More important than perfect grammar or pronunciation is being able to say what you want to say:
with less effort,
without upsetting anyone
– and sound like yourself.
That’s what it says on my website and it’s something I strongly believe.
Yet grammar causes a lot of people headaches
Not only are many people annoyed with themselves for making the same mistakes over and over again, they’re concerned about how these errors affect the impression they make. Some believe that imperfect grammar makes them sound unprofessional in English – or even stupid. Some fear that their opinion or line of argumentation could come across as too simple, because they use simpler sentence structures. People worry that they won’t be taken as seriously if they make grammar mistakes.
In my experience, these concerns are typical for those whose job really depends on communicating effectively and convincingly with others. Trainers or coaches, who need clear but very nuanced language, for example. Or those in a high position in a company, who are expected to have an equally high level of English. But anyone who is very eloquent in their own language tends to be highly critical of and often frustrated by their English.
I know exactly what it’s like
German grammar isn’t easy either, believe me. And after over 30 years in Germany I still make mistakes.
In general that doesn’t bother me. But there are situations where I wish my grammar were perfect. When a topic is so important to me that I really want to be taken seriously. When there’s a lot at stake and I need to make the best possible impression.
In these situations a slightly puzzled look from someone can throw me. I start going over what I said in my head to find out what was wrong and being pretty hard on myself for making the same old mistake. That’s fatal because I’m in danger of losing my train of thought.
Pitfalls of taking grammar too seriously
When all your attention is on your grammar, losing track of what you want to say isn’t the only problem. Let’s take a look at a few others.
Nervousness: If you’re worrying about your grammar it’s likely to show. Your stress is very probably apparent to your listener(s) (and it can be stressful for them too). This makes it difficult to project a self-confident and professional image and get your message across convincingly.
It’s hard work: Concentrating on getting the grammar absolutely right is extremely hard work. A lot of effort goes into just this one aspect – often at the expense of other (more) important points or tasks. It may also mean that you dread these situations and try to avoid them – then, of course, your voice isn’t heard.
Inward focus: Paying so much attention to your grammar will probably prevent you from focussing on the people you’re talking to. So there’s a real danger of not noticing the effect your words have. You may miss clues showing that people are no longer able to follow you and fail to clarify what you mean. Worse still, you may not realise that you’ve said something unacceptable or upset someone – and miss the opportunity to put things right.
These are some of the reasons why I say that being able to speak confidently, with less effort and without upsetting someone is more important than perfect grammar.
But we can’t just forget grammar altogether
A couple of weeks ago, someone who was interested in taking some lessons with me and had read the words on my website asked whether that meant that we wouldn’t do any grammar in the lessons, whether I wouldn’t even correct her grammar. I’m not sure if she was hoping I’d say “Absolutely. You can forget all about grammar.” If she was, I’m afraid I had to disappoint her.
Grammar provides structure and clarity. Correct grammar makes it easier for listeners to follow your message. Of course, it makes a huge difference when it’s immediately clear from the tense used whether someone is talking about a past event or a future one. It saves the listener having to ask or search for clues in the rest of what you say.
What training can offer
People take lessons because they want to see progress. And improving grammar, ironing out the mistakes they’ve been making for years, definitely has a role to play. Training is an opportunity to concentrate on the specific important areas. For example anyone negotiating in English needs a very good command of conditionals (if sentences) to make their position absolutely clear.
Training offers the opportunity to practise structures so that they become more and more natural and no longer need so much thought and attention in real life.
How I approach grammar
The way a trainer deals with grammar is important. If you’re just getting your courage up to start speaking English (again), you don’t want to be interrupted immediately by me correcting every little mistake. Or stopping you in mid flow to explain exactly what you’re doing wrong. I find it makes more sense to note down mistakes, cluster them and then deal with them in a grammar slot. If someone continues to make the same mistakes as they continue speaking, then I do interrupt to correct them – though often a look is enough. 😉
Outside the lesson you then need to prioritise one or two points to watch out for in real-life over the next week or two – in emails, conversations with colleagues, meetings etc.
This way you can improve your grammar step by step, without losing sight of what else is important.