Learning How to Speak English: Why Grammar?

Posted on Mei 29, 2017

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Grammar lessons connote boring atmosphere, tedious repetitive exercises, and, worst of all, fear of saying incorrect forms and getting corrected by the teacher. The latter is obviously not a pleasant experience and is probably the reason why many learners dislike grammar.

Thus, many come to a language course and say that they want to learn how to speak. Some even warn “dont teach me grammar.”

It is commonly believed that speaking can be learned without paying attention on grammar. To some extent, this is true. In any language there are a set of fixed phrases that are usually expressed for various social purposes, such as “thank you,” “I am sorry”, “I dont know”, or “excuse me” in English. At the beginning stage of learning, these expressions can be immediately learned, or memorized, as a whole. The learners can commit them into their long-term memory without analyzing the phrases into its grammatical elements.

But, certainly, learning how to speak does not stop with being able to merely utter fixed social phrases. As the learners begin to embark on the next stages, they inevitably have to use a more or less limited number of grammatical patterns to produce many novel utterances. This is where grammar plays an increasingly important role.

To the learners’ delight, a set of patterns can be learned and combined with many different words or other phrases to form a complete message. These are what I call “pivot patterns”. They comprise phrases which can be followed by other words. Patterns like “could you . . .?” and “can I . . .?” are examples of these pivot patterns. Because they usually convey common social functions (like asking for permission, apologizing, or requesting), learners usually dont find them difficult to learn. A good language teacher would teach these patterns to the learners, making them more confident to produce longer and meaningful utterances.

Finally, along with their need to express many different and increasingly abstract thoughts, learners inevitably come to a point where they simply have to learn grammatical patterns. In many cases, it is the learners who point out the areas they need to learn to express certain messages for certain context. “How should I tell others my plan in the future?” one student that I am currently teaching asked me. That question got me to teach him the patterns for future tense. That also exemplifies a case of learner-centred lesson where the learners decide what to learn in the next stage. In the parlance of applied linguistics, this is a realization of Focus on Form, i.e. the teaching of some grammatical patterns as the need for them arises in the course of the lesson. The need may either be expressed by the learners themselves or be made obvious when the teacher sees many frequent errors in the learners’ utterances which potentially, if left “untreated”, can impede effective communication.

Up to this point, a conclusion can be drawn that learning how to speak inevitably includes learning grammar. But there is more to that. Since the ability to speak is preceded by and is dependent on the ability to comprehend messages in the target language, reading and listening are also necessary. Through these two receptive activities, learners widen their vocabulary knowledge and refine their auditory comprehension.

In brief, taking a speaking lesson goes far beyond merely speaking. It entails the willingness to learn the grammar of the language and to read and listen.

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Posted in: akademik, bahasa