(a paper presented at the Faculty of Culture Studies of Universitas Brawijaya, 27 September 2016)
Grammar has always been an intimidatingly serious matter in the eyes of the students. The word “grammar” often connotes grueling hours of studying patterns, monotonous textbooks and tedious classes. An environment which is very concerned about grammatical accuracy in every language production is likely to be perceived as threatening and not comfortable. It seems that without good grammar one would be perceived as not refined or even uneducated. I argue that this should not be the case. What I discuss below centers on the idea that grammatical accuracy is not an absolute issue.
When asked “is grammar important?”, I would answer: ‘it depends”. In a formal situation such as in a ceremony or conference, one would cringe to hear the following remarks by the host or the presenter:
(1) “Good morning ladies and gentlemen. Today, I want to presentate my topic which related to global warming . . .” (spoken by a presenter at a formal seminar).
(2) “Doctor Zimmerman, I please you to the stage” (said by a host in a seminar who wants the speaker to come to the stage).
Because there are grammatical lapses in their utterances, those speakers may be perceived as incompetent, lacking attention to accuracy, and quite possibly have started to lose the audience’s appreciation. In other words, in such domain, grammatical accuracy matters significantly. It determines how the audience or readers perceive the work being presented.
The accuracy becomes even more critical in the context of written academic domain. A draft replete with grammatical mistakes all over the paper will likely be rejected by journal reviewers on the first checking. Thus, grammar matters a lot when it comes to expressing our ideas in a formal academic domain.
But since the formal and academic domain is not the sole communicative context, in other less formal and less academic context grammatical accuracy may matter less. Let us consider this following chat between five students at a party:
A: “What class you take?”
B: “Not much. Only 12 credit hours.”
A: “I hear you take Grammar 2. Is that difficult?”
B: “Well…yes if you not study. Yesterday, my lecturer was taught us passive voice and that is very difficult.”
C: “Yeah that’s difficult if you did not study. You should to practice—”
D: “But the book is also difficult.”
E: “and it makes me boring, too.”
A: “Why not suggesting the lecturer to use Youtube? It’s fun”
B: “Fun but . . . uhm…it not teaching well… just for fun.”
The chat is obviously also full of grammatical mistakes, yet most readers would agree that despite their mistakes the communication among the five students above has been successful.
Grammaticality and comprehensibility
As pointed out previously, grammar is not an absolute issue. While grammatical accuracy exists as clear dichotomy, that is, grammatical or ungrammatical, there is the dimension of comprehensibility that exists as a continuum. What is not grammatical may still be very comprehensible, as the conversation between the five students above has clearly shown.
Grammaticality and acceptability
Again, when viewed from acceptability, grammatical accuracy is obviously relative. These sentences below are both grammatically correct but (1) is not semantically acceptable, and (2) is not socially acceptable:
(1) Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.
(2) You look fat. Have you been gaining weight?
Strategies for learning grammar
Language learning starts not with grammar learning; rather, it starts with using simple yet communicative phrases or expressions to serve some daily life functions. Thus, saying a few fixed utterances or social formulae in English may kick-off the learning of the language. These are expressions that are frequently used in typical social interaction:
How are you
Can you show me . . .?
I am sorry, but I don’t get it
The next activity that helps significantly is reading and listening to English-speaking sources that contain mostly understandable words and/or phrases. The more learners process these input and make efforts to understand, the better and the sooner their mind will approximate the system of the English language. In other words, the principle is simple: the more one listens to and reads English input that he or she can understand, the more quickly their mind operates like the English grammar system.
Another activity that supports and expedites grammar learning is noticing English grammatical patterns. If the first strategy above draws on simple understanding of the input, this strategy draws attention to the patterns and silently commit them to the language system in the mind. This also involves parsing the sentences and analyzing the elements of sentences in order to produce output with the same patterns.
In addition to the two activities above, an old adage “practice makes perfect” still works effectively. Mastery of grammar calls for a lot of intensive practice. This is where grammar books play out their roles. If done regularly, the exercises in the books will enable a learner to gain increasing mastery of the patterns.
Last but not least, the learning of grammar benefits from error corrections. Learners will come to a stage where they need to produce utterances or sentences, and it is at this stage that they should heed the corrections given by their teachers or more able friends.
In short, processing a lot of comprehensible input, noticing patterns, and attending to feedback are some strategies for mastering English grammar.