Why do so many people think grammar is the only way to understand a language? A tongue-in-cheek examination of the reasons
Many people believe that the only real way to understand a language is to learn the „rules“ and the „grammar“. Learners demand explanations and teachers expend a lot of energy trying to explain and convey them.
But is it necessary to understand the grammar of a language in order to learn it? It depends. It depends on how you define the words „structure“ or „grammar“ or „rules“ when it comes to language. Instead of a definition, I would like to offer my own personal insight on the worth of grammar, which also defines what it is:
When you want to express a concept or idea, or when you want to achieve a task or get something done, you need the appropriate language form to do this.
If I don’t want you to shoot me, I need to know that „Put that gun down“ is the appropriate grammatically correct way of expressing this. What the names and purposes of the grammatical items in my sentence are is completely irrelevant at this point. Having correctly used the appropriate form, I might feel inclined to look up the form I used and, with the help of some exercises, I can extend my use to „Throw the knife away“ and „Don’t kill me“. The more I find myself in life-threatening situations, the more chance I have to actively and meaningfully use these expressions and, of course, to test my hypotheses surrounding the meaning. Very useful if I live to see another day.
There are of course some people who really want to know „why“ something is the way it is. A language trainer does his/her best to convey the meaning in a clear and concise way that is simple enough for the learner to grasp and use. It is important to know how what you say affects the outcome of your communication. If someone fires a rocket at you, it is important to know how gravity will affect its trajectory so you can get out of the way. It is not important at this point to have a definition of gravity. Perhaps the rocket designer needs to know, but not you.
The same applies to grammar. Limit your acquisition of the rules of a language to enough to get the job done. If you really want to know more (because you like analytical stuff and are quite scientific in your thinking), then by all means invest in a complex grammar book.
For the rest of you, I can heartily recommend the „bible“ of English grammar, English Grammar In Use. I recommend that you buy the book. For learners with earlier levels of experience, I recommend the „red“ version. For more advanced levels, the „green“ version. See the Cambridge books website for details. What I like about the book is that it is simple enough for most people to understand and tends to convey structure bit by bit in an either/or manner that is easy to grasp.