What are grammar patterns?

When we speak our own language, we don’t normally think about grammar, but we still manage to make grammatically correct sentences – or at least put words together in ways that are acceptable (or ‘feel right’) to the people we are speaking to. Even young children can make grammatically correct sentences without ever having studied grammar. This is because at a very early age we learn not only the basic words and sounds of our language, but also the common grammar patterns – the ways that words can be combined – in their correct forms – in phrases and sentences.

All languages have different ways of putting words together and making sentences. Certain combinations of words are acceptable and others are not. The phrases ‘the red car’, ‘an old man’ and ‘a good idea’ are examples of one grammar pattern: article + adjective + countable noun. The combination ‘the car red’ is not acceptable in English because the pattern article + noun + adjective is not an English grammar pattern (though it is a grammar pattern in some languages).

Children can somehow sense these patterns in the language(s) they grow up with, and intuitively use them as they try to speak like the people around them. Unfortunately, this remarkable ability gradually diminishes over time, and adults find it much harder to sense and learn the patterns in a new language – even if they are immersed in it. This is especially true if the new language is very different from their own. School children also have trouble learning the grammar patterns (or rules) of a new language if they are not hearing and using it every day.

When people learn the words of a new language but do not learn the grammar patterns they often produce sentences that native speakers would not consider correct. Below are two sentences produced by English language students. You can probably see which student has a better understanding of English grammar.

  1. I learning English during five years.
  2. I’ve been learning English for five years.

To a native English speaker, or anyone knowing sufficient English grammar, it is clear that only the second sentence (2) is ‘correct English’.  The first sentence feels wrong because it contains unfamiliar grammar patterns. For example, the only verb in the sentence learning (present participle or –ing form of verb learn) has no auxiliary verb but follows the subject I. This is not a pattern we use in English; I am learning , I was learning, I have been learning, or I had been learning are possible, but if the speaker started learning English five years ago and is still learning, only I have been learning is acceptable. Also, in English we don’t use the preposition during when describing a length of time.

Sentence 2 contains no unfamiliar grammar patterns – only familiar and appropriate English grammar patterns, which is why it feels right to English native speakers.

Do native speakers know the grammar of their language?

When people say they don’t know the grammar of their language, they probably mean that they can’t explain its grammatical ‘rules’. In fact everyone knows a lot of grammar, but we may not be consciously aware of it because this knowledge is mostly subconscious. To speak a language fluently requires a huge amount of grammatical knowledge (of how to put words together in their appropriate forms in sentences that convey meaning clearly). Without knowing the common grammar patterns of our language, we would be left with just words, and be able to communicate only simple ideas, like *‘Hungry food want now,’ but unable to convey complex thoughts, or even understand most speech or writing.

When we speak, listen, read or write, or just ‘feel’ whether a sentence is right or wrong, we are drawing on unconscious knowledge gained mostly during childhood from hearing (and speaking) countless sentences and phrases. We don’t remember all of these, but what remains deep in our subconscious memory are the patterns used again and again within these sentences and phrases – recurring combinations of words, patterns of phrases, statements and questions, appropriate word forms and endings, and so on. Somehow we are able to access this information whenever we use our language, although it comes to us through feeling or intuition. Sentences with patterns that all match those in this hidden memory bank feel right, and those with different, unfamiliar patterns feel strange or wrong. Children instinctively try to produce language that feels and sounds like the language they hear around them. Adult learners can also do this, but it does not come so naturally, and they often produce sentences with patterns from their first language or other patterns that native speakers would not use in the same situation.

Do learners of English need to study grammar?

Fortunately, it is also possible for older learners to develop a feeling for what is grammatically correct in a new language without having to grow up using it. Millions of people have grown up in non-English speaking countries and have still managed to achieve a high level of spoken and written English. However, most of them did not gain their grammatical knowledge (or feeling) simply from listening to and speaking English.

Adults and even most teenagers rarely possess the incredible sensitivity to language patterns they had as young children. They may automatically ‘pick up’ some common patterns in a new language, especially ones that are the same or similar to those of their language, but different and complex patterns usually require more than just exposure. To integrate new grammar patterns, most learners need to become consciously aware of them by observing a number of examples and having the opportunity to practise and use them in their own sentences. The order in which grammar patterns are learned is also important. Common fundamental patterns should be learned and integrated before more complex ones (which are mostly combinations of simpler basic patterns).

Is it more difficult for some people to learn English than others?

It is generally accepted that it easier to learn a language from the same language family as your own, rather than one from a different language family. This is because related languages not only share many similar words, but also have similar grammar patterns (as well as some different ones). English is a member of the Indo-European family, and speakers of languages from this group (especially the more closely related languages, such as those from the Germanic and Latin language groups) will notice many familiar features and patterns in English, such as verb tenses, articles, subject verb agreement and recognisable patterns of complex sentence structure. They may not be able to name and explain these features, but they would ‘feel’ vaguely familiar, and consequently be easier to learn.

Unfortunately, this is not so for most speakers of non-Indo-European languages, which have completely different grammar systems, and construct sentences in totally different ways. Learners from these linguistic backgrounds will find very few familiar patterns in English – and many new and complex ones. Speakers of Indo-European languages that are only distantly related to English will also find English grammar challenging. For millions of people in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere, who want to learn English, but have not grown up surrounded by it (or another closely related language like French or Spanish), the patterns of English grammar are unfamiliar, often confusing and difficult to learn.

Nowadays in most countries children study English grammar at school, which can be very helpful for some, but not all students benefit greatly from their grammar lessons. English grammar is complex; there are countless patterns (or rules), and without a solid grasp of the fundamental patterns of clause and sentence structure, memorising isolated rules can seem tedious and pointless. Consequently, the study of grammar, which is supposed to simplify the language learning process, sometimes appears to complicate it and only add to students’ confusion.

Can you learn English without learning English grammar?

While most people agree that studying grammar is an important part of learning a new language, many find it challenging and boring. Some find English grammar so difficult, tedious and/or frustrating that they don’t even attempt to learn it and just try to communicate as best they can with the English words they know. With practice their listening and speaking skills usually improve, and in time a reasonable level of fluency can be achieved. Common words and phrases and simple grammar patterns can be acquired from conversation, but less commonly used vocabulary and complex grammar patterns, especially ones very different from those of the learner’s first language are less likely to be integrated without some form of study. Without a sufficient understanding of English grammar, they often create sentences that contain English words that are arranged with the grammar patterns of their own language. Examples of this are Germish (English with German grammar), Spanglish (Spanish English),Chinglish (Chinese English), Japlish (Japanese English), and so on.

Since languages closely related to English have recognisably similar sentence structure, speakers from most European countries are usually able to create sentences that are at least understandable to English ears – if not grammatically correct. However, language produced using completely foreign grammar patterns is often much harder to understand for English speakers, especially if it contains detailed or complicated information.

Is it important to learn sentence structure?

It may be possible to convey simple ideas without knowing much grammar. However, to communicate complex ideas requires complex sentences. Since the speech of native speakers and most written texts contain long complex sentences, gaining an good understanding (conscious or subconscious) of how sentences are constructed is a vital part of learning a language. It helps learners read, understand, and communicate in their own speech and writing.