I watch Thai kids learning grammar; they can diagram English sentences at age twelve but almost tremble with fear when addressed with "How are you?" (as often as not they say "I am 12 years old.")

My educated Thai teacher wife, whose spoken grammar is no better than an uneducated bar girl, teaches her 13-year-old niece the fine points of grammar as I try to teach her to just converse. Seen on a blackboard, English grammar now strikes me as extremely difficult, though I was required to learn it myself, to a very strict standard. The more grammar the girl learns the more tongue-tied she seems to get. It seems to me that the grammar is just confusing and intimidating her, and I am afraid she will end up like the majority of Thais with up to twelve years of studying English: hardly able to speak English at all.

My wife says grammar is essential to pass exams, even though she agrees with me that Thai education beyond high school except for technical specialties is pretty much a waste of time, as it now beginning to appear to be in the US as well.

I am slowly arriving at the position that in today's world grammar and college are little more than outdated social pretensions of declining significance.

My question: Is there any body of well-considered thought that supports my thinking on this?

migrated from ell.stackexchange.com Dec 24 '18 at 18:09

This question came from our site for speakers of other languages learning English.

  • 3
    If taking school courses, you may have to learn grammar in preparation for those tests. However, outside of school, when learning on your own, then I think grammar should be delayed until later on. Focus more on vocabulary. That's step 1. When you reach the point where grammar actually becomes interesting, then you will want to learn it. This applies even more to "grammar" languages. English is simple. – Sam Dec 24 '18 at 11:52

First off, criticizing official school teaching programmes quite often appears justified. These programmes are result of long negotiations between various official institutions, and therefore it reflect traditions, rather than real needs or modern research of teaching methods. The rest of my answer mostly apply to individual teaching, not to the unified and standardized government-sponsored methodology.

An important observation is that students are different. What method works for you (e.g. makes you accomplish a certain result by a certain time) not necessarily works for me. What you should do is know all pro's and con's and see whether it applies to each of your student.

There have been several questions on this site touching this problem. Please examine the questions and their answers:

One of the most popular teaching techniques that mostly eliminates teaching of grammar and reading/writing (at least, on the early stages of learning) is The Pimsleur method. Like everything, it has its natural advantages and drawbacks.

On the pro-side,

  • it makes students spend much more time on practical words and phrases usable "right now";
  • the most percentage of human communication is verbal. You barely take your note book going out to the market in a foreign country. Hence, what you practically do in foreign language is mostly listening and speaking, hence these skills must have top priority;
  • it aids gamification, which is especially important when teaching kids;

Being a huge fan of the Pimsleur method, I used it myself at the early stages of my learning. The first language I started with Pimsleur was, coincidentally, Thai.

One of the early lessons include the word for "to eat". This is /kin (khào)/ in Thai, and somehow my headset (or my perception) made me remember it as /tin/. No other re-use of this word in further lessons gave me hint that I mis-remembered it. Believe it or not, ten years later I catch myself attempting to reproduce this mistake, especially in a rapid conversation.
This was my price of learning without the aid of the grammar.

Summary: learn the advantages and drawbacks of each method and see what of these apply to each of your students. This would help choosing the right answer about whether or not use writing/grammar in your teaching programme.


Learning to diagram is a grammatical exercises that teaches you to analyse sentences and is a skill that is to some extent transferable to other languages. It is a form of explicit grammar teaching. Explicit grammar teaching is part of language teaching methods such as the grammar-translation method, which is or was not very successful at teaching communication skills. The linguist Stephen Krashen made a distinction between "(language) learning" (i.e. from formal instruction) is something different than "(language) acquisition", and that people don't acquire a language from formal instruction as such but through the comprehensible input provided by the teachers. (This theory is an extreme position, as I already pointed out in another answer on this site.) According to this theory, explicit grammar teaching is not useful.

There is another way of teaching grammar, namely implicit grammar teaching, which means that the teacher does not provide explicit information on grammar rules, but that learners manage to infer them from the dialogues and texts that are used in the classroom. If you teach just conversation, children will become good communicators, even though their grammar may not be perfect.

The explicit grammar teaching can be intimidating due to its emphasis on accuracy: if communication is evaluated based on accuracy (i.e. "Does the communication use correct grammar?") instead of on its effect (i.e. "Does the communication work?), the learner will worry about every rule and become afraid of making mistakes. This then blocks communication. Strictly speaking it is not the grammatical knowledge that gets in the way, but the fear of making mistakes. In addition, every minute that is spent on grammar teaching cannot be spent on practising realistic conversation. (For the purpose of this answer, communication about grammar, even if it is in the target language, is not "realistic conversation", because that is not what you talk about outside the classroom.)

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