Over my teaching career, I have often been asked by students how do native English speakers learn grammar. As someone who went to school in England and France, I have experienced both systems and can say they are totally different. I have also had the opportunity to ask students from many different nationalities how they learn grammar in their country. I must say that native English speakers seem to acquire grammar differently.
So how do native English speakers learn grammar?
If you ask most native English speakers what a noun or adjective is, they most probably won't know. I have asked many of my friends what a phrasal verb is, and they honestly have no idea.
Why is it that native English speakers can't identify a simple noun or adjective but can write or speak without any mistakes? Well, it all comes down to how we are taught at school. As we move through the educational system, most people studying in the United Kingdom do not learn grammar. It is acquired through reading and listening.
Let's step back a bit. Learning to speak occurs naturally, beginning with the sounds a baby makes and progressing to words. Even before babies and toddlers learn to pronounce words, they are learning to understand the speech spoken by others in their environment. This is, of course, the same for everyone in the world. We all learn to speak our mother tongue by listening to our parents, family, friends from a very young age. To be exact, we start listening to sounds when we are still in our mother's womb.
As we grow up, our vocabulary develops, the more we read, speak to people, watch TV, play video games, travel, ... We basically, we imitate what we hear and see around us.
Ok, all of that is great to know, but how does that answer my question? Indeed, I got a bit distracted there on how a language is learned. However, it is essential to understand all of that. As I started saying before, most native English speakers do not study grammar at school because the system (in the United Kingdom) does not teach grammar at all. We have English lessons, but these are more related to literature and writing. When we write at school, the teachers correct our mistakes, but there are no real grammar explanations as to why we made such or such mistakes.
Let's compare this to the educational system in France, which I am also familiar with. In France, native French speakers have weekly grammar lessons where they study the structure and spelling of the French language. There is a big emphasis on this, which is a total contrast compared to the English system. And it seems like how French is taught is the most widely spread approach around the world when it comes to learning a mother tongue. It looks like only the United Kingdom and other English speaking countries do not teach grammar. (I'm 100% sure about this as I am not familiar with all the educational systems around the world.)
So after this long explanation, the answer is no. Most native English speakers do not learn English grammar. It is absorbed naturally by listening, imitating, reading, writing, and so on.
Is it better that native English speakers don't learn grammar?
In my opinion, no, it isn't. I feel that this hinders our ability to learn a new language because we do not have an understanding of our own language. Yes, English people speak English, they can write and listen to English, but they do not know why we use a or an. They don't know the difference between the past simple and the perfect. They do not know what a phrasal verb is. Does it stop them from speaking fluent English? Of course not. But it does create a lack of understanding when it comes to languages.
Most non-native English speakers have a better understanding of the English language than native English speakers. This is because they have had to study the English language and grammar.
As an English teacher, I believe it is essential to study grammar. We need an understanding of the language which we use.
Do you need to focus only focus on grammar when learning English? No please don't. Learning grammar is necessary, but you should not spend all your time learning. In the same way that native English speakers learn to use correct grammar by listening to other people, reading, watching TV, and listening to music, you should do the same. It takes time to learn a language, and you must be patient. A language is alive and continuously changing; therefore, you need to adapt.
If you have any suggestions or questions about this article, feel free to get in touch with me directly (firstname.lastname@example.org).