Why can't I use the English grammar I learnt when I speak?
So, you signed up for a language school. You learnt lots of grammar.
“If I won the lottery I’d buy a boat.”
“If I lost my phone, I don’t know what I’d do.”
But then you went out in the evening and thought you’d use your new language skills. You met a nice guy, and you started talking to him. We’ll call him Tom. You each talked about where you were from, what you were called and what you did for a living (your job). You started to tell Tom about how much you love your job but, for some strange reason, you said:
“If I ever will lose my job, I’d be really unhappy.”
You knew it was wrong. You started to curse yourself the moment the words left your mouth. What the hell happened?
You got in right in the class. Time after time after time after.. (you get the picture).
Of course, you did. After all, the whole purpose of the lesson was to teach you a key grammar point – in this case the second conditional – and you were then asked to practice it in a totally artificial situation….by creating lots of sentences in which you would be forced to use the second conditional.
Have you ever had a conversation in your own language in which one or both of the people say lots of sentences in a row that all feature the same grammar point?
Of course, you haven’t. it’s not natural. It’s not useful to be able to create one sentence after another, all of which practice the same grammar point. Because no real conversation ever happens like that.
What’s more learning like a parrot doesn’t work either. Research into learning has shown that people learn best when new things are introduced gradually….it seems that the brain needs time to process new information.. and even that sleep plays a key role in helping the brain to do so.
What happens in a real conversation? What happens is that one million and one things are going on in your mind, all at once. You’re thinking about finding the right words. You’re worrying about pronunciation. About word order. About getting the tenses right. And you’re trying to find a way to understand the native speaker that is talking to you – after all, they don’t seem to speak clearly like your teacher did.
And all these things mean that you need to think. A lot. And your brain isn’t going to be able to reliably access a grammar rule that you learnt by repeating it over and over again – not unless the situation that you are in calls for you to repeat sentences that use the same rule over and over again. And as we’ve already said, such situations simply don’t happen in real life.
What your brain actually needs is to train for real-life situations. Situations in which your mind is running at 100 miles per hour whilst trying to process a foreign language … and trying to stop your native language from interfering with your English.
And that training can only really be had by real conversations with real people. If you have enough of these conversations then your brain will stop having to work so hard when you do have them… and you’ll have much more chance of being able to actually use some grammar that you’ve learnt.
You won’t get very much useful conversation practice in a language school. In my next blog, we’ll look at why that is, and about how you can get useful practice.