How did you learn your native Chinese grammar? The answer is that we don’t really think about it much. We learn it instinctively as a baby and a child, by listening to the people around us talking, which we then mimic.
I once asked a class of Chinese university students to explain to me the differences between English grammar and Chinese grammar. In student put up their hand and says, “But sir, Chinese doesn’t have grammar. We only need grammar for learning English.”
Of course Chinese has grammar. The thing the student missed was that she didn’t study grammar extensively at school because Chinese grammar was intrinsic to her. English grammar required study because English grammar was novel to the student.
Similarly, in western schools, the grammar of one’s native language is rarely taught. Students are expected to absorb the grammar through extensive reading and writing. They are not explicitly taught rules to follow but rather expected to recognise patterns through repeated exposure and to adapt them to their own creativity.
Some minor grammar points might be covered. I remember a lesson on nouns, verbs and adjectives. I remember being asked to identify which is which. However, no teacher ever told me what a pronoun was, explained the use of articles, or spent time going over prepositions. I knew, colloquially, that one should never split an infinitive and Star Trek’s, “to boldly go” was an example of such, but yet had no idea what an infinitive was or why Star Trek might be considered wrong
Rather in England, our English classes focused more on the style of writing e.g. formal versus informal. We practised letter writing, story writing, report writing and poetry. We also spent a lot of time on punctuation. I notice Chinese students of English generally have very poor punctuation. They put marks all over the place, almost at random, and omit spaces. To an English person, punctuation seems to be the most basic part of grammar: to be able to construct and recognise a sentence.
It wasn’t always so. A couple of generations before me and schooling in the UK was very different from today. Students were expected to study Latin as a major part of their schooling. In fact, my high school still taught Latin and I did a little of the subject before the school dropped it from the syllabus.
In Latin, there is quite a strict grammar. So, as we studied Latin, we studied Latin grammar. Students would have to conjugate verbs and other such grammar exercises. The scene in the Life of Brian, where a Roman guard castigates Brian for using the wrong form of the verb and makes him writing it out 100 times as punishment, is taken directly from that generations experience of school.
From Latin, since English is to a large part based on Latin vocabulary, people used to try to make English conform with Latin grammar rules. Thus the study of Latin was often justified as being a method of studying and improving one’s English skills. Someone who has good Latin grammar will, as a result, have good English grammar.
I remember my French teacher telling me similar about why studying French was useful for English people. Also, my Latin teacher told me that studying Latin would help me learn French faster. I think all of these are true but only to a point.
I would say that in order to really understand a foreign language, you have to understand your own native language and at the same time you cannot fully understand your own native language until you have studied a foreign language. The study of language becomes the study of linguistics As we learn a foreign language we improve our understanding of grammar, increase our vocabulary and also enhance our diction in our native language.
So in short: how do native speakers learn English grammar? We don’t learn grammar in our native language as a lesson by rather by osmosis. We learn grammar generally by learning other languages related to English, specifically French or German and in the past Latin and Greek.
To answer the second part of the question: how should a Chinese student learn English grammar. Well, start by learning your native language’s grammar first. There is no point trying to learn grammar in a foreign language if you have basic problems with understanding grammar in your native language.
When my French teacher commanded me to conjugate the verb “aller” I stared at her blankly – not because I didn’t know French verbs, but because I had no idea what the word “conjugate” meant. As far as I could tell she might as well have been speaking Latin – oh wait she was – “conjugate” from the Latin “coniugāre“.
You need to have a vocabulary for describing the mechanics of a language before you can go dissecting foreign languages. I dare say you have already done this and pulled English apart in countless grammar textbooks and test papers, however, have you done it to your own language as well. Pull Chinese apart and understand its grammar in order to understand English grammar.
The next advice to study English grammar is to stop studying English grammar. You can no more improve your grammar by studying a book than you can learn basketball by reading books about basketball.
If you want to learn basketball, you have to through balls at hoops. At first, you miss often. Over time, you get more and more shots on target. After a long time, you can score dependably.
Language learning works the same way. You have to use the language – by with I mean the vocabulary to try to make sense of ideas. Initially, they will miss. The vocabulary fails to fall into correct sentences just like the basketball fails to go to the hoop. However, keep trying. As you make attempts, people will accept or reject your speech and you try again and again. Over time, more and more of your speech will fall into the correct pattern and your grammar will improve.