• Noel Chivers

"To be, or not to be..." Is Grammar Important, that is the Question?


Before I discuss further, I want to be clear that there is never only one way to learn a language. Different people learn in different ways and suggesting that a one-size-fits-all approach would work for everyone would be factually incorrect.

There has always been a lot of talk about learning a language without all the supposedly ‘unnecessary’ complications of grammar. The idea is that you will learn naturally and that your brain will slowly piece together the grammar without any active effort on your part by continued exposure to the language. In fact, many books / methods have been being extensively marketed based on this very idea (Pimsleur, Rosetta Stone, The Communicative Approach, Task-Based Learning, The Lexical Approach). The concept is nothing new. It’s been touted for many years. In fact, I have been using it when teaching English as a Foreign Language (EFL) for quite a long time, so I do have first-hand experience with the method and its results.

Many argue that grammar provides the essential building blocks in order to learn a language properly and that maybe the case, if your reasons for learning are academic. My argument is based on the question. “Why do you want to learn English and what do you want to use it for?”

An Oil & Gas Company’s Dilemma

Let me relate a situation that happened a few years ago. A director of an oil company spoke to me about a training problem he had. “I can’t find any English schools that will teach my guys the English they need to do their job safely and understand technical English at work.” he stated.

It seemed that every school and teacher he had used, taught using English language course books that covered lots of grammar and topics such as: booking a hotel; going on holiday; or visiting London, all completely unrelated to their work. “They spend half their time ‘visiting’ Big Ben or learning the difference between present simple and present perfect. I’m American and we don’t even know the difference half the time.” He commented.

So I asked him what the purpose of his staff learning English was. “I just need my guys to be able to relate messages accurately and I need them to learn as quickly as possible. When they communicate about technical issues with expatriate English-speakers, it becomes critical and can affect safety.” he replied.

So I started to take the company's documents, policies, safety procedures, technical instructions, case histories, company videos etc. and pull the language from the content and put it into phrases or ‘lexical chunks’, still utilising traditional EFL methods. So the focus was on lexis which also of course contained the grammar. So I didn’t present any grammar rules which not only saved time but allowed me to focus more on pronunciation and work-specific vocabulary acquisition. This frees the learner to concentrate on learning the essential lexis to do their job and not to go shopping in London.

The end result was the course attendees enjoyed learning more because the language was from content they understood. Motivation was high which meant learning outcomes were reached and attained faster. The company was happy, the director was happy and the employees could communicate better. An added benefit was the company saw a positive ROI.

I do believe vocabulary is truly the foundation of any language and you can build upon it quite successfully if you only need to transfer ‘the message’ accurately. If you want to have deep knowledge of a language and the confidence to know that you're speaking or writing correctly, then you cannot avoid grammar.

First there was lexis and then along came grammar. Grammar is lexis; therefore by learning lexical chunks, you learn grammar. I tell all my business students, if you want to be accurate, learn vocabulary, if you want to be fluent, learn grammar. So the answer to the questions is a question –“Why do you want to learn English?”

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