Grammar is embedded in vocabulary


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If it’s not obvious from reading this blog, I have a strong bias for teaching vocabulary over grammar. Research is conclusive: Explicit learning of grammar does not help language acquisition. It may help you do well in tests of grammar rules, but it does nothing to help you learn a language.

If you are a native English speaker, how did you learn the grammar that allows you to make sentences? You had no explicit grammar instruction.

You were exposed to English. You had lots of comprehensible input. And that marvelous brain of yours, which is a master at deciphering patterns, began to unconsciously identify patterns in the sound streams you were hearing.

Educators like to package some of those patterns in the simple form of grammar rules. But they completely ignore the grammar or patterns within vocabulary itself.

For example, you may use a sentence like “he walked to the store yesterday” to teach a beginner the past tense using -ed. In this sentence there are two words that would convey the concept of time in the past: “walked” and “yesterday”. However, the beginner will not get the temporal concept of past from the -ed ending of “walked” even if that was your explicit intention.

Research tells us that it doesn’t matter how much you focus on the -ed inflection, they won’t learn it if they are not at the stage in acquisition where they are ready for it. Instead, they will pull the meaning from the word “yesterday”. When they hear that word, there is a “rule” in their head that tells them that the speaker is talking about the past.

That’s a simple example. Let’s look at something a little more complicated to illustrate this idea of grammar embedded in vocabulary. We’ll look at three verbs as examples: die, eat, put.

I eat. I eat a banana. I eat all day. I eat a lot.

When we hear the word eat used often enough we unconsciously begin to recognize a grammatical pattern. We see there is a subject that does the eating. There may or may not be some object or modifier.

She died. She’s dying.

The verb die is a little different. There is a subject that is doing the dying, but that’s it. You soon learn that you can’t put an object in that sentence. She can’t “die herself” or “die her enemy”. The verb die has a particular grammar that prevents you from doing that.

He put the book on the table. She put her tooth under her pillow for the tooth fairy to find.

Again, we see that the word put has a particular grammar that only allows you to use it in a certain way. You can’t just say, “He put” or even “He put the glass.” When you learn the word put and hear it in various contexts over time you implicitly learn the grammar rule for “put”: It needs to be paired with a subject, verb, object, prepositional phrase.

If individual words have their own grammar rules, how do you teach those rules? It would be ludicrous to try to teach grammar related to words, wouldn’t it? How on earth would any student be able to remember all those rules and apply them, especially when trying to do it at the speed of speech. It’s crazy to even imagine!

But if you think that is crazy, apply the same logic to our traditional syntactic grammar. Depending on the grammarian you are talking to, there may be as many as 500 to 10,000 grammar rules in English. How on earth would any student be able to remember all those rules and apply them, especially when trying to do it at the speed of speech. It’s crazy to imagine, isn’t it? Yet, that’s the approach that is firmly entrenched in traditional approach that used in teaching English around the world.

It’s time to stop the craziness. Teachers need to leave grammar to linguists and give you a more effective way to learn English. What method is that? It’s the same method that we’ve all used with 100% success rate to learn our own native language: Comprehensible input.

In the All English programs, we don’t teach grammar. We expose you to the language in various real life contexts and let your brain do what it does best: Unconsciously recognize the patterns of our language so we can use English to communicate. We don’t want you just to learn about English, we want you to learn to use English to share your ideas, thoughts and feelings.


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