Parts of Speech: Why Should We Care?

The human body is made up of many different, disgusting parts. The most disgusting things in a baby’s body regularly end up in its diaper. (Yes, Skyler. I’m talking about your diapers.) The most important part of the body is the skeleton. Without the skeleton, we would all just be blobs of goo sliding along like snails. The skeleton is made up of four basic parts: bones, muscles, tendons and ligaments. (Sorry, scientists. I know I’m over-simplifying.) The bones create structure, muscles allow us to move, ligaments hold two bones together and tendons connect bones to muscle.

So what?

There are so many cool similarities between our bodies and language. Verbs are the muscles of language. Verbs give the motion. And the brain is the biggest muscle of all. Ligaments are like conjunctions, connecting clauses with nouns and verbs together. Tendons are like prepositions, connecting a noun phrase to a clause. The fundamental building blocks of language, though, are the nouns. Like the bones of a skeleton, nouns give a sentence its structure.

So why should we care about parts of speech?

The simplest and most important answer is, “For reading.” The quickest way to learn vocabulary is to read. From the day you begin learning a foreign language, you should begin reading. However, too often, students make reading painfully slow by stopping every two or three words to check a dictionary, which is not a good idea. I am pretty much a self-taught Japanese speaker. I never took formal classes and I stopped self-study from textbooks over fifteen years ago. However, my Japanese is pretty good and it has improved over the years. During my studies, I have used a Japanese-English dictionary maybe ten times and I haven’t even looked at one in over twenty years. Sometimes being lazy is a good thing.

So what’s the point?

Sorry. I got excited. To learn a language, you need two things: vocabulary and grammar. Without a large vocabulary, knowing the most beautiful grammatical structures is useless. The best way to learn vocabulary is to learn how to guess the meaning from context. To guess the meaning, the first thing you need to know is the word’s part of speech. Once you understand parts of speech, you can look at any word in any sentence in any book written in the English language and identify its part of speech within a few seconds. (This skill by itself will probably never earn you any money unless you work for a really lame carnival. “Ladies and Gentlemen. The Amazing Grammario will now tell you the part of speech of any word you can think of.”)

So how did this help your Japanese improve?

To be honest, it’s hard to say exactly how this happened. However, I definitely see a parallel between my interest and understanding of English grammar and my Japanese ability. I think my success in Japanese has come from my experience as a teacher. I saw what worked for my students and what didn’t. I saw where my students struggled in English and how I helped them figure out difficult language structures. In other words, I try to practice what I preach. I have learned Japanese they way I hope my students learn English.

So how has knowledge of parts of speech helped you?

Well, it certainly didn’t help me read Japanese better because I’m basically illiterate in Japanese. I can read hiragana and katakana fairly well and I know enough kanji to get around. However, I probably couldn’t read a second-grade textbook. What I can do is isolate important parts of language I hear (nouns and verbs) and ignore the less important ones (adjectives and adverbs). I know which words are more important, which words I need to figure out. Second, when I learn one word, like a noun, I can fairly easily learn the verb, adjective and adverb forms and, more importantly, USE THEM CORRECTLY. I almost never use a noun when I should use a verb; I can use make adverbs from adjectives and use them correctly. I use complete phrases and clauses and don’t forget connecting words. I might not use the correct connecting word, but one is in a place where it’s needed. I don’t have an impressive vocabulary, but I know how to use the vocabulary I have learned.

And this is all I ask of my students. Know the difference between parts of speech and how to use them, make sure your statements are complete and make sure you have connecting words where you need them. Of course there will be mistakes. But the mistakes will be smaller mistakes that people can figure out and still understand what you are trying to say. There will be very few global errors, errors that make understanding very difficult.

If you are still not convinced that this is important, how about this argument? I guarantee that understanding parts of speech will greatly improve scores on the SAT and TOEFL tests.

Now you’re paying attention, aren’t you!

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