Who Needs Grammar?

Many years ago, I had some friends who moved to an Arabic speaking country to open a business. That meant learning the language.

I don’t remember much of what they used to say about that country, but I do remember the pronouncement that “Arabic is stinking hard,” a sentence with I would nod appreciatively but without a real understanding of what they were going through.

After two months of daily German lessons (and a couple months before that of online learning) I can state that I don’t think German is as hard as Arabic to learn – but it isn’t easy.

Part of my problem, I know, is that I don’t need the language in my work. It is useful in daily life though. In larger German cities there are many English speakers. In little Sulzburg there don’t seem to be that many. Plus, if I am living here I should make the effort to learn the language.

At church I don’t always know what is going on, but at least I can usually figure out the Bible passages. In class I feel much less at home, more like the class dunce. I’m probably not the only one who feels that way, but don’t know for sure – we don’t have a common language.

My German teacher also speaks French and English, and maybe other languages that I don’t know about. When making points about German grammar she will ask people about the grammar in their languages. That is where I come out looking like an idiot. Because I never learned English grammar.

I learned French grammar as a child, somewhat imperfectly. I learned Latin grammar 50 years ago in high school. But I never received formal instruction in English grammar. I assume that was because I exhibited an affinity for the language from my early years, and such instruction was deemed unnecessary. Or I just wasn’t paying attention in class (I have a short attention span).

For Germans (and the French) grammar is somewhat instinctive. They have prepositions and pronouns drilled into them from childhood. They can conjugate verbs and decline tenses at the drop of a hat. I can still rhyme off some Latin conjugations without thinking – but I have to stop and think about their English equivalent.

That’s not to say I don’t have a reasonably good command of the English language. I’m grammatically strong, even if parsing a sentence requires thought. I’ve been writing professionally for more than 40 years. I break grammar rules all the time, but I do it deliberately. Words are my servants, not my master. I know bad grammar (and good grammar) when I see it. Just don’t ask me to explain English grammar in German.

The German is coming slowly and painfully. The experience is good for me though – it helps me have more empathy toward refugees who have no choices when they are thrust into a new culture and language.

At least I chose to come here, knowing what the culture was like. And unlike the refugees in this area, I can go home again.

At that point, I’ll be able to speak German. I hope.


  1. Thank you – I know that people are already praying for that!

  2. Laurie McLean · · Reply

    Lorne, it might be helpful to our Christian readers if you would just put in a little phrase such as: “Would you please pray for this time of language study in my life.”

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