When we start learning a foreign language, we usually start with vocabulary: numbers, days of the week and (for some strange reason) animals. Once we can say “a blue elephant” and “a brown dog”, we are then ready to start learning grammar! Grammar is useful because it provides learners with a type of ‘language menu’ in which every part of the language becomes a piece we can digest and master with time. 

on the menu

This ‘grammar menu’ gives us a sense of progress and it makes language learning seem organized and manageable. But the reality is very different. You are never going to have a conversation exclusively in present simple. The man at the bus station doesn’t even know what an adverb of frequency is, and native English speakers will look at you with a very blank expression if you ask them about phrasal verbs, despite the fact that they use them all the time.  


When we learn a language, it is important to learn the aspects of grammar, but it is also very important to look at language as it is used. This is why the official exams and tests often do not have a separate grammar section – they have been designed to test your ability to use and understand a language in the most authentic way possible. This means that your command of grammar will be useful in all the exam papers


For example, when you are reading, grammar is useful so that you can distinguish if someone is talking about a past event or a hypothetical one. In the writing paper you will have to show off a range of registers and styles: you will have to express disagreement, disbelief, enthusiasm, reservation, interest, etc. In the speaking exam it is necessary to use a wide range of language in order to: ask questions, describe events, express opinions, and provide detailed justifications of your ideas. In the listening part of the test you may need to distinguish whether someone is talking about a past event, a future event or a hypothetical event. Grammar is therefore less of a menu, and more of a vehicle that helps you navigate and understand meaning.

How  to practise grammar?

What can we do to really focus on grammar in a meaningful way? One thing that can be useful for adult learners, is conscious learning. What does this involve? The first step is to read and understand a text (a paragraph from this article, for example), then you look at it in more detail. Ask yourself questions like:

  • What tenses are used and why?
  • Would I use the same tense in my own language?
  • What prepositions are used? Do they go with specific adjectives or verbs?
  • Which adjectives are used? Do these adjectives have an opposite?
  • Are there any idiomatic expressions in this text? Do they directly translate to my language?

This type of text analysis is interesting because you can do it using authentic texts (rather than a text that is written for a specific level.)  The internet gives us a wealth of sources we can use. Looking at a language in a conscious way is believed by many linguists to help adult learners expand language complexity, making it easier to navigate in complicated situations. Why not have a go and see what you think?