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Chapter 10: The Second Rule: Grammar Study Kills Your English Speaking


The second rule of the method is the most shocking for most learners. After years of studying English in schools, most people believe that grammar study is the key to English speaking. In fact, many learners simply cannot imagine learning English without studying grammar rules. They have strong beliefs deeply programmed by the hidden curriculum.

That is why the second rule is such a huge change. The second rule of the Effortless English method is: Do NOT study grammar! Now I know this might be a tough idea for you to accept. Let's face it: for as long as you've been studying English, you have been told that you must learn grammar rules – in middle school, in high school, in university, in language schools, everywhere in the world it's grammar, grammar, grammar, grammar.

So my first question is: How did this strategy work for you? Was it successful? If you are reading this book, you've likely studied English for years and you focused a lot on grammar rules. But can you speak English easily, quickly, and automatically right now? Did all of this grammar study produce the result you want?

If the answer is no, you are normal. Because despite what you learned in school, the truth is that grammar study actually hurts your English speaking. The problem with studying grammar is that instead of speaking English you focus on analyzing it. You become like the soccer player who is studying physics in order to improve. You learn a lot of information but your skill never seems to get much better.

In other words, you think about English instead of doing it. You think about the past tense, the present tense, the future, the present perfect, the past perfect. Now for writing English, that's not as bad. When you write English, you have time. You can think about things slowly and take your time. You can erase your mistakes. It's less of a problem. You don't need to write fast.

But when it comes to speaking, there's no time. You don't have time to think about the rules for the present perfect tense in English when you are talking to people. If someone asks you a question, you have to answer it immediately. You don't have time to think about prepositions. You don't have time to think about verb tenses, possessives, phrasal verbs – all the other linguistic terms you've learned. There's no time.

A student of mine in Barcelona named Oscar once struggled with this very issue. He wanted to improve his conversational skills, however, all he could think of was grammar. Should I be using present perfect or another tense? That kind of thing. He said he felt like he was chained up and the words just wouldn't come. So he stopped studying grammar. Over the next few months, his speaking dramatically improved. "It just started flowing out instead of me consciously thinking about it."

Research supports this, which is why linguists like Stephen Krashen recommend a more natural approach. Learning a language, Krashen notes, "doesn't require extensive use of conscious grammatical rules and does not require tedious drill."

In a meta-analysis of grammar instruction, researchers found that studies over the last century have failed to find a significant effect on the teaching of grammar directly. The research is clear: Learning grammar rules does not improve your spoken grammar. You have seen this with your own speaking. How many times have you made a grammar mistake when speaking, even though you "knew" the correct rule?

For example, many students who do well on grammar tests have terrible spoken grammar. They can tell you that the past tense version of "teach" is "taught." Yet, when speaking, they will say "last year he teach me." They know the rule intellectually, but this does not help their speaking.

Another common problem is slow and hesitant speech. While speaking, a student will constantly be thinking of verb conjugations. All this analysis slows their speech, making it painful and unnatural for the listener. Even when they manage to speak correctly, they kill natural communication by being so slow and hesitant.

:: What Real English Sounds Like

Real English conversation is tricky. Real conversation isn't like what you learned in school. In fact, it often feels totally different.

One key difference is the fact that real speech very rarely uses full or "grammatically correct" sentences. Of course, in school, those are the only kinds of sentences you learned. You learned about Subject-Verb-Object. You learned to avoid sentence fragments.

Then you hear a real English conversation with real native speakers and you discover that they MOSTLY use sentence fragments!
This is something I immediately noticed when I read the transcripts for some of our Effortless English lessons. I knew that most of us tend to use a lot of fragments in normal speech, but even I was surprised at just how often we do this.

In fact, we constantly speak in partial sentences. We constantly use "run on" sentences. We constantly interrupt our own sentences and change our thoughts in the middle of speaking. A transcript of a real conversation – that is, a totally spontaneous and natural conversation – is completely different than anything you will find in a textbook.

And that is only one difference – there are many other major differences between real English conversations and textbook conversations or so-called "dialogues." This helps to explain why even "advanced" English students have such trouble when they come to the United States. While these students may have the good individual vocabulary (usually formal), they have absolutely no exposure to real spoken English. In school, they learned how people "should" speak English – but what they
really needed to learn is how people actually DO speak English.


Sometimes people will ask me, "A.J., why are you against grammar?" I think it's important to clarify that I most definitely am NOT against grammar. I just think people need to learn it intuitively. As a teacher, I need to teach it indirectly.

