5a. THE NEED TO REFORM ENGLISH GRAMMAR

Compared to many other languages, English grammar is fairly easy to learn. For example, English has only two inflected forms of each verb tense, compared to four to six forms in French and Spanish, and even more in Russian. The big problem with English is not the grammar rules per se, though some of them could be easily simplified, but the fact that there are so many exceptions to the rules. The main areas where words are not consistent, and there are irregular forms, is in verb conjugation, plural forms of nouns, possessive forms, comparison, and in prefixes and suffixes. Suggestions will be made in this chapter showing how a few changes to make grammar consistent will result in English becoming much less difficult to learn.

As with spelling, the biggest problem with grammar is lack of consistency. English grammar is so inconsistent that sometimes even grammar books make mistakes!  Many native-speaking Americans make grammar mistakes. The goal of grammar rules should be to facilitate clear and effective communication.  A simplified grammar system is needed to get rid of grammatical inconsistencies (for example, this word, which pluralizes by changing the ending “y” to “ies”).  Today, the world is left with English, this mess of a language, as its main means of international communication. It is time for the language to respond to these realities and change the grammar rules that are inconsistent, and inconsistently applied, rather than just to keep replicating one generation after another of people who have to struggle with grammar problems.

When languages are taught, teachers typically expect the students to adapt to the language. Grammar rules are taught, even when those rules do not make any sense. They are presented in terms that every student must adapt to the existing language. The different approach of this book is that an international language should adapt to the needs of those people who are trying to learn it, by a campaign to simplify the language.

Around the world schoolchildren and adults are struggling to learn English as never before. Because English grammar is so inconsistent, and because there are so many exceptions to grammar rules, both children and adults are tormented in English classes as they struggle to make sense of a senseless amalgam. The difficulty in learning English is compounded by an ineffective means of teaching languages in many countries’ educational systems. In Southeast Asia, government schools continue to emphasize English grammar, despite numerous studies which show that teaching grammar is not an effective strategy to learning a language. Developing skills to build vocabulary and improve pronunciation are much more important for students than learning grammar rules.

The simplifications suggested here are intended not only to benefit non-native speakers of English, but also to benefit future generations of children who now have to struggle for years—as I did—to become proficient in spelling and writing.  English need not be this difficult.  There is a good basis for reform of grammar, by looking at the grammar of other languages and drawing inspiration from those languages to decide methods by which English can be made less complex. I will suggest some examples by drawing on the languages with which I am most familiar (especially Indonesian, Thai, Spanish, and German).

A spelling reform movement exists, but it does not require native speakers to change anything about the way they speak, only the way they write.  Grammar reform, however, asks native speakers to change the words they use and the construction of sentences. These differences make grammar reform less likely to occur. Grammar reform is just as needed as spelling reform, but because grammar reform will likely be more controversial, the two topics are being presented separately. Spelling reform can still take place without grammar reform, even though both together would make English literacy much easier both for the next generation of native English speakers learning to read, as well as for speakers of other languages who want to learn English. This chapter contains suggestions for grammar reform, presented from the most simple and easily accomplished word changes, to more drastic grammatical changes that alter the way sentences are constructed.

 

HOW CAN GRAMMAR SIMPLIFICATION BE ENACTED?

One option in allowing a gradual implementation of these changes is for spoken English to continue as it is, but native-English-speaking children just learning to read, and learners of English as a second language, could be taught with the new simplified grammar rules. That would allow them more quickly to learn enough English to communicate, and then they could be taught later to recognize verb conjugation and other aspects of the traditional grammar. If print materials in English could be published with the new simplified grammar, so that people can gradually get used to reading in this new way, then even those wedded to the traditional ways would still be able to read the new grammar forms. They would be free to continue writing and speaking in the old ways. Gradually over time, as the new generation matures, people will start speaking more like the words they are reading, and the old grammar inconsistencies can be allowed to fade away. Still, I recognize that gaining acceptance of even the most simple grammatical changes suggested here will be an uphill battle. The most important need will be for the writers of grammar books and dictionaries to accept that these changes are alternatives that are acceptable. That is, people can continue speaking and writing with the old grammar rules, but it will also be acceptable to write and spell in the new reformed way of simplified grammar as well.

Though in my opinion all of these spelling and grammar changes should occur, objections lodged against one particular grammar change should not prevent the other suggested changes from being considered independently and adopted widely.  For a future edition of this work, I will greatly appreciate readers sending me additional ideas for grammar changes, or persuasive arguments critiquing these suggested changes below.  I would especially like to hear from speakers of other languages that I am not familiar with, and from language teachers and linguists, who have other ideas of changes that should be added to this list.

 

IRREGULAR WORDS

The first principle of grammar reform is to get rid of irregular words.  Consistency should be the goal. Because English has so many irregular words, learners have to waste huge amounts of time just memorizing the exceptions to a rule.  If irregular words were made regular, then learners could learn good English much more quickly and with much more ease. As much as possible, words should conform to the general pattern.

A second level of grammar reform is to go beyond making irregular words regular. The other option is to change the grammar rules themselves so that words are no longer irregular. This chapter offers examples of both kinds of reforms. Rather than just learning a set of grammar rules that can be applied consistently to all words, I also try to simplify the rules so that “regular” or “irregular” categories become meaningless. This is the approach that I take for verbs. Here are the suggestions for grammar reform, in following posts after this one.

 

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About englisheasylearning

Walter L. Williams, Ph.D., has taught at UCLA and as Professor of Anthropology at the University of Southern California. He taught English Language in Thailand and also as Fulbright Professor at Gadjah Mada University in Indonesia. He has published eleven books, including JAVANESE LIVES: WOMEN AND MEN IN MODERN INDONESIAN SOCIETY (Rutgers University Press).
This entry was posted in Why English is Difficult to Learn, and what to do about it and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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