All Languages Have Grammar!

Listen to the text:

Sometimes students say that their native language does not have grammar the way English does.

However, all languages have grammar! Grammar consists of the ordering of words, and the changes we make in words, in order to communicate meaning in a language. Different languages do these things in different ways. The grammar of your own language seems natural and automatic, and you don’t think about it very much. When you learn a new language, especially as an adult, you have to notice and think about all the new grammar rules.

Here are some of the many ways in which different languages have different grammar:

  1. Some languages have affixes on words that communicate meaning. (A prefix is an affix that attaches to the beginning of a word. A suffix attaches to the ending of a word. An infix is something added or changed in the middle of a word.)

English has many prefixes and suffixes that have either grammatical functions, or change the meaning of a word. For example, think about talk/talked, book/books, happy/unhappy, happy/happiness.

 We don’t have many infixes in English; they are found only in some irregular verbs (sing/sang). However, infixes are very common in Arabic and Hebrew.

 Chinese does not have affixes; instead, meaning is communicated by adding words.

  1. Some languages have articles for nouns (a/an, the), and some do not. English, Spanish and Arabic have articles. Russian and Chinese do not.

  2. In some languages, nouns have gender. This means that the article, the verb, or sometimes other grammar may change depending on whether the noun is considered to be “masculine” or “feminine.”

For example, Spanish nouns have gender that affects the article; “the table” is la mesa and “the book” is el libro. This is because “table” is feminine and “book” is masculine.

In Arabic, gender affects the verb form as well as the article. In German, there are three genders, feminine, masculine and neuter.

In English and Chinese, nouns do not have gender.

  1. Some languages have verb tenses, and some do not. This means that the verb changes form depending on when the action is taking place.

English, Spanish, Arabic, Russian and Japanese all have verb tenses, but Chinese does not. In Chinese, you just use other words to say when the action takes place, if that information is important.

The English verb tense system is very complicated, and creates many difficulties for people who are trying to learn the language; this is especially frustrating for people whose native language doesn’t bother with tenses at all!

  1. Word order varies in different languages. A language may use “SVO” order (subject-verb-object), or “SOV” order (subject-object-verb), or even put the verb first.

    Also, word order is more important in some languages than in others. It is very important in Chinese; you may not be able to change the word order in a Chinese sentence without changing the meaning. This often true in English, also. But word order can very flexible in Russian. It is more flexible in Spanish than in English.

Different languages are complicated in different ways. When you are learning a new language, the grammar seems most difficult when you have to learn about something that does not exist in your own language. For example, a Chinese speaker learning English has a lot of trouble with verb tenses because Chinese doesn’t have them. An English speaker learning Arabic also has trouble with verbs, because verb forms are more complicated in Arabic than in English.

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