be hugging the floor in 0.2 seconds guaranteed too. But in this case there will be something different. You will not be consciously thinking about each movement you must do to go forward and keep your balance. Instead, by trial and error you will gradually feel what to do to keep your balance.

This is something that happens in a semi-conscious way. When you try, fail and correct you will be acquiring subtle patterns of what to do, like moving your body and how to "level your center of gravity" so to speak. And soon, after trying out again and again and again, you will find a combination of patterns, of things you have to do, to keep your balance successfully.

After trying so many times, you will finally learn how to ride your first bike. and the cool thing is that after riding a couple more times you will not have to worry about falling down, because your muscular memory (so to speak) will have stored what you have to do to keep your balance.

Could you achieve the same thing following option 1? Probably. But thinking in a conscious and monitored way about the exact movements you have to do is something that will make your learning process much more difficult. And in the long run, you will learn to ride not because of the principles you were trying to apply consciously, but because of the patterns that your brain acquired through practice.

These principles of internalizing patterns through trial, error and correction apply practically to all human abilities: Driving a vehicle, acting, cooking, and of course, understanding and using languages.

This dumb situation of riding a bike would be the ability of understanding and using English, and studying the thick manual with rules to ride the bike would be the study of grammar rules.


If you actually like to read about grammar rules, then I encourage you to read about them, as long as the texts you use to read about them are in English. But if you are not interested in studying grammar rules and you don't like it, you don't need to do it. You don't have to endure having to study them. It might be useful to know a few grammatical terms like the following:
  • Noun: People, animals and/or things.
  • Verb: Actions.
  • Adjective: Qualities/aspects of people, animals and/or things.
  • Adverb: Qualities of the adjectives, verbs and adverbs (Adverb-ception!).
  • Plural: That there is more than one of something – that there a several of something.
And in fact, in practical terms you don't need to know the name of these terms, just like you don't need to know that the thing you use to change direction with your bicycle is the "handle"... but sometimes it's useful to know that.

But aside from those basic terms, you don't need to study any grammar rule. Not one. It doesn't matter if you are just getting started in English or if your English level is almost native-like.

Don't worry about grammar rules. You don't need to study them. And I'll explain why right now.


Using a conscious grammar monitor is NOT mastering English


One of my favorite authors in the field of language learning is Stephen D. Krashen, linguist and professor emeritus from the University of South California. Based on his research, professor Krashen has outlined several hypotheses that describe how language acquisition works on us humans, like the...
  • Comprehensible input hypothesis.
  • Acquisition-learning hypothesis.
  • Affective filter hypothesis.
  • Monitor hypothesis.
The last hypothesis from this group, the monitor hypothesis, indicates that if you have conscious knowledge of the grammar rules of a language, it's possible to use them consciously to produce correct English, whether spoken or written. The same applies to understanding written or audio content – if you know the grammar rules that correspond to what you are reading/listening to, it's possible to use them to help you understand that content.

So yes, it's possible to study as many grammar rules as you can, and then try to recall them and apply them correctly, like if you had a conscious grammar monitor in your brain (that's why the hypothesis receives its name). The thing is that those who master English and English-speaking natives don't do that. That's not how it works. Using a conscious monitor is not how they know how to say things in English correctly.

Before we proceed I would like to share with you a transcription of this interesting video-interview that was done with doctor Krashen back in the times of the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and VHS tapes:


... my original idea was this, and I thought it was good common sense. Acquisition gives us our fluency, learning gives us our accuracy. It's an attractive idea. We have two components. They make two very different kinds of contributions. Clearly we want both. We want language students to speak easily and fluently, but we also want the grammar to be there. We don't want a grammarless pigeon. So what I thought then, is, what we need is a balanced program. Two days a week acquisition. Two days a week learning. Two days a week conversation. Two days a week grammar.

Now, that sounds very fair. The truth must be somewhere in the middle. It has an intuitive appeal. Unfortunately, it's wrong. In fact, it's all wrong. What the research has been telling me for the last 10+ years, no matter where you turn, no matter where you look, the important role is with acquisition. Acquisition gives us fluency and accuracy.

For the adult, for the analytic, thinking, grammar loving adult, is at least 95% acquisition, possibly more. For the child, it's 100%.

And I'd also like to admit this to you... no one was more disappointed to discover this than me. As I mentioned briefly at the beginning of this discussion my graduate work was in grammar. My PhD is in grammar. Like many language teachers today, I love grammar. Uhh, my live used to revolve around grammar. My best friends are grammarians. I love to discuss relative clauses.

The problem is that that's not how language acquisition happens. Language acquisition does not happen by learning language rules, by memorizing vocabulary lists...


In an article on his blog, doctor Krashen tells us the case of a guy named Daniet Tammet, an autistic youth with savant syndrome. This guy has a biologically superior memory than all of us normal humans, and with it he's been able to do amazing feats like remembering the first 22.514 digits of π, and being able to converse fluently and correctly in Icelandic with natives after studying the language for just 10 days.

On the article, Krashen explains that Daniel used both direct learning (of the grammar rules of the language) and natural acquisition, but that Daniel was able to develop such a good conversational level in Icelandic in such a short time thanks to his special abilities. Daniel's prodigious memory allowed him to memorize tons of rules and grammatical points in Icelandic, and it also allowed him to easily remember and use them as a conscious monitor when talking with natives.

Then, what I found funny (but very true) from this story is how Krashen emphasizes that using the conscious monitor of grammar rules works for people like Daniel who have a super-powerful memory... but NOT for normal people like you and me.

Basically, if normal people like us try to rely on memorizing grammar rules and using the conscious monitor to verify the things you want to express in English (and to verify the content you consume), we would end up like robots running Windows Vista as their operating system.

