What to do about English grammar by Learning English with Stephen podcast

Learning Strategies: What to do about English grammar

This is the transcript for the English with Stephen podcast episode all about some solutions to the problems with English grammar.

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Hello and welcome. My name’s Stephen Green and this is English with Stephen, the podcast that gives you everything you need to learn English in under 10 minutes.

And today I have a Learning Strategy episode for you. A Learning Strategy is something that good learners do. It’s not that all good learners use all these learning strategies, but people who are effective language learners probably use most of these learning strategies.

And today’s learning strategy is about grammar. In my last podcast, we looked at some of the problems with English grammar. We said that the first English grammar books were written by people who thought Latin was the most perfect language, and so wanted English to be similar to Latin.

However, as we have mentioned many times in this podcast, English is not a Latin, or Romance, language. It is from the Germanic family of languages, and so Latin grammar does not describe how English works.

In our last podcast we talked about how the names for various parts of English grammar can be confusing, so today I am going to talk about some solutions you can employ.

After this short break.

There is a lot of detail in today’s podcast. Some people might find it useful to read the transcript for parts of the episode. Many podcast apps will have the transcript so you can read it in your app. If not, you can go to my site EnglishwithStephen.com to find the free transcript for this and every past episode. That’s S T E P H E N, EnglishwithStephen.com

And now back to how you can overcome the problems with English grammar. The first thing to do is to worry less about grammar. Yes, that’s right, an English teacher is telling you that grammar isn’t all that important.

Way back in Episode 3 I talked about whether you should focus on learning grammar or learning vocabulary. If you have unlimited time, then you can do both. However, nobody has unlimited time. Time is usually very limited indeed. So, if this is the case, what should you do?

I said that if you make a grammar mistake, people will probably understand you. But if you choose the wrong word, or don’t know a word, then all communication stops. Therefore, vocabulary is much more important than grammar. If you would like to hear my more detailed examples, then feel free to go back and listen to episode Three again. You can find it on your podcast app or on my site EnglishwithStephen.com.

While you could worry less about grammar, I am not saying you should not worry at all. We need to follow most of the main rules most of the time. And so this brings me onto my second point: Don’t worry about names.

Let me give you an analogy.

When I drive a car, I know that if I press down on the right pedal, the car will go faster. When I press down on the middle pedal, the car will slow down. The harder I press, the faster, or slower, the car will go. I also know that I have to direct, or steer, the car using the wheel in front of me. I need to check my mirrors and use my indicators. At the same time, I need to be aware of the other road users and think about them, the road conditions and any signs or lights.

I do not need to know all the names of the parts inside the engine. Nor do I need to know exactly how they work together. I just need to know that they work.

In terms of learning a language, it is not always necessary to know all of the technical aspects. It might help you to analyse the language and so take you to a higher level, but don’t worry about all the names. If you have limited time, concentrate on how to use the vocabulary because this will be a lot more useful.

Sometimes, though, you do need to think about the grammar of English. This might be the case if you are being taught in an institution which believes grammar is important, or maybe you have a specific problem.

In this case, don’t worry about the names. Know that the names do not always refer to anything in the real world. Just because it is called ‘the past participle’ does not mean it is related to the past.

Indeed, I try to use different names with my students. As I mentioned earlier, most people learn their irregular verbs by having them laid out in a table. I tell my students that the verbs in the first column are the ‘first form’, the second column ‘the second form’ and the third column the ‘third form’. Thinking about verbs like this is much easier than the traditional way and stops using confusing names.

Incidentally, I used this same trick when learning Portuguese. Portuguese has two genders for nouns; male and female. I was always confused about this. Why is a pencil masculine and a pen feminine? Coming from an English tradition where we don’t have this distinction it was driving me crazy. Then one day I decided to just stop thinking about them as masculine and feminine, and instead think of them as Category A and Category B. A pencil is in Category A and a pen is in Category B. And all of a sudden, I could stop worrying about why they were considered masculine and feminine and just think about what category they were.

But enough about the crazy grammar of Portuguese, and back to the crazy grammar of English.

The third thing we can do with English grammar is to change our conception of it. To think about how it really works and not how some long-dead grammarians wanted it to work.

We are going to talk here specifically about verb tenses. You know, present tense, past tense, past perfect, etc.

People usually think about verb tenses as a line. There is a straight line stretching out from the past, moving through the present and then going off into the future. We can then put our tenses on that line. The present tenses are about now. Past tenses to the left, ways of talking about the future on the line to the right.

Is this how you see the verb tenses?

Well, there is another way to conceptualise verb tenses, especially in English. We can see them as three circles, with you at the centre of that circle.

Everything that is close to you, uses as present tense. For example, the sentence ‘I live in Brazil’ is close to me because it is something that is happening now. So we can say that the present time is close to me.

Something else that is close to me is reality. For example, ‘If it rains tomorrow, I’ll go to the cinema,’ I am saying that there is a realistic chance that tomorrow is going to be wet.

A third way of saying something is close to me is in terms of relationships or status. My family and friends are close to me, so I might make a request by saying “Can you make me a cup of tea, please?”

So, in all of these sentences, we have used what is traditionally called the present tense. However, if we don’t think about it as referring to time, but instead to how close something is to me, then it starts to make a lot more sense.

Now, if we imagine we want to talk about something that is more distant, what do we do? Well, we often use the past tense. In terms of time, this makes sense. The past is more distant than the present. The present is now, which is very close to me. The past is further away. So I might say ‘I lived in Birmingham when I was a kid.’

Unfortunately, being a kid is extremely far away from me!

If I think something is not real, or hypothetical, this is also far away from me. Imagine you live in the Sahara Desert. The probability of it snowing is extremely low. If I think something is hypothetical, I would say ‘If it snowed tomorrow, I would be very surprised.’ Here we are using a past tense, but we are not talking about past time. The reason we use a past tense is because it is some distance away from me.

Finally, in terms of relationships or status, we can use the past tense to signal there is some distance. For example, if you go to an expensive restaurant, you might say ‘Could I have some water, please?’

And we can go one further level of distance. In the sentence ‘If I had studied harder when I was a kid, I would have gone to university,’ we have two levels of distance. It is both hypothetical, because I didn’t study hard, and in the past. We can’t use the past tense, because we use that to talk about hypotheticals in the present or future. So we use the past perfect ‘had studied’ to show it is even further away from me.

Ok, I know there was a lot of information there and it might have been a bit too much. The main thing to remember is that the names we have for our tenses do reflect the way they actually work. Do not worry too much about the names we have. Be open to thinking about the tenses in terms of how close they are to you either in time, reality or status.

That is about all from me today. I hope this has been useful. If you have any questions, please post them on my site at EnglishwithStephen.com. And don’t forget to check out the transcript to this episode which you can also find on the same site.

Thanks a lot and speak soon.

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