Topic 12 – The concept of grammar: Reflection on language and learning.

Topic 12 – The concept of grammar: Reflection on language and learning.

I have based this essay on the following source:

– Hilles, S. Techniques and Resources in Teaching Grammar.

– Crystal, D. The Cambridge Encyclopaedia of the English Language.

In this theme I will deal with the following issues:

Firstly with the concept of grammar throughout history.

Secondly, the teaching of grammar in the different methods.

To end up with grammar in relation to use and the linguistic competence.


The grammar knowledge of a language, also known as linguistic competence, is an unconscious process when learning one’s own language, while rather conscious in a second language acquisition. Therefore, from the very first stages, the teaching of grammar has played a very important role, although the way and the importance given have changed throughout the years.


The American linguist Chomsky has proposed a definition of the concept of grammar:

“Grammar refers to the explicit theory constructed by the linguist and proposed as a description of the speaker’s competence. On the other hand, grammar refers to this competence itself.’

This definition proposes a bifold concept of grammar. ON the one hand, grammar is a description of a language and a systematic study of that language in terms of syntax and morphology with other aspects such as phonology, orthography, semantics, pragmatics and word formation. ON the other hand, grammar is the syntactic and morphological system which every single person acquires from infancy when learning a language (competence).

2000 years ago the Greek grammarians already defined grammar as that which permits one to either speak a language or speak about a language.

More recently, the British linguist David Crystal has referred to the dichotomy of the concept of grammar, and he makes a distinction between ‘knowing about grammar’ and knowing ‘grammar’. According to Crystal, knowing about grammar is a conscious, reflective process. It means being able to talk about what we do when we construct sentences, to describe what the rules are, etc. By contrast, knowing grammar is a facility, which develops during childhood. Most people are unaware of their inner knowledge of the grammar of their mother tongue. However, speakers of a language display that knowledge when for instance they distinguish between correct and incorrect sentences in their mother tongue.


The study of grammar goes back to the times of the ancient Greeks, Romans and Indians. Grammar books have often been part of the equipment of formal education in Western countries.

A grammar for teaching purposes describes the usage of educated speakers of the language, speakers of the ‘standard’ language. Taking apart the various patterns of the language and examining them separately carry out the description.

A distinction is often drawn between:

  • descriptive grammar, which attempts to present an accurate description of the rules for actual usage
  • and prescriptive grammar, which prescribes certain rules for usage and proscribes others.

In practice, a grammar book or grammar may contain both kinds of rules.

Prescriptive grammar distinguishes between good grammar (correct, approved usage) and bad grammar (incorrect, disapproved usage). A grammar may overtly or covertly downgrade regional and social dialects (implying that they either do not have ‘proper’ grammar or have no grammar at all).

The study of grammar is not limited to the study of one’s mother tongue, but it is also applied to the teaching and learning of a foreign language.

As Celce-Murcia and Hilles point out (1987):

‘Teaching grammar has been central and often synonymous with teaching foreign language for the past 2500 years.’ This was the case of the Grammar-Translation Method.

Celce-Murcia and Hilles also point out that no studies provide evidence that overt grammatical instruction is essentially necessary to learn a second language, although in a practical sense, many students will demand grammar instruction because it fulfils a cultural expectation of what constitutes a language class.

Grammars, which help students to learn another language, are called pedagogical grammars. These grammar books state explicitly the rules of the language, list the words and their pronunciation, and thus are aids in learning a new language. Generally, the material is graded for easy absorption in the learning process and it is also divided into sections that can be assimilated during a normal class period. They may also include exercises, drills, etc.


The fact that overt grammar instruction has been related to school subjects has caused the concept of grammar to become difficult and distant to most people. Fluent native speakers of English quite often say that they do not know any grammar, or that foreigners who are learning English know English grammar better than they do.

Knowing about grammar refers to the capability of explaining the processes related to a language, and this is what has traditionally been taught in grammar classes, whereas knowing grammar is a facility which develops during childhood.

The learning of grammar is an almost imperceptible process, which happens very quickly. In only 3 or 4 years children master the grammar of their mother tongue. The different stages in the process of grammar acquisition of children learning English have been described by David Crystal.

  1. The first stage is the holophrastic stage, taking place between 12 to 18 months. The holophrastic stage is characterized by the use of one-word utterances. 60% of words have a naming function (Mammy, cheese) and about 20% express actions.
  1. The second stage takes place between 18 months and 2 years and is characterized by the production of 2 word utterances, generally verb and object constructions. By the end of this stage, children have learned several basic lessons about English word order.
  1. The third stage is characterized by the adding of elements and the construction of basic sentences (Daddy got car).
  1. The fourth stage, which takes place around 3 years of age, is characterized by the formation of longer and more complex sentences.
  1. The fifth stage takes place around 4 years, and it is characterized by the sorting out of irregular forms and sentence connecting features.

In addition to this innate capability to learn one’s mother tongue, we, as speakers, are capable of producing organized sentences in a specific way and also validate some constructions and reject others ultimately reject it. This capability of distinguishing what is possible and impossible in a language is known as linguistic competence.

Somehow speakers know what sentences are correct and what sentences are not correct in their own language. We can distinguish between grammatical and non-grammatical sentences.

In addition, speakers of a language don’t just merely repeat sentences they heard someone say before, they can also create new sentences. When learning one’s language, people learn sentences and discover the rules of language and once they know them they start using them. Therefore, when they speak they are projecting the rules that they have deducted to build new sentences. Thus we could say that speakers know the grammar of their mother tongue, even though, most speakers may ignore the existence of a subject called “Grammar”. Some other speakers have learnt grammar in school long after they had learnt their own language.

Consequently, we can conclude that all speakers of a language know the grammar of their mother tongue and use it to produce viable utterances. This knowledge, which is known as linguistic competence, is implicit and it is not usually easy to think about and report on it. Grammar knowledge of one’s mother tongue though unconscious, is present and obvious when using the language to produce and to understand utterances in that language.

In terms of foreign language learning, grammar must not be the centre of our classes, but a part of it when it is required. Our students must know the structures of the language to carry out successfully the communicative tasks required in the class. The method used to explain the grammar points will depend on the needs of the class and the issue thought.