My native language is Chinese. Most people in my country grow up without having been taught formal grammar.

I am surprised to find foreigners being taught Chinese and learning grammar rules that even we as a native speakers have never heard of.

As a result, it takes them so long that they can't even speak or understand some of the most basic / common sentences.

I am asking if any of you native speakers of English were taught formal grammar rules when you were young? Do you think they are unnecessary, and that people will understand them anyway once they have enough experience?

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    Are you asking whether English can be learned without formal grammar instruction? Or whether native English speakers receive formal grammar instruction growing up? Obviously, the answer to the former is yes. Speakers of English have done just fine speaking the language without any kind of formal grammar instruction for over a millennium—the same is true of any language in the world. To some degree, children do learn grammar, but what they learn is mostly basic syntax, which Chinese children are taught in school as well (主语,动词,宾语,补语, etc.). – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 6 '14 at 7:59
  • It's definitely possible to speak it just by observing and practising for long enough. However, writing well does require a deeper understanding of the language and its rules. My quick advice is start reading good fictional books, maybe begin with books for children/teenagers just to get started (there are a few good ones) and then once you're comfortable, move on to adult books. I maintain the opinion that reading well written works is the best way to improve writing. I may elaborate this into an answer soon, when I have time. – Dom Jul 6 '14 at 16:46
  • Based on my experience with native English speakers, they were taught grammar, but they have never learnt it :) They are usually completely grammar-unaware, they are usually completely missing a reflective knowledge of their own language. Of course they can speak English sufficiently well. However, when it comes to spelling it's a disaster. I - as non-native speaker! - was better in spelling than my British IT colleagues in Bristol :) And if you ask them why there is something in English, they are completely ignorant. – Honza Zidek Jul 7 '14 at 19:11

Almost every human child that has ever lived has learnt one or more languages without being taught explicit grammar rules. In most cases, they acquire complete competence over the grammar of the languages by age 6 (though if there is a standard language, they may or may not have learnt the grammar of that standard, as opposed to the grammar of a different dialect).

Until the last couple of hundred years, most people who learnt other languages after early childhood did so without being taught explicit grammar rules. The degree to which they were competent in the grammar of the language they learnt would vary a great deal, depending on many factors, such as their age, the closeness of the new language to one they already knew, their motivation, and so on.

So in answer to your last question: native speakers of a language generally have full but unconscious command of the grammar of their language; if they have not been taught about the grammar, they are likely to be unable to explain the rules they used automatically.

Note that I am talking entirely about speaking and hearing: reading and writing is a different question, as those are abilities which come only with a certain amount of intentional effort at learning.

A conclusion from this is that it is never necessary to teach somebody the formal grammar of a language for them to become able to communicate in it; but it may be helpful for some people, especially if it is important to them to master a standard language rather than just be able to make themselves understood.

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The fact is that all native speakers of British or American English learn the English language without formal lessons in grammar, since those speakers learned the fundamentals of English at home, and learned the rules of grammar several years later. It is also true that native speakers of languages other than English also know grammar rules that most English speakers can't verbalize, even though, if educated they tend to follow those rules. [Note: the degree to which they follow the rules depends to significant degree upon the level of eduction of their parents, and the quality of their early education.]

I am a native speaker of English, and I was taught formal grammar rules from early in my eductional career. I've a homework sheet from second grade, in which the instructions were to underline the subject of the sentence once, and the verb twice. I had instruction in grammar and composition every year for 12 years of elementary and secondary education. I didn't have to take English composition in College, because I demonstrated sufficient proficiency in Grammar.

I will also note that there were grammar rules that I followed without being able to verbalize them, until I took German, and learned the parallel rules that applied in that language, and was then able to see the similar rule operating in English.

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    I would say that the vast majority of English speakers know that you can say "He smokes, but I don't" but not "He's not as happy as I'm" though very few have ever learned or even know the rule for when a contraction is permitted at the end of a sentence and when it isn't. (I can end a sentence with "when it isn't", but I can't end one with "when it's". By the way, the rule is that you can't contract a stranded clitic.) – David Schwartz Jul 6 '14 at 9:17

Yes it's possible, your own progress would depend very much on your own abilities. However, without a grammatical basis you would very likely make many mistakes, which would become bad habits for the future.

The grammatical classes give you a firm foundation to begin interacting in a second language, and knowing these beforehand would give you a distinct advantage over a person with no grammatical basis, in the most part a greater confidence to openly communicate.

It really depends on your own learning/social abilities. And to add, the grammatical classes we receive as natives generally have nothing to do with the classes you learn as a second language. These ESL classes are designed to be objective in understanding various foundations of the language.

Hope this helps!

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  • The points in your first two paragraphs are common beliefs and have been for decades. But I'm not convinced that they are true. Do you have any empirical (not anecdotal) evidence for them? – Colin Fine Jul 7 '14 at 11:36
  • And I can tell you that they are true from a personal level of experience, I've been living in another country for a few years, I arrived with no basis of the language at all, also friends, fellow teachers and of course many students' experiences. Though a person's ability and keenness is the biggest factor in progress. The mistakes could if you dedicated yourself well, be ironed out, but generally the mistakes stick. – Pro ingles Jul 8 '14 at 3:54
  • That is why I asked for empirical evidence. Your experience shows that it can happen. It doesn't show that it necessarily happens. – Colin Fine Jul 8 '14 at 11:45

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