Grammar is a dying skill

BY LISI WASMER | 08/07/2014 8:33 PM

Language without grammar also work?

Exploring distant countries, discovering foreign cultures - a tempting idea, especially now during the holiday season. At least until you land at the airport abroad, even though you only understand the train station: Especially when you are on vacation, you often wish you had taken better care of your English or French lessons. But Teacher was such a sleeping pill. And besides, he always came up with this tricky grammar. In reality, you don't need them to communicate. Or does it? What significance does it have and who actually invented grammar?


In 2003, the language didactics professor Ulrich Schmitz presented about 200 Essen German studies students with technical terms from German lessons and asked them about their meaning. Despite the “generous” evaluation, no more than five students were able to correctly explain more than half of the specified terms (Christa Dürscheid from Zurich University reproduces a selection of inaccurate to incorrect statements documented by Schmitz in a textbook contribution from 2007).

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Schmitz was horrified in his report: "For the vast majority of them, this pathetic rubble of basic grammatical knowledge would not have been enough for the 250 euro question in the television quiz" (quoted from Dürscheid 2007). Whether this indignation is justified, what the test result would like to say about the young people in our country, our education system in general and German lessons in particular - ultimately only one question remains: For what other than a television quiz should grammar knowledge be used to be useful at all?

Who invented it?

Inquisitive people might even discover a second question, namely the well-known herbal candy riddle: Who invented it? In the case of grammar, the answer is as simple as it is unsatisfactory: nobody. Just as we have no knowledge of the authorship of the various languages ​​(perhaps simply because there is no directly assignable authorship), no particular “inventor” of the grammar can be identified.

It is known that the Sophists, especially Protagoras, carried out a scholarly study of grammar as early as ancient Greece, distinguishing between different genders, tenses and modes. As far as German grammar is concerned, people generally like to rely on Konrad Duden and the reference work named after him. In fact, it seems that it was first written down by a Middle Franconian pastor named Friedrich Bauer.

250 euro. And otherwise?

Back to Schmitz and his test: Assuming that you are now in the television quiz, you have just - despite all Schmitz’s prophecies of doom - correctly answered the 250 euro question on German grammar; what's next? Besides the admittedly gratifying 250 euros (and possibly the goodwill of Mr. Schmitzen), what have I gained by mastering the grammar?

Nothing, say some. Because grammar (we always knew it) isn't that important. Those who hold this opinion can even fall back on a theory that is widespread in linguistics. One could justify the unimportance of grammar with the fact that we humans have a kind of basic knowledge of how language works from birth, an innate, universal grammar. On closer inspection, of course, that doesn't mean the grammar is irrelevant, but it would be a start.

Probably the most famous proponent of this hypothesis is the American linguist Noam Chomsky, whose scientific considerations on “generative transformation grammar” have been clearly summarized by Sophist GmbH. Apart from his grammatical theory, which he developed over decades, Chomsky assumes that there are certain basic grammatical rules that are universal, i.e. valid for all languages, and must therefore be innate, especially since it is hardly possible to learn any language at all if humans have not at least a rudimentary grammatical understanding from birth. And who, apart from Mr Schmitz, actually says that this is not enough for communication?

250 euro. And the rest of the world.

Many (apart from the fact that numerous linguists are nowhere near in agreement with Chomsky and his hypothesis on innate universal grammar). Sverker Johansson from the University of Lund in Sweden summed up the pros and cons of Chomsky's hypothesis as early as 1991 in a critical study.

But you can also break a lance for the grammar less theoretically: Kyle Wiens, CEO of the online repair website "iFixit" and founder of the software company "Dozuki" provides a very realistic reason in a guest article in the magazine "Harvard Business Manager" . If you fail the grammar test at the job interview, you won't get a job. "Grammar shows more than a person's ability to remember what is being taught in school," writes Wiens. Care, accuracy, ability to learn. All characteristics that a good knowledge of grammar can indicate.

Apart from that, the grammar does not seem as unimportant as Chomsky's universals might falsely suggest. A very practical example, as it was brought up in an Internet forum for writers and authors: The French sentence “J’ai posé ton livre sur la table brune” means in German “I put your book on the brown table”. Literally translated it means "I put your book on the brown table". The sentence still seems easy to understand, which, according to the author of the example, could be traced back to the common Indo-Germanic origin of the languages ​​German and French. The real added value of grammar for understanding the simplest sentences shows a transfer of the building blocks of the example sentence into their basic form: "I put your table book on the brown". The order is missing, the inflection of the words - what remains is a senseless collection of words whose original meaning can only be guessed at in the best of cases.

So what does grammar bring us? Hypothetical 250 euros, that is now clear. And the opportunity to understand. And what else do you want?
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