Contribution by Cree Whelshula, NLCC TTA Director

Grammar is the set of rules and structures of language. When we learn our first language, grammar use is acquired naturally through subconsciousness on why we use the language the way we do. If you heard the sentence, “me went to the store,” you would innately know that sentence is incorrect, but you may not be able to articulate why. In English, although “me” and “I” refer to the same person, “me” is the object pronoun (receives an action), and “I” is the correct subject pronoun (the one doing the action). As a first language English speaker, you would just know by the way it sounds and not through conscious knowledge about grammar rules.

Is grammar important? The simple answer is yes and no. Looking back on our previous article about the unique challenges of endangered language learning, not a lot of opportunity abounds to become immersed in the natural speech of endangered languages. Direct grammar instruction is not particularly important if the person is immersed in the language and acquiring it through comprehensible input. Also, typically adults require more grammar instruction. This is because the brain will prune synaptic connections that it does not use, so adults need to rebuild neural connections on language structures that are not present in English. For example, in my own language, there are at least 5 different sentence structures:

  • subject-verb-object (like English);
  • verb-object-subject;
  • subject-object-verb;
  • verb-subject-object; and
  • object-subject-verb.

Not to mention there are two separate subject sets, versus the one in English (I, you, (s)he, we, you all, they). Most monolingual adults will try and plug the language that is being learned into the patterns and structures of their first language and many Indigenous languages are quite different from how English operates.

I personally love learning about my language’s grammar, so grammar is an effective method for me as part of my language journey simply because it engages me. I would say learning about the grammar of my language has been extremely instrumental in my learning, but if I only relied on grammar my speaking ability would sound choppy and robotic. It definitely needs to be coupled with other language acquisition methods that promote speaking to be able to sound like a fluid and natural speaker.

In conclusion, grammar instruction may be useful if language learning opportunities are not immersive like a master-apprentice program or an immersion nest/school. If you are working with adults who are second language learners, grammar instruction may be a useful strategy to support language acquisition. Sometimes just short grammatical explanations can really expedite the acquisition process, but I wouldn’t rely on grammar as the primary source of language learning. That being said, there may be languages that need to rely a little heavier on grammar due to the loss of speakers and limited resources to hear first language speakers. In that case, be sure to create many opportunities to speak to one another and use the language.