Published 18th April 2017

As TEFL teachers, we spend a lot of time teaching grammar to our students in the hope that they will go out into the world and communicate accurately and effectively. This is logical when we think about our students sending out emails, writing academic papers or even blogging, but is it that important when it comes to speaking?

When you think about it, the way we speak is a lot to different to how we write, not only in terms of formality or word choice but also in relation to accuracy. When we speak, especially with friends or in an informal setting, we are more likely to speak English that is not strictly grammatically correct.

Is that wrong?

Linguists refer to this as the difference between prescriptive grammar and descriptive grammar. Prescriptive grammar refers to the rule of English language usage, while descriptive grammar refers to the way we actually use English. A prescriptivist is the person who will interrupt you when you are speaking to point out a mistake, while a descriptivist will marvel at the way the English language is changing. (Watch this video to find out more).

Because of this distinction, many EFL students may feel that grammar is not important when speaking. As long as they get the message across, who cares how they do it, right?

Well, we can see their point to some extent, but this is not the reason they’re learning English. They’re not spending all their time (and money) learning a language so that they can speak inaccurately, are they? What’s more, when a native speaker relaxes and flouts certain grammatical rules, it is clear they are a native speaker; when a learner speaks badly, they just sound like they’re low-level learners.

So, while being 100% accurate is not always necessary, it is a better idea for our learners to learn to speak correctly before taking liberties with inaccuracies. Of course, the more exposure to English our learners have, the more they will become aware of what is and isn’t acceptable in spoken English.

There is a big difference, for example, in saying: Me and my mom went shopping yesterday or The amount of people there was incredible – both of which are strictly grammatically incorrect but commonly used by native speakers – than in saying: Yesterday I go to the cinema or I have 27 years – both of which are common mistakes for non-native speakers.

When teaching, though of course you should be teaching the grammatical rules, if your learners come up with language which is not correct but which is in common usage, don’t focus on it unless it sounds unnatural. Your learners have a lot of other things to worry about!