Grammar: Don’t Be Afraid

What makes a game?

Which card games do you play: poker, bridge, solitaire, blackjack, cassino…? Can you play daihinmin in the same way that you play baccarat? Of course you cannot, that’s the whole point of them being different games, despite being played with the same cards. The cards are only half of the story: it’s their relationships and the way you can or cannot use them that define the game. The rules.

Why the bad press?

When we are told: “Look, I’m going to show you a new game”, it’s ok. A bit of learning and stumbling around, but it’s all for the greater good: hours of future fun in sight. Totally worth it.

When we are told: “Look, I’m going to show you how to speak this language” suddenly we are on the other side of town. Especially (no offense meant) native English-speakers.

But here is the thing: languages are very much like card games. You can learn all the words of the Thai dictionary, but if you don’t know how to put these words together in a way that makes sense to a Thai person, you are not speaking Thai. You are barely a surviving tourist. Stuck with the easiest sentences. Always the same. Beginner for ever.

Unlike the bad press it’s given, grammar was not designed to make you suffer. In most cases it wasn’t really designed anyway, it grew with the language like a child, picking up along the way the good habits (rules) and the bad ones (the exceptions).

Demystifying the g- word

Grammar simply is the glue that holds all the words together and allows them to form a meaningful message. Nothing else, nothing more.

Yes, it’s very annoying that different languages have different rules. You have to start from scratch. Why can’t they say that the same way as in English after all? Well, because it’s Thai, not English. If you play whist using the rules of scopa, which game are you really playing?

There is a sizeable advantage in the world of grammar, compared to that of card games, though. We don’t need to learn all the rules immediately to start speaking a language (meaningfully, that is). In a card game, you can’t tell the friend who’s teaching you: “ok, I’ve had enough to learn for now, let’s play with what I know and forget about these other complicated rules”. Chances are, your friend will refuse playing. But that’s totally acceptable in language learning and in fact, the best teachers do just that. You learn the rules one by one, apply them in examples and in your own sentences. You play with them, get a feel of what you can say and how much it improves your fluency in the language, and then no, you don’t move on to the next one. You leave the class, because it was enough learning for one day.

In all this, I must also say that I entirely agree with Cher from the Iceberg Project, for whom it’s a very bad idea to learn grammar as soon as you start learning a language. Indeed playing with the novelty, making mistakes without even knowing they are mistakes is very important. It makes us confident. It makes us productive and playful about the whole learning process, all the while discovering that all languages don’t follow the same rules.

Up to you!

Here at TDW, we love grammar. Of course this is not about drowning you in a sea of complicated grammar-related words. There is enough vocabulary to learn! But we hope that picking a grammatical topic or word once a month, we’ll be able to demystify that frightening monster (under-the-bed category) and show you how much useful it can be for you and for your language learning journey.

Feel free to suggest your own topic!

Photograph: The Card Game, Palermo. By Jacques Chiesa, CC BY-ND-NC 2.0.

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