Why is it Hard for Native Speakers to Explain Grammar?

If you've ever asked a native speaker about English grammar, you probably didn't get a satisfying answer. Maybe they didn't even know what you were talking about!

Why do native English speakers struggle to explain grammar? There are four main reasons.

#1 Native English Speakers Study Very Little Grammar in School

In some countries, grammar is a school subject. Students learn terms like "direct object complement" and carefully study verb tenses, sentence structures, and more.

However, in English-speaking countries, grammar has been a very small part of the education system for at least 60-70 years. In the 1960s, schools in both the US and England stopped teaching grammar. At the time, research seemed to show that grammar did not help children write better, so focus shifted to literature and actual writing practice.

As a result, most native English speakers today haven't learned much grammar and will struggle to explain it.

#2 Native Speakers Learned Grammar Naturally

For the most part, native speakers learn grammar naturally. For example, children in English-speaking environments pick up the following grammar before their third birthday:

If they make mistakes (e.g. "I falled down."), parents, teachers, or older children will correct them. Or they'll notice what everyone else says (e.g. "I fell down") and start saying that too.

In other words, native speakers learn most of their grammar without realizing it. This type of learning is called "implicit learning," and it's very difficult for people who learn something this way to explain rules and concepts.

#3 Native Speakers Don't Know Textbook Grammar

Grammar explanations in textbooks often don't reflect the grammar used in real life. For example, you may have learned to say things like "Sarah is the woman whom I lent my umbrella to" or "Whom should I call?" However, native speakers don't talk like this.

So why are textbook grammar and real-world grammar so different? This is because most textbooks take a traditional approach to grammar called "prescriptivism." Prescriptivism tells people how to speak and write properly.

However, its rules aren't based on observations of real people speaking the language. They're often based on rules that grammar experts developed in the 18th and 19th centuries, with some influences from Latin. So don't be surprised if your native speaker friends haven't heard of them!

#4 Most Native Speakers Aren't Teachers

Finally, keep in mind that even trained teachers need a lot of practice to explain English grammar – and most native speakers are not English teachers!

So if you're serious about grammar, study with someone who has the training and experience – whether or not they are native speakers.

At Engoo, you can find professional English tutors like this by searching for those with a background in linguistics and/or grammar. We also recommend you study using our grammar lessons. Get started here.