Grammar – to whom may it concern

I have to be honest.  I got through nigh on twelve years of my life with virtually no understanding of grammatical terms, due to an unsettled period of teacher absence in my late primary school years.

That’s not to say that I had no understanding of grammar, of course.  Understanding the language of grammar, and understanding grammar, are two entirely different things.

As an avid reader, I had absorbed, as opposed to learned, the structure of the English language.  I couldn’t have told you what an adverb was, but I certainly knew where to place it in a sentence.

Despite these shortcomings, I managed to go on to pursue a successful career in communications, followed by a career as an author.  And it was only then, at the age of 30, that I began to gain a real understanding of the grammar of my own language, not, as you might expect, through my writing, but through learning another language, Italian.

In one year I managed to pick up more understanding of the structure of the Italian language than I ever had in four years of school French.  Part of this was due to the increased confidence that comes with age, and part due to the excellent teaching methods of the Michel Thomas series of language CDs, where he seems to manage to convey a sense of structure without ever really using a grammatical term.  But the point is that not only did I gain a better understanding of Italian, but I also gained a better understanding of English as a result.

Evidence is piling up now about the advantages of bilingualism, leading to calls for children to be taught another language from an early age.  But still we have Scottish conservative education spokeswoman Liz Smith suggesting that P1 pupils can’t start learning a language until they have a good enough grasp of English grammar.

It seems to me that our experience of the so called ‘rigorous’ teaching of grammar in bygone ages didn’t do anything to improve foreign language skills in the UK.  In addition, the example of bilingualism from around the world pretty comprehensively demonstrates that it is possible for people who can’t even read and write, let alone possess knowledge of the grammar of their language, to speak three or four languages and more.  The reason?  Lack of fear, practice, and starting young.

No doubt there are many primary school teachers who are anxious about teaching languages due to their own lack of language training.  But take it from me, you can learn a language at any age.  Nobody is expecting P1 pupils to come out at the end of the year being fluent in French or Italian or Spanish or Chinese.  The aim of starting young is to remove the fear that often goes with learning another language.  Only by removing that fear, by allowing children to play with words, even (I’ll say this quietly – as I fear it may cause uproar amongst fans of ‘rigour’) to make up their own, can we truly improve children’s language skills, and their understanding of the purpose of grammar.


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