Ask Chris: Why do adult Chinese learners of English need to learn about ‘attribute’, ‘adjunct’, ‘complement’ and so on so forth? Even if we don’t know the names of these grammatical structures, we are still able to learn English well, right? I do know that these structures also exist in Standard Chinese, but we don’t need to know them in order to speak Chinese well. So what will happen if we ignore the names of these grammatical structures when we learn English?

(Note by Chris: If you are a native English speaker, you may have similar feelings when learning other languages, and please feel free to change the description to ‘adult British learner of French, German, Latin’, etc.)


Chris answers: Of course we can ignore the names of these grammatical structures – I myself might be a good example. I had no idea about the differences between the so-called ‘attribute’ and ‘complement’ and other structures before Grade 9 (the last year of junior secondary school), and I almost skipped all the relevant contents in my English class, but after ten years I can use English as my working language, well, including the seven years I spent in some English-speaking universities. But my case is relatively rare; most of my classmates at that time learned the definitions well and speak English well, and we can see that learning these bits of terminology could benefit the process of English learning (especially in the classroom setting in China) to some extent. So how can we explain this?

You might well have heard about Noam Chomsky. One important contribution to modern linguistics by Chomsky is his proposal of Principles and Parameters, although it is a bit old-fashioned now. To make it brief, the structures of different languages are all built up by different principles and parameters, while ‘principles’ refer to the structures that are commonly shared among (almost) all languages (for example, Binding Principle A explains why ‘David believes Mike likes himself’ only means ‘David believes Mike likes Mike’), and ‘parameters’ refer to the features possessed by only one or more languages (for example, null-subject parameter explains why an English sentence has to have a pronounced subject while an Italian sentence does not). If you are interested in Principles and Parameters, this Wikipedia page is suitable for a beginner. Now, it has to be said, that the differences and similarities between learning a first language as a child and a second language as an adult is hotly disputed, and there is no full consensus on either. For the sake of this post, please allow me to ignore the intricacies of this debate and focus on a more Chomskyan view.

So what do we learn if we learn the grammar of a language? Based on the assumption of Principles and Parameters, we familiarise ourselves with the general principles and the parameters of a language in the process of learning it. In case that is a second language (L2), we do not need to review the general principles anymore, so the workload is mainly familiarisation with parameters. We can also split the process into three categories: (1) preserve the parameters shared between L1 and L2; (2) activate the parameters that only appear in L2; and (3) suppress the parameters that only appear in L1. A number of theories of second language acquisition, which take Universal Grammar as their theoretical foundation, such as Failed Functional Features Hypothesis by Roger Hawkins, indicate that these processes are exactly what we do when we learn the grammar of a language.

When we acquire our first language(s), the process of acquiring principles and parameters feels rather natural. Thanks to our (innate) language ability, we could deduce the parameters by simply paying attention to the linguistic material we receive, even if the linguistic material can’t cover every single bit of the grammar of that language, and then we can develop a sense of ‘native instinct’ to judge whether a sentence is grammatical. With this sense of ‘native instinct’, we are qualified as native speakers of that language, and we can produce grammatical sentence without considering those bits of terminology about grammatical structure, unless we are taught such knowledge at school. However, if we start learning a second language when we enter formal education, it seems we can’t develop the ‘native instinct’ for a language any more.

Since we lose the ability to learn parameters apparently as ‘effortlessly’ as we did in infancy, we must rely on more conscious inferences in the process of language acquisition. Let’s stick to the case of adult Chinese learners of English in the question, and here we have two possibilities. The first one is more like ‘acquisition’: we are in the English-speaking environment, and we organise the received linguistic materials and infer the grammar pattern by ourselves. In such an environment, even if we don’t learn the grammar systematically, we could acquire the parameters on our own. We will not access the terminology of grammatical structures like ‘attribute’ or ‘adjunct’ and thus have no idea about the formal structures of English, while at the same time we can acquire English well – just like my experience in the past years. The immersion programmes proposed by Quebec authorities, and the EMI schools (English-medium instruction) in Hong Kong are all good examples of ‘acquiring language without teaching grammatical terminology’. Clearly, this method is a kind of incomplete induction (while the acquisition of first language is a kind of complete induction), and we know ‘we can say in this way’ only after we have seen in this way, so that method requires us to experience sufficient examples, which is more possible when we are in the environment where the language is used extensively.

The second possibility is by deduction; that is, we first know the rules of the grammar, and then fill the words and phrases into the rules. What we can make use of is not the language materials for us to work out the parameters, but the parameters themselves. We understand that if the use of these parameters is grammatical, then sentences organised according to these parameters should be grammatical as well. The most prominent case of this second possibility is classroom learning, including translation training, grammar teaching and other methods you may have experienced at school. As we are dealing with the rules of language, we need to know every element of the grammar system, like ‘noun’, ‘verb’, ‘adjunct’ and ‘complement’ – or otherwise how can the teacher explain the complete grammatical structure to you? The introduction of terminology is a common part of grammar, or ‘parameter’, instruction, and it could benefit the process of explanation as well as memorisation. Since English does not hold any official status in China, and most students only learn the language in the school system, we cannot expect that we could acquire a language by simply receiving enough linguistic materials. Grammar instruction is therefore needed for Chinese students who only take English exams, and the situation is the same for other members of ‘the Expanding Circle’ defined by Braj Kachru which does not have close connection with major English speaking countries.

So the story becomes much easier now. Definitely, you can learn English without attending to the concepts of ‘attribute’, ‘adjunct’ and ‘complement’. You can try the first possibility I mentioned above: to work or study in an English-speaking environment for a while, or create an English-speaking environment around you while you are still in China. The former choice is more costly and sometimes requires you to hold some English qualifications, while the latter one is more time-consuming, especially if you are a full-time student or employed in a Chinese-speaking institute.

But there is another possibility, which is developed from the second possibility above and attempted by myself: you can give up the complicated definitions of those terminologies, and directly learn the parameters of English, in the framework of generative syntax. For example, since English is a wh-moving language, when I form a subordinate clause, I should move the wh-word to the position of CP-SPEC and create a formula in the following way:

I went to the building + They were holding the seminar [in the building] -> I went to the building they were holding the seminar [where] -> I went to the building where they were holding the seminar.

In a similar fashion, when you talk about ‘third-person singular’, I say ‘subject-verb agreement’; when you talk about ‘negation inversion’, I say ‘verb second word order from Germanic languages’; when you talk about ‘object complement’, I say ‘complex predicate’. So you can totally avoid the definitions of the grammatical structures, but at the same time you may need some knowledge of Principles and Parameters theory, which might be a bit more complicated but definitely useful.

While we recognise that the instruction of grammar is easy to implement and highly efficient for classroom settings, we should also admit that we can only learn a limited number of rules of language like this. The limit of time, the limit of teachers’ knowledge, as well as the limit of the scope of examination, lead us to learn only a subset of the so-called ‘standard grammar’, while at the same time may also lead to a prescriptive belief of language: only those rules in the textbook are correct, and others are all wrong. If we strictly follow the instruction of grammar, we are not able to learn some structures that are accepted by the native speakers but absent in the text book, like ‘to boldly split infinitives that no man had split before’. So there’s a trade-off between efficiency and actual language proficiency. Maybe now you can decide which road to take by yourself, and, good luck!


Further reading (if you like):

Neeleman, Ad, and Fred Weerman. “L1 and L2 word order acquisition.” Language Acquisition 6.2 (1997): 125-170.