Grammar can be your best friend when it comes to learning a new language. So if you start feeling a little queasy when someone mentions verbs, adjectives and nouns (let alone indirect object pronouns), then its time to learn all the ways that grammar can help you in your language journey.
Grammar is there to tell you how the language that you are learning works. If you don’t know the grammar of the language, then you will be forever stuck at the level of memorizing phrases and words. You will never be able to construct your own sentences if you don’t know how the language works.
As a New Zealander learning a new language, you probably are someone who never learned grammar in school (because we don’t really learn grammar at school in New Zealand) and you’ve also probably never learned a foreign language before (other than counting to 10 in Japanese and learning a couple of Maori songs). But that doesn’t mean you can’t learn grammar now. Grammar is just words that describe how a language is put together. There is nothing scary about it and if you aren’t afraid you can learn grammar very easily.
But first, let me convince you why it’s so important to learn the grammar of a language.
Every Language Has Its Own Grammar
This is a very important concept. A new language is not just English with different words – a new language has its own grammar and ways of speaking.
In French and German, when you speak about things that happen in the past (I ate an apple, I watched television), then you use the “perfect tense” (the tense with HAVE in it: I have eaten an apple, I have watched television). So:
Yesterday I ate an apple
I watched TV this morning
Hier j’ai mange une pomme
“Yesterday I’ve eaten an apple”
J’ai regarde la tele ce matin
“I’ve watched the TV this morning”
Gestern habe ich einen Apfel gegessen
“Yesterday have I an apple eaten”
Ich habe Heute Morgan ferngesehen
“I have today morning TV-watched”
These French and German sentences when translated literally don’t make sense in English, but in French and German they are correct, and if you translated literally the English sentence into French or German, your sentence would be wrong.
This is one of the joys of language learning – learning to think a different way and construct your sentences according to the rules of that language.
And the best bit? The grammar of other languages is often a much improved version of the clumsy grammar of English.
1. In Arabic and Chinese you don’t say “is” if you don’t need to:
Why in English are these sentences wrong: “I happy” “I eat now” “I from New Zealand”? These sentences give you all the information you need to know, and yet we waste time adding the word “am” to all of these sentences. What a waste of breath! In Arabic and Chinese they get rid of this unnecessary word. It’s a nice thing to do, don’t you think?
2. In Chinese a “ba” sentence allows you to talk backwards:
Give me the pen -> BA the pen give me
Eat the cake -> BA the cake eat
I drove the bus -> BA the bus I drove
In the three examples above the sentence on the left has the same meaning as the sentence on the right, the presence of the “BA” just allows you to write the words in a different order. Which can be useful if you want to emphasize a different part of the sentence:
Chinese conversation: “I drove the bus” “Ba the car you drove?” “No. Ba the bus I drove”
In the Chinese conversation, you get to your point at the start of the sentence, instead of having to wait until the end of the sentence to make your point. In English you can only tell the listener what the most important part of the sentence is by raising you voice when you say the important words. In Chinese, you simply rearrange your sentence to put the most important part at the start.
3. In French, Spanish and Italian, there is a grammar tense called the “imperfect”. This tense does not exist in English. But in French, Spanish or Italian, you couldn’t get beyond the basics without the imperfect tense. In this tense you describe things in the past. For example “I ate an apple, then I heard a noise” are both “instantaneous” actions and don’t use the imperfect. But: “The sky was blue while I was listening to music” are both “descriptive” actions and would use the imperfect tense in French and German.
In English we mix and match tenses to describe things in the past, because we don’t have a specific tense to take care of this job. However, in French, Spanish and Italian, they have a tense just for description, which is clean, tidy, and easy.
Every language is unique
Every language has its own grammar, and every language is beautiful, unique and fascinating in part because of its unique grammar. Discovering and applying the grammar of the language you are learning is part of the fun of the journey that you are taking towards fluency in your language.
People have been studying the rules and patterns of different languages forever. They express these rules using grammar terminology. That way, you don’t have to work out how the language works yourself, since someone 200 years ago already worked it out for you.
If you know grammar terminology, you can take these rules and apply them. If you don’t , you either have to figure things out for yourself, or you can learn the terminology. Learning the terminology is easy and will really help you.