Just imagine: Each time somebody tells you something in English a little blue "loading" ring that goes around and around appears on your eyes as you try to remember the grammatical rules corresponding to what the other person said. "Ok, is that a verb? What time is the verb in? It goes there or before? Wait, is that a gerund? Ok, and then... is that a relative clause? AHHHH!" Be glad the blue screen of death doesn't appear on your eyeballs.

And let's not talk about having to compose your answer in English to what the other person just said. Then a sign that says "loading" appears on your eyes, with one of those broken loading bars that don't fill up and leave you with the complete uncertainty of how much time is actually left (they are the worst!)

Meanwhile, in your mind you think in your native language on what you want to answer, and you desperately try to remember the corresponding words and grammatical rules. "Ok, 'great' would go at the end, but where does 'these' go? No wait, it would be 'that'... and then what follows, 'will'? Is that thing a verb? How do you conjugate that thing? Oh no... HELP!!!"

And after looking at the horizon for all that time, drooling and trying to express the phrase "That would be great!", when you finally say it... the person you were speaking with is gone. And you end up all Forever Alone :(

Just like having to consciously think about what movements you have to make to control your bike can hardly be called riding a bike, relying on a conscious grammatical monitor to understand and communicate can hardly be called knowing how to speak English.

The idea is that you develop an intuitive sense of the grammatical structures of English, just like you do in your native language. Studying grammar rules will not help you develop a natural sense of grammar in the language.


How did you master the grammar of your native language?


Let's say your native language is Spanish. If it was, you wouldn't have to worry about where to put the gerund, or how to conjugate a verb correctly or how to organize the past pluperfect or any crap like that. And in your actual native language, you don't have to worry about thinking of all the grammar points of your language consciously.

Maybe you were forced to work on those topics in school, but nowadays you don't remember any of that (unless you teach your native language at schools or universities), and even then you can understand and speak your native language very well.

You know how words and expressions should be said in your native language, but not because you studied consciously the grammar rules of it. You know intuitively, subconsciously, what phrases in your native language are organized correctly and which aren't. Just by reading or listening to something in your native language you can feel if something is correct or incorrect.

You arrived to this point of mastery in the grammar of your native language through comprehensible input, by learning very simple words when you were a baby, like "ball" and "mom" and "titties!". And you gradually learned more of your native language through kids books, cartoons on TV, by interacting with your school mates and your playmates, etc.

Listening and reading (and managing to understand) tons of content in your native tongue is what gradually developed the grammatical structures of your native language in your head. Comprehensible input in your native language is what got you to where you are now, to the point that you can read an entire news article in your native language without any bigger issues.

(Oh, and by the way... that's the reason why many native kids and youths have bad spelling and bad grammar when they write in their own language: Because they don't read a damn thing!)

Now... how would it be if you didn't master your native language intuitively? Can you imagine how complicated it would be to try to say or understand anything in your native language if you always had to actively recall what are the correct grammar rules you have to use? It would be impossible... unless you have a super-prodigious memory.

If this isn't acceptable for your native language, what makes you think that it's acceptable for English? Memorizing and trying to apply grammar rules consciously is not mastering English. Through comprehensible input in English you can master the language (including its grammar) in a way almost as natural as you master your own native tongue.


Well, if that's how it is... what should you do to master English grammar?


Comprehensible input. Sorry for repeating it so often, but that's the base of language learning, the base of the natural acquisition of pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar in any language.

To master the correct grammar of the English language just read in English, listen in English, and decipher content you don't understand using transcriptions and dictionaries, as to make it comprehensible. Do this every day, at the very least one hour a day, and in a not so distant future... voilá! You will be able to understand and produce a phrase like "I live en Toronto, which has an amazing mall network underground!" without knowing what relative clauses are.

Something I recommend you do when you decipher content in English is this:

If you are going to look up a word in the dictionary, before you go to the next sentence (or once you've read 10 words or so) stop, and take a look at the sentence/phrase where the word you looked up was. See and analyze the word order there, and verify if you understand what the sentence/phrase means. This is known as the Pause and Think method, and it helps you develop your sense of correct English grammar.

If you are a beginner learning English (or even intermediate), deciphering texts that have a corresponding translation in your native language gives you a big advantage: When you analyze a sentence / phrase to see if you actually understand what it means, you can check the translation to verify if you understood the sentence correctly or not. Doing this helps you internalize in your head the vocabulary and grammatical structures from those sentences / phrases you verify.

Finally, although memorizing grammar rules is not necessary, certain grammar guides can be useful because of the examples you can find in them. Some grammatical structures may be uncommon, or could cause trouble even to native speakers. Because of that, I think checking examples on guides like those every now and then is a good idea.


And to end all this... you DON'T need to memorize grammar rules (redundancy, wooo!). There, don't worry about them. Let them go. If you read, listen and decipher content in English you'll be fine. Don't fear that you won't learn the language, or that you are going to learn bad English if you don't memorize them.

You learned your native language without memorizing grammar rules, and you can learn English and any other language you want that way. Tons of case studies support Krashen's hypotheses (and I don't understand how to this day they are not called theories yet... you know, like the theory of gravity), so go read in English, listen to it, look up what you don't understand, keep moving forward... and keep your hopes up!


Summary


To master the grammatical structures of English you DON'T need to study its grammar rules. Relying on being able to recall those rules when you are trying to speak or understand something in English (like trying to use a mental monitor) is completely impractical if your goal is to reach natural mastery in the language.

What makes you internalize English grammar is comprehensible input in the language. Read, listen and decipher content in English, pay attention to the order of words on each sentence/phrase that you read, verify if you understand what that sentence/phrase means, and that way you will develop your natural sense of grammar.


Last updated: July 2 of 2015

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