Is Grammar Actually Important?

As a former educator, I often ponder why the concept of “grammar” has become one of those slightly less debated grey-areas.

While I do understand that grammar can be subjective in the sense that different types of English use different types of syntax, it does breed the question “how far is too far” in terms of change? If you were schooled in East Asia, English grammar is one of those unavoidable subjects that most spend fifteen years trying to escape. It is true that many native English schools don’t stress the importance of grammar the same way second-language schools do, and have come to believe that over-emphasis on grammar is useless.

I’ve explored these areas both as a student and as an educator, and in my “research” I have found the statement to be simultaneously true and false. Yes, over-emphasis on anything is generally seen as pointless, but the argument I’ve heard from a few well-experienced Asian instructors is that “English is a second language in most parts of Asia, so we don’t often get the chance to use it daily. That’s why we need to drill grammar.” Is this true? Does drilling grammar truly help people’s standards?

Yes and no.

Yes, because while the spoken English might be somewhat lacking in confidence, secondary level English writing has shown significant improvement in the last few years. Surprisingly, university level English has been reported to be decreasing. So drilling grammar is limited to being beneficial in writing. Literally.

The “no”, however, is when I personally think about my own English learning process. Yes, I went to an Asian school for my formative years, which meant that I, too, underwent a decade of grammar drills that lets face it, can be done with your eyes closed once you get the hang of the first two or three questions. Most grammar drills were fill-in-the-blanks, choose the correct tenses; English that could be easily grasped with the right balance of reading novels and watching cartoons.

But is the drilling of grammar absolutely useless? Also, no. I’ve had friends who speak other language assess how they were taught English in their schools, versus how they were taught their native languages. As it turns out, languages that have more rigid structure such as Chinese, German, or elementary French, would actually benefit from a rote-learning tense-drilling grammar learning style. However, languages like English, Spanish, or general French are somewhat more free-flowing, and these are best learned through application and interaction.

So why do some systems choose to drill English grammar and other systems seemingly ignore grammar, entirely? Is grammar important?

Traditionally, many European schools had various types of “grammar schools” where students learned the rigid, structured way of English. It was the post-structuralist era in the twentieth century that created a general industrial system that prepared students for factories and industrial work; there were also many chances to join military positions due to the globe’s political situation in this century. However, in the late twentieth/early twenty-first century, education took on a type of “reform” where a lot of the traditional structures were removed and replaced with more modernized education. Students were told to prepare for the future, but it was a future for which no one was truly braced.

One of the more prominent aspects that were removed from Western education was the emphasis on grammar; however, still retained heavily in Asian education. Though the twenty-first century has advanced most of the world, including parts of the Third World, Asia is still reliant on the West when it seeks English language education. Since most communication in today’s world is done online, I personally think it is vital to bring back grammar education in schools.

Yes, grammar has become so very subjective in that we are now to accept two types of spelling: American and British. It has become stylistic in that American favors active voice and British favours passive voice. It has become discrepant in that American television now refers to humans as “that” instead of “who” such as the person that spelt this wrong, vs the person who spelt this wrong.

So how do we generate a universally understood set of English? We don’t. We break it down instead.

Traveling around Asia and hearing stories from friends who’ve traveled South America have taught me one thing about universal English. It was a secret that I will happily share here:

Simple tenses will save your life.

Simple present, past, or future tenses are generally understood by most second language speakers. I’ve presented a few real-life examples where I’ve personally seen native English being misunderstood, and have found ways to rephrase it into second language English. Simple tenses.

Native English speaker:
We wouldn’t be arriving until around midnight, would it be possible to check in a tad late?

What I “translated” to the hotel staff:
We will arrive at midnight. Can we check-in late? Is it ok?

Native English speaker:
Could you possibly add a dash of salt and pepper to the salad, please?

My translation:
Can I have salt and pepper, please?

Native English speaker:
Do you think you could possibly get me a copy next week?

What I re-wrote:
Can you please send me a copy next week? Thank you!

Yes, English takes a few different forms, and there are dozens of ways to communicate exactly the same message. In grammar words, it is up to the subject to convey the predicate with accuracy. Sometimes we get so caught up in how we talk or ramble that we forget to adjust our syntax to be better understood by the audience.

My friendly advice from personal experience, is that if you like to travel, to write, to meet people, take a short course in Second Language English. Of course, the common one for millennials these days is TEFL, but there are a few more that are not limited to teaching. Taking the course functions as a simple reminder that different cultures speak English differently, and there is no model answer. There are only results, and the result is simply “to be understood”.



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