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Grammar: Rules vs. Tools

Teaching and learning grammar is always a controversial topic in Applied Linguistics.  Here in Korea, grammar is somewhat of an obsession in the established education system, with the memorization of complex rules taking precedence over more vital things such as comprehension and communication.  When I asked my students what they felt when they think of grammar, they said “headache”, “hard”, etc.  On the other hand, some linguists go too far the other way, emphasizing the communicative approach so much they’d rather do away with grammar study entirely.  I prefer a balanced approach, with a strong emphasis on communication and input, but with some time focused on grammar and vocabulary, depending on the learner’s personality.

But we need the right approach to grammar.  Those who cram grammar (neglecting all else), as well as those who criticize grammar teaching, tend to think of grammar as a list of rules (arbitrary, irrational and complex).  I advocate a different view of grammar: as a set of tools.  Tools which allow us to express our complex ideas, often with simple vocabulary.


Learning Korean, I found grammar study very useful.  Grammar in Korean usually centers on the myriad of affixes that can be added to words.  Learning a new one allowed me to express a new idea: the past tense, experience, ability, necessity, etc.  I always wanted to learn more, because I found that with each one I could express more ideas.

Of course, grammar study involves learning how to use the tools in the right way.  I suppose many learners get bogged down in this, especially since language lessons / language tests tend to focus on the intricate parts that people often fail on, rather than the most useful ones that learners can use to their advantage.  When teaching English Communication, I try to focus on basic grammar that will allow the students to speak more easily, and express their ideas more.  However, I do occasionally get bogged down in something a bit more complicated, and I suppose I focus on accuracy a bit too much sometimes (not that a focus on accuracy is always a bad idea; but it should be appropriate to the students’ current level).

By helping students to see grammar as a set of tools, and by helping them to use the tools they are acquiring by giving them opportunity to use what they’re learning, students can become more motivated

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