5 Metaphors to Explain Why Grammar-Based Language Learning Sucks


Grammar. The assistant who masquerades as king.

I Like Grammar

I felt I should begin this by saying that grammar is actually pretty useful. Learning grammatical rules can simplify the learning process and speed up comprehension in a short amount of time. When it comes to writing documents or books, something in which you cannot consult the author, grammar is incredibly important for clearing up meaning.

That’s exactly what grammar is: he’s the assistant that helps you with your project. He takes an already understood piece of information and cleans it up, allowing the information to travel more smoothly.

While you sit there and spit out nouns and verbs, he stands on the sidelines to offer advice. “The noun coming before the verb makes more sense, sir,” he offers. As he mentions that, the native speaker I’m talking with has already rephrased what I’ve said, making it correct. They understood the meaning after a second or two of reasoning. Next time maybe I’ll get it right, but if I don’t, I know what I’ve said was understood well-enough.

Grammar’s a good guy. He offers ways of sprucing up my speech. I’m a fan of him, in general. But I don’t quite like the cult following he has. That cult—the grammar-worshipping cult—they’re a bunch of loonies.

The Grammar-Worshipping Cult

Around the world, people have been indoctrinated. They’ve been led to believe that grammar is anything but a helper. No, he’s a god, and he must be worshipped. To act against him is sacrilege.

They’re the type that won’t listen to you unless you follow grammar to the letter. Even when they understand your meaning, they derail the conversation with corrections to your grammar. “Yes, I know what you mean. But you said it wrong.” Did I really say it wrong, if you understood? Isn’t the point of words to convey meaning?

If the meaning was conveyed, the correctness of the grammar is irrelevant.

But of course, the problem isn’t simply personal. Institutionally, grammar is worshipped. It is tested. As unfortunate as it is, grammar is more-or-less easy to test. Look at the two sentences:

“Yesterday, Jane ate apple.”
“Yesterday, Jane ate an apple.”

Both are equally understood. Yes, the second sentence is better. The distinction between ‘an’ and ‘the’ is important, if subtle, and the first one is slightly more ambiguous. But in context, there’s no confusion. We know what both sentences mean. Another one:

“Tomorrow, I play with friends.”
“Tomorrow, I will play with my friends.”

Second one, again, better. Any confusion with the first one? Nope. The friends are probably the speaker’s own. The time word ‘tomorrow’ says way more than the grammatical ‘will’ part ever will. That’s why when we speak it, we make ‘tomorrow’ long and ‘will’ short. A native speaker will put slight emphasis on ‘Tomorrow’, ‘Play’, and ‘Friends’, because they matter the most. The grammar, though spoken, is slurred and sped past. Only when the speaker wants to put emphasis on the words will they make it long. “Tomorrow, I will play with my friends.” Oh, you haven’t been playing with your friends recently. Got it. The meaning is changed. That’s the only time we emphasize grammar in speaking.

Looking back, the sentences above aren’t treated equally. In spite of delivering nearly the same information, the first one of each set is marked “wrong” and points are taken away. It’s sad and it needs to change.

Let’s Make It Obvious

I want to step back for a moment and look at the whole method. Like I said, grammar is good. But it’s a piece; a helper. Focusing on it is like…

  1. A gym class with only push-ups. Sure, people are working out. And your arms are an important part of your body. But when it comes time to use those arms to play basketball, you’re not going to have a star team. More push-ups won’t help much.
  2. A dinner of uncooked spaghetti. I know, it looks like spaghetti, but it’s not. It could fill you up, but not without some pain. Let’s take that uncooked spaghetti and add some hot water. Maybe some tomatoes and cheese. Without those things, you’re kind of missing the point.
  3. Spending days learning the rules to chess without playing. Then getting tested on the rules. Without playing, it can be hard to conceptualize. Sure, more days of studying the rules might help you know the rules back and forth, but it sees diminishing returns on your skill level in the game pretty quickly.
  4. Living in the frame of a house. That’s a good house too, kinda. It’s got a roof and everything. When the rain comes, as long as it falls straight down, it won’t get us wet. Let’s hope it isn’t sideways rain. Anywho, continuing to expand the frame isn’t going to help much. Without some cover, that wood is going to rot and fall. It might look nice and big, but a couple days of living in that thing, and you’ll be running home. A small house with some reinforcement is much better.
  5. Bringing three tents, five sleeping bags, and ten days worth of food on a solo two-day camping trip. All those extra things are nice for when there’s other people around, but you need people first. Not to mention you don’t even know how to properly set up the tents. Oh, and you don’t even have a location. You’re just hoping you can plop down somewhere and have a swell time. Not the worst idea, but for a camping newbie, you might need some other considerations.
  6. Learning a language through just grammar translation. Sure, you know some words too. A lot of them. Shouldn’t words and grammar be enough? Unfortunately, you don’t know how to converse, nor do you have the skills to continue a conversation when you don’t know a single word. What’s worse, you have false confidence. You think, “if I just continue down this road, I’ll get there someday.” But you won’t.

Egads! I guess that last one wasn’t really a metaphor at all.

What I’m trying to point out here is the singular nature of grammar. It’s a part of the language. Doing push-ups is good for your physical strength and your ability to play basketball. But it’s not enough by itself. Even varying up your exercises won’t make you a basketball expert. Only basketball will do that. You need the uncooked spaghetti to make the real spaghetti, but without anything else, it’s nearly inedible. The rules are important to chess (you can’t move a rook diagonally), but studying them in depth won’t make you good at chess.

Enough. You get it. Unfortunately, many language teachers, and most of the teachers in Japan don’t. But there are…


While the problem in Japan is institutionalized, it doesn’t mean it’s a lost cause. Individual English teachers can make sure to:

  • Expose students to conversation skills (esp. what to do with words you don’t understand)
  • Relegate grammar correction for when meaning is too obscured
  • Encourage students to look for words and grammar outside of the book

And if you’re a self-studier, don’t necessarily learn grammar as the book presents it. Instead, consider what you want to know how to say. Some books have a good grammar order in the beginning, but follow what you feel is necessary. No matter how important some grammar is, until you encounter it or need it to say something, there’s little reason to jump ahead.

Knowing what to do when you don’t understand is more important than grammar. Also, just knowing words. String them together without grammar and you’ll usually be understood. Other people aren’t dumb.

Grammar is great, but see it for what it is: a tool, a part.

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