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”.



Is Western Democracy at Its Tether?


Years ago, in my first year of university, I encountered the question: “Social sciences, primarily that of politics, is a science. Agree or disagree?) In light of recent events in the international arena of politics, I began reflecting back on that question. Before you read on, what would your response be, and why?

As a citizen of a democratic nation, it is your duty to keep the place in-check. It is not the government’s responsibility, it is not the government’s shortfalls, and it is not the government’s incompetence, because democracies are ruled by the People.

For a democracy to sustain itself, it needs nation-wide standardised government education to teach following generations to make calculated votes based on conjecture over emotion. Dahl, in his book “Democracy and Its Critics”, writes about how polyarchic democracies can only be sustained “if it possesses a political culture and beliefs, particularly among activists, that support the institutions of polyarchy.

Democracy in itself is traditionally known as “for the people and by the people”. If the People are to rule each other, the does it not stand to reason that the People ought to know what is best for themselves? Yes and no.

People may know what is best for themselves, but not always what is best for the nation. The emotional appeal to people is often the detriment to democracy, because it allows people to vote for who they trust, who they like, who “seems” like a good candidate. It allows voters to become subjective rather than objective, but also takes away their accountability as a democrat. Dahl, however, states that sustaining a polyarchic democracy is possible if – and only if- those who advocate for politics share a united belief. Therefore, once the masses are swayed, it is hard to override the wants of the People in a short period of time. It is through educating the younger generations of voters to keep informed that an educated democratic vote can be made.

Politics once had a dichotomous front – that was to say, East vs. West, North vs. South – but today, with globalisation at its expansion, politics has become a multi-polar game where the aspects traditionally defined as “grey aras” are now the new norm.

With Western liberalism on the rise and the push for humanitarianism toughens, democratic OECD nations have shifted focus from national economy to social justice; however, for Third World Countries or other OECD non-democratic nations, liberalism has been a gradual push through media, education, and travel. Technological advancements have brought the international arena out of the shadows, and it is partially for these reasons that democracies are reaching their limitations.

The gap, which democracies have been yet to fill, is that of cultural flexibility within education: as it stands in today’s era, many institutions structure social sciences as Bachelor of Arts or Master of Arts. Politics itself may have been an art, traditionally, if analogised by chess played with words: it was an art, a virtue, a reflection of character and integrity. Nowadays, however, politics has become so systemic that democratic education platforms should consider restructuring political science into a scientific method of studying rather than an artistic one.

Though it has been argued that the volatility of politics makes it hard to be defined as a science, those who have studied the scientific route of politics are well-versed in their ability to see conjecture and formula over emotion and reflection. Information has reached the stage where it is not facts and opinions that are in flux as much as interpretation. Politics has facts, it has opinions, but what it lacks when applied is interpretation.

Critics argue that “interpretation” is subjective; but science is clear in that when a hypothesis is formulated, the variables make up the solution. Conjecture can be formed based on pattern learning, and interpretation is a collection and process of data. (see Qualitative vs. Quantitative Data)  Having studied political science for years, and watched how it plays out in the world, I have come to realise that a gap political scientists need to emphasise more is that of culture. In a globalised world, “culture” is the determinant of how votes take place. Rogoff, in his analysis “Britain’s Democratic Failure” in regards to Brexit, stated that “a country should not be making fundamental, irreversible changes based on a razor-thin minority that might prevail only during a brief window of emotion”.

It is in this regard that nationalism is key to a successful vote, and arguably, nationalism is the antithesis of globalisation. With the information era pushing globalisation at a rate no renowned political scientist could ever predict (due to technological setbacks in the past), it is evident that democratic votes hold higher regard to emotion than cognition. Many democratic votes in this century have been swayed by creating a breeding ground of emotional frenzy whereby the arguments are one sided on both sides.

History shows us examples of where emotive language has succeeded because it catered to those who were not in positions to receive the education required to understand political language. Machiavelli instilled fear in his attitude that “it is better to be feared than loved,” (Cahn, 2005). Napolean Bonaparte moved the revolutionist in the French; Hitler manipulated the minds of the Nazi’s; Churchill, amidst the panic of ideological change during the Cold War. There are also recent examples such as how “Brexit has thrown the U.K’s two major parties into civil war”.[1]  It is evidenced by America with Trump’s appeal to the radical, barbaric, and competitive side of human nature (as philosophised by Hobbes, Rousseau, and Machiavelli), Clinton’s dual-sided arguments appealing to the freedom-hungry, autonomous, as well as self-interested side of human nature (as speculated by Locke, Mill, and Smith).

Yes, politics has become more systemic in the information era, and it is for these reasons that institutions (especially democratic ones) ought to reconsider how the social science courses are implemented, for the art of politics was the “old man’s game”; but today’s forward thinking generation of tomorrow’s world needs balance – the science of politics.

As a citizen of a democratic nation, it is your duty to keep the place in-check. It is not the government’s responsibility, it is not the government’s shortfalls, and it is not the government’s incompetence, because democracies are ruled by the People.

[1] Politics in the last two decades has become so systemic through the information era that it’s inevitable to be “surprised but not surprised” by the Brexit vote. As seen by the results, Brexit has, in itself, created a breeding ground of emotional frenzy whereby the arguments are one sided on both sides.