STOP. Grammar Time.

In the UK we’re not very good at other languages, and that’s a fact. How many Brits live in Spain and speak no Spanish?  … I’m not sure of the statistic, but from what I’ve seen on May the Best House Win, it looks like A LOT.

The majority of people that I’ve encountered, can’t deal with learning languages because of “The Grammar”…. the dreaded and awful word which sends people running for the hills.  In my view, teachers are over-complicating in schools.  And this stems to the fact that we do not know ENGLISH grammar.  We know it in the sense that we use it every day, but unless you study languages or a variant, you’re unlikely to spot what tenses you’re using and how complex your sentences are.

In English we have three present tenses:  I write, I do write and I am writing.   In French and German, they simply have one, to express all these concepts.  “J’ecris”/”Ich schreibe”.   If I had been told that at the beginning of my language learning journey I would have had a lot less trouble.  Instead, I suffered from years of continuously parrot writing “The present tense is expressed by an action which is happening now”.   I used to have such difficulty with the imperfect tense, which in English is simply to say that you were doing something or that something was happening.  That’s it.  Of course I remember at the time writing “the imperfect is an incomplete action in the past, or describes a story in the past or description”.  That’s too wordy.  I just read over that and got distracted by my own sentence, which I wrote.  So HOW would that enthrall 13/14/15 year olds?  Teach them the simplicity, once they’ve grasped that then note that, say “he was an ugly man” – “Oh look, Shannon, you’re using the imperfect to describe someone, not just an action”.

I think I would attribute this to the fact we never officially learn English grammar, and ‘posh’ terms such as “pluperfect” and “subjunctive” scare the life out of the average pre-GCSE student, who spends their first few years learning colours and occasional songs in French, German or Spanish.  All these linguistic and wordy terms alienated me, and it wasn’t until I started writing full blown essays at A-Level where my grammar rapidly improved.  Indeed,  I only chose French A-Level because it clashed with Art A-Level, a GCSE which I ended up spectacularly destroying any hope for a career in, entering the exam with no idea and spending 4 hours finger painting in a vain attempt I could be inspired then and there.

When teachers used to talk about grammar they made a lesson of it.  They would separate it from the vocabulary learning and many people I know would just use the vocabulary and set phrases to get by at GCSE.  What is painfully obvious to me now is that if you know the grammar, language learning is 100 times easier, and not harder.   It’s just the way which it is taught which needs to be addressed.

Another problem is, is that if you DO grasp how to conjugate a certain text, it’s then the case that there are dozens of irregularities, which leads to confusion.  It never occurred to me that English would have strange rules too, as no teacher ever dedicated a lesson comparing the languages.  There is no point learning grammatical rules if you don’t understand them, and there is no point correcting a student’s homework.  I remember I would have red marks all over my page and the corrected format, but that didn’t help me understand why they were wrong.  A 150 word piece which you write in Year 10 should not simply be written and then marked.  It should be written, marked, and then the student should produce another piece with bullet points explaining what they did wrong, and how they think they should improve it – and justify it, which the teacher should then correct them again so it’s drilled into their brain, and it clarifies them to put it into practice for next time.

The problem with British schools is that 1, or perhaps 2, hours, is simply not enough to learn a language.  Language learning is a continuous thing, and 2 hours isn’t sufficient to really drill language into your skull, especially as you’re not surrounded by that language at any other point in the week.   By year 9, you’re only writing sentences like “I have a cat called Molly, she is 8”.   Something that really irked me was the vocabulary learning, where you would learn a set amount of words, be tested on them, and then not put them into practice.  It was oh-so-essential to get 20/20, but just because they are temporarily in someone’s memory doesn’t mean they will stay there.  In fact, I still struggle to remember vocabulary which I “should have” learned in year 7 and 8.  When I moved to France, I didn’t know what “knife”, “fork” or “spoon” was.  I still can’t remember most school implements, I’m going to have to search the simple words for “calculator” and “notebook” after posting this.

Languages need to be compulsary at GCSE and its teaching needs to be reformed.  I only got through languages by accident and chance, not a hidden skill – I wasn’t particularly good at them until A2 Level, and the only talent I had for languages was the ability to talk (not in correct grammar, just with a lot of enthusiasm).  In schools we were always laughed at if you ever “put on” a French or German accent, not realising how stupid it sounded to talk French in an English accent.   I will always remember a girl in my class who would say “JAY BOO OON JUICE D’ORANGE”

You may think learning languages is futile.  “Everyone speaks English” so what’s the point? Well you’re going to have to wait for me to discuss that in the future, but I hope that by reading this you realise that if you have ever “struggled with languages”, and you were “never a language person” that it’s a reflection on the British Education System (and perhaps your own laziness, I don’t know who you are, not all of you are good apples), which has to be seriously addressed.

6 thoughts on “STOP. Grammar Time.

  1. English learner

    The best part of your post is that part “the only talent I had for languages was the ability to talk with a lot of enthusiasm” and that is exactly my essential dilemma ,which is I keep memorize a lot of vocab all the time but I cant make a little conversation or even write any clear smart note , and the main problem is the GRAMMAR !! all the rules is in the back of my head but I can not show that in my speech ,maybe it’s the way we studied the second language (English for me ,later French )
    Sorry ,I feel like you speak directly for British ppl ,but I am just an Arab women suffere & struggle to do my best in learn English!
    It was nice encounter this blog .


    1. Haha, thankyou so much for taking the time to comment – the first comment on my blog in fact! Your English sounds pretty good to me! Being enthusiastic is the key thing. How different would you say Arabic and English grammar are? I’ve never even looked at Arabic, but it looks so complicated! Beautiful though!


  2. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with this one! I think language learning should be compulsory from primary school, as it is in many European countries. Children from Luxembourg, for example, learn German and French from a young age and are then taught English in German! How I envy such a system!
    I totally agree that grammar makes language learning significantly easier and, if we introduced the ‘scary’ terminology from a younger age, perhaps GCSE students wouldn’t be so frustratingly put off by it.
    Thanks for this post. With so many language learners taking the ‘anti-grammar’ approach these days, it’s nice to finally find someone who appreciates grammar as much as I do!


    1. That would be so much better! I bet Luxembourgish children have a good command of French,Luxembourgish, German AND English maybe… or, at least, a combination of two of them!
      I definitely agree. Grammar needs to be more accessible – talking over the top jargon isn’t getting GCSE students anywhere, in my opinion, because most can’t understand the concept of English grammar because we haven’t learned it like that!
      I don’t love grammar now we’re at the nitty-gritty University stage, but you can’t be good at a language if you don’t know the basic grammar either!


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