Resources: Notes on Life and Language in the United States

Want Perfect English Grammar? Throw Away Your Grammar Book

Posted by Lindsay McMahon on Thu, Jul 05, 2012 @ 02:57 PM

english grammar lessons bostonWhat is language learning really about?

Is it about passing an exam?

Is it about merely getting your point across?

Maybe for some people it is. But look deeper. Are you here in the U.S. working on your English because you need to be able to use it in your career back home?

When you get into that job, do you want to simply be able to communicate with your English speaking colleagues or do you actually want to connect with them? 

Do you want to build a team with them? Do you want to understand their needs and point of view so that you can negotiate deals that work for both of you?

If you really want to connect with people through English, you should throw away your grammar book and start by understanding culture. In today's article, I will tell you why.


Like it so far? Want to share this idea with your friends? Please "like" this article on Facebook! Thanks a lot!

What is language learning really about?

 human connections through English language learningI am in the business of teaching English not because I am fascinated with English grammar or vocabulary but because I value human connections and personal development.

I love watching a student progress to the point where the doors open for them to connect with another person in a way that they wouldn't be able to without the language.

To me, that is what language learning is all about.

It is about forming genuine human connections. But here's the problem...


Are you starting from the wrong place?

 english grammar books piling up with coffee cupI am concerned that despite hours and hours of hard work and study, many students will never reach the point where they can form genuine human connections in English.


Because they are starting from the wrong place.

They are starting with verb conjugations and prepositions.

To them, this is studying.

In their minds, this is language learning.

I strongly disagree.



Last week I noticed something

 ESL student with nose in grammar bookOn a warm and sunny Tuesday evening in June, I was waiting for a student at the Boston Public Library.

As I sat down and powered up my laptop to check my email, I looked at the 5 or 6 students sitting alone, at separate desks, in different parts of the room. 

I took a quick walk around the room to see if my theory was correct. It was.

They were international students, with their noses in ESL grammar books. They sat in the library while the English language was happening outside.

The language was there, outside of the library, for them to participate in, on a beautiful early summer evening. They could have chosen one of hundreds of meetups that were going on that night. They could have participated in a language exchange over an iced coffee at the Starbucks down the street.

But they traded in those opportunities to sit in the library and practice grammar exercises.

If this is you, please stop hiding in the library!!!


How can you finally get grammar right?

learning English through immersionLike many things in life, it is counterintuitive but it's true. The way to really understand grammar is to put your grammar book down. Actually, throw it away. Stop using it as a safety zone between you and the real language.

Instead, go out and start to understand the way that native speakers view the world.

Observe the people around you. Listen to their conversations.  Notice that the worldview of native English speakers in the United States is probably fundamentally different from yours. Americans are informal, future-oriented and direct.

Once you start to see how Americans view the world, think about how that actually influences the grammatical structure in American English.

That is the way to improve your English grammar.


Not convinced? Here's an example

 grammar in English, BostonAmericans do not define themselves based on their relationship to others.

They want to be unique.

They want to stand out and be different.

For that reason, many sentences begin with the word "I" or the subject as the most important part of the sentence.

Is this true in every language? Of course not!

In many Asian cultures like Japanese culture, people define themselves based on their position in a group.

Japanese grammar reflects that.

What grammar mistakes are you making because you don't yet have a good understanding of American culture and the worldview of American people?



What happens when you translate a sentence directly from your native language?

 direct translation japanese to englishHave you ever tried to translate a sentence directly (word for word) from your native language into English? How did that work? Did people understand you? Maybe. Did you communicate your point? Perhaps. Did you really connect with people? Probably not.

This is a photo of a road sign in Japan, translated directly into English. It didn't work.

When we don't understand the culture, we often make the mistake of thinking that we can translate directly from our native language to our target language. It doesn't work.

To really master grammar and eventually to master a new language, you must be willing to see how native speakers view the world. When you have a clear understanding of their worldview, you will understand the grammatical structure of their language. Until then, you will continue to make mistakes.


Should you try a new strategy?

try a new language learning strategy for English Is your current "learn with the book" strategy working? If so, great! Keep using it.

If not, why don't you try something new?! Take on a new approach.

Many cultures believe that "studying" could only happen at a desk, with a book, but I encourage you to challenge that belief.

Success is about challenging yourself.



Want to try it? Here's what you should do.


Try this plan for one month and then re-evaluate:

motivational quote about language learning

  • 80% of your language learning should be from immersion
  • Hide your grammar book under your bed (don't worry, you can take it out again if this doesn't work)
  • Attend at least two meetups per week, speak with everyone there as much as possible
  • Consider working with an English tutor who can help you focus your goals and customize your language study (good for some people but not totally necessary)



Now go get started! First, share this article with your followers on Twitter!


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photo credits: purplejavatroll,    saketvora,   2day929, Patrick Yan, Alli Worthington

Topics: Advice for English Students, How to Learn English

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