Syntax is in Order!

Mastering word order in a new language is key to fluency.

What is syntax?

Syntax is the technical name for the way we arrange words and phrases optimally in order to construct more concise, clearer sentences. Syntax includes simple but crucial subject verb agreements. English is a language that has a structure known as SVO or subject, verb and object.  The man (subject) eats (verb) his breakfast (object).  This is the correct word order and also there is agreement between the subject and verb.

Is syntax worth learning?

Paying attention to syntax really is worth the effort because doing so will greatly improve your language skills. An understanding of how a language is structured allows to "decode" its patterns. It is patterns that allow effective communication. Mastering patterns of morphology (word forms) and syntax allows you to not just create sentences but express ideas with more precision.

Machine learning of human languages depends completely on pattern recognition. We can take the methods by which machines learn and reverse-engineer them to help ourselves learn languages foreign to us.

Should beginners or younger learners be taught syntax?

Syntax seems more technical (read: boring) than what younger learners or beginners of any age would be interested in learning. However, it's very important that all learners recognize word order and morphological patterns in order to have all the tools they will need. As language learners of any age progress, it becomes more difficult, not easier, to correct bad syntactical habits. When structure is introduced early on in the learning process, it will be applied to natural expression sooner.

Many begin learning a new language by memorizing words and phrases. Instruction is responsible for teaching meanings and rules of usage. Ideal instruction includes guidance for how to alter sentences to fit different situations. Knowing how to spell a word and what it means isn't the same as being able to use it to make sentences.

Teaching Syntax

Incorporating syntax study into language study will ultimately make any language more enjoyable to use. Syntax can be examined after learners acquire an understanding of how to replace single elements in correct sentences with correct alternatives.

If the sentence in an ESL textbook is “I have a blue bicycle,” beginners can alter it by changing the adjective (blue) and object (bicycle) for other words that fit. A somewhat more complex skillset consists of being able to replace any of the rest, namely the subject (I), verb (have) and/or the article (a) and make them agree in the new sentence.

The next skill level speaks to the ability to create one's own sentences and involves being able to put individual words in the appropriate order to convey a specific meaning. This can be taught and reinforced through challenging games that work very much like puzzles. Participants can work alone or in teams and write out their answers or simply offer them audibly. In all scenarios, to reinforce the learning of the correct structure, learners should write out and say aloud the final, correct sentences.

Start Off Easy

To build learner confidence, the easiest syntax exercise is led by the instructors writing a complete sentence in which only one word needs to be moved by learners to make it correct. This is followed by sentences of increasing complexity with more than one word or, sometimes, no words needing relocation. Learners must decide whether or how to rearrange the words presented.

Step It Up

A more challenging exercise would be for instructors to give teams the words of complete sentences of increasing complexity, perhaps on shuffled cards, to put in the most correct order. The most rigorous version of this would require adding to the shuffle one or more extra words which will not work in any complete sentence with the majority of the other words. The longest correct sentence from the selection of words given would be the winning attempt.

Final Thought: Learning syntax doesn't have to be taxing. A mastery of word order makes language learning more fun and mastering it catapults learners to fluency.


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