Grammar: Do we really need it?

It is widely acknowledged that grammar has played a central role in language teaching. Syllabus design and a wide diversity of approaches to language teaching have relied on this assumption, namely, the fundamental role of grammar in second- or foreign-language learning.

In spite of the tremendous impact that recent communicative approaches have had on the way we should tackle language in general, there seems to be a deeply ingrained belief that grammar is, or should be, the teacher’s and learner’s main concern and goal. A lot of second- or foreign-language learners the world over have definitely been exposed to this philosophy of teaching and, notwithstanding the degree of linguistic competence that most of them have attained, it is only when they come in contact with other speakers that the unvarnished truth dawns on them: linguistic competence is only a vehicle for mastering a language.

So, what does it mean to “know and speak a language”? There are several factors that we have to take into consideration in answering this question. Let us consider three main variables that are of consequence and vital importance: grammatical competence, communicative competence, and language proficiency. The main exponent of grammatical competence is the eminent linguist Noam Chomsky, who believed that knowing a language is tantamount to knowing “one’s grammar,” i.e., the ability to form and comprehend “grammatically correct” sentences. In other words, grammatical competence has to do with grammatical rules stipulating the correct usage, formulation and construction of words and phrases; with grammatical categories, such as subject, complement, etc.; in short, with the ability to create propositions. For instance, when one says The table is black, we have an example of a proposition, since this sentence consists of a subject, a verb and a complement. It is a complete sentence conveying a complete meaning about a particular state of affairs, in juxtaposition with the sentence The table is, which is incomplete, or The table are black, which is ungrammatical. A teacher adhering to a strict grammar-oriented approach to language teaching is likely to devote a lot of time to teaching grammatical rules, describing language in terms of tenses, syntax, semantics, and lexis, and prescribing the correct usage, although everyday life and experience have given the lie to the efficacy of this approach. Furthermore, grammar-oriented approaches have even led to significant misunderstandings and “misnomers,” as in the case of assigning the term tense to progressive or perfect aspect. 


The punctilious teacher, as I usually say, who sticks to the plan and complies with grammar and clear-cut rules, seems to overlook the circumstances under which the target-language is spoken—for instance, the reasons for applying a communicative strategy instead of another. Knowing, for example, that What I want is a cigarette is a correct English sentence, or to give him the cold shoulder means “to shun him,” is not what communication and “knowing a language” are all about. Different situations require different styles. We use formal language when talking to our employers; we tend to be informal when addressing our parents or friends; we talk to children more slowly, trying to make our speech comprehensible enough for them, etc. The innumerable sentences that may be permissible in the grammatical system of a language may not be potential utterances when it comes to communication. A cigarette is what I want may be a grammatically correct sentence, but it is highly unlikely that there will ever be any circumstances under which this sentence will be relegated to the status of an utterance. 

Obviously, communicative competence is related to the how, when and why of language use. It is the ability to adjust our language behaviour to the various circumstances and social situations that we normally face in the course of our lives. A significant component of communicative competence is what has been called sociolinguistic or pragmatic competence. Knowing a language means knowing the communicative and social strategies appropriate in every single circumstance of interaction; knowing when and how to make requests, apologies, invitations, etc.; when and how to broach or avoid a topic (topic-avoidance strategies); most importantly, knowing when and how to interpret all these speech acts, in order to avoid misunderstanding. For instance, a second- or foreign-language student should know that utterances such as Can you pass the salt? or It’s cold in here are not mere questions and statements, respectively. The former is not to be interpreted as a question referring to the hearer’s ability to perform the act described, but as an indirect directive requesting the performance of the act, whereas the latter is not to be thought of as an utterance describing a certain state of affairs, but one that should almost always be regarded as a hint, thus implicitly requesting the addressee to, say, close the window or to fetch a blanket, etc. 

The degree to which a learner has acquired grammatical and communicative or sociolinguistic competence and the skill with which he / she taps into this knowledge for real-life purposes refers to our third variable: language proficiency—a term that encompasses the previous two. Language proficiency extends to cover every single aspect of language awareness and all that this entails; it has less to do with competence than with performance. When we say that a second- or foreign-language learner is proficient, we mean that she is, more or less, fluent in the target language. However, fluency may be adversely affected by such factors as fatigue, apprehension, disease, etc. 

At any rate, language proficiency is the end-product of language learning; this is what everybody aims at and assessment is predicated upon. This discrepancy, though, between grammar-oriented approaches to language teaching and the kind of language proficiency which we have dilated upon and undoubtedly forms the core of language testing is somewhat unwieldy and inexplicable. How can we go about focusing on grammar when our chief concern is to help students become competent speakers who will be able to hold their own in every situation? How can we limit ourselves to teaching tenses and constructions, doing nothing to help our students cope with language in its social context? Herein lies the role of literature in language teaching as a means of giving insights into the culture of the target language. Stripping language of its cultural distinctiveness may lead to unprecedented errors and misunderstandings making inroads into communication. What we could glean from this brief discussion is the fact that grammar does not constitute a valid approach to the development of language proficiency. Grammar should always be sensitive and amenable to all those culture-specific assumptions underpinning language and communication, and it is not necessarily conducive to language proficiency.

Source: Dr. Dimitris Thanasoulas