What does "intuitive grammar" mean, exactly? Intuitive mastery of spoken grammar is based on a "feeling for correctness." This is the method that native speakers use to learn and master English grammar. By avoiding grammar study, learning phrases, and using other natural methods, the native speaker learns to identify what "sounds right."

You do the same with your own language. As you speak, you do not think about verb tenses or other grammar. If you hear another person make a mistake, you know it's a mistake because it "sounds wrong."

Intuitive grammar mastery is the only kind of grammar learning that works for fast English conversations. Your intuition is fast, your conscious analytical mind is not. You must learn to trust the natural process and let your grammar improve automatically.

My students usually fall into two categories: those who are excited about rule two and those who are skeptical. I usually tell this second group to take a leap of faith. Be a scientist. You've spent many years trying to learn English the traditional way and look at the result.

So try a little experiment. For the next six months, dedicate yourself completely to the Effortless English method. Use the psychology system. Use all of the seven rules. Give all of your effort for just six months.

Then check the result. Did your English speaking improve? Compare the results you got from six months of Effortless English to the results you got with the old school methods. If the Effortless English results are better, and for most people they are, then continue using Effortless English. If you still feel that grammar-translation is better for you, you can always return to the method.

:: The Hidden Curriculum Can Be Hard to Break

When I was teaching English in San Francisco, I had two Korean students named Jinny and Jacky (their American nicknames). Each of these students was struggling with her speaking and each wanted to attend an American university. In order to be accepted into a university, the students had to pass the new TOEFL test, which included listening and speaking sections.

Jinny and Jacky had spent years studying English grammar in Korea. As a result, their speech was slow, unnatural, and hesitant. They felt nervous when speaking, constantly worried about making a mistake.

As students in my class, I taught each of them Rule Two. I told them to stop studying grammar. I told them to get rid of their grammar books and their TOEFL books. I told them to do their best to stop even thinking about grammar.

At first, both students were skeptical because this advice went against everything they had ever learned in school. Jinny eventually decided to accept my advice, while Jacky did not. Over the next several months, Jinny completely avoided grammar study. Jacky, unfortunately, continued. I would often see Jacky studying grammar and TOEFL books in a cafe after class.

Gradually, Jinny began to feel more relaxed about English. Her speaking became more natural and fluent. She was thrilled with the improvement! Jacky did not improve. She came to me and again asked for advice. She had once again failed to achieve the required TOEFL score.

Again I gave Jacky the same advice, stop studying grammar. Yet, despite her continued failure, she just couldn't believe me. The beliefs of the hidden curriculum were so strong in her that she simply couldn't accept another way. So she continued to focus on grammar books and TOEFL books.

When I left that job, Jinny had moved on to an American university. Jacky, however, was still stuck in the language school. She was still studying grammar and still failing to achieve success.

Jinny and Jacky's story is powerful because it shows us how strong the hidden curriculum can be. Despite years of frustration and failure, some people just can't seem to break free from grammar study. They will continue using the same failed method for years, never learning to speak English powerfully.

To me, that is the worst tragedy of the hidden curriculum. These limiting beliefs imprison many people into a downward spiral of failure. It saddens me to see this cycle of frustration and stress.

For some, it may be difficult to accept Rule Two, but this rule is essential for your speaking success. As Jinny and countless Effortless English members have proven, spoken grammar can be mastered without studying grammar rules.

What I want you to remember is very simple: Do not study grammar rules. If you focus on grammar rules, it will hurt your speaking. You will speak more slowly. You will understand it more slowly. To put it strongly, grammar kills your English speaking.

So if you have grammar books, throw them away. Say goodbye to grammar books forever. If you want, you can even burn them, set them on fire. Have a little celebration. Because grammar-translation is worse than useless, it is actually harmful to your speaking ability.

:: For Practice

Exercise: Take a grammar holiday. For the next six months, just decide you are not going to study grammar. In fact, do your best to completely forget about grammar rules. Unlearn this information by avoiding grammar books. Whenever you catch yourself thinking about grammar, immediately change your focus. During this time, instead of worrying about mistakes, accept them. Accept that mistakes are normal and necessary.

Focus on communicating. The truth is that native speakers will still understand you even if you make grammar mistakes. While schools hate mistakes, normal people really don't care. They simply want to hear your ideas, your feelings, your thoughts. In fact, native speakers make grammar mistakes, too, and they don't get upset about them.

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