Due to different teaching methods being fashionable over the past decades, many people learned their mother tongue organically. By using it. They did not learn syntax – the technical rules that hold that language together and build it into sentences. Grammar was barely touched upon. This then makes things very difficult if they have problems of any kind with their mother tongue. It is tricky rectifying a symptom without getting to grips with any underlying problem caused by faulty grammar.
It also makes it extremely difficult to learn another language. If you don’t know what an adverb is in your own language, you cannot learn it in another. You then need to learn it in your own language before you can apply the rules to another language.
I tend to find that older Swedish people to whom I teach English are brilliant at grammar. They have no problems at all conjugating irregular verbs. And they are very good at spelling. But they are less confident at speaking because in the classroom they concentrated on grammar rather than speaking.
Younger ones on the other hand are very shaky on grammar (unless they have studied other languages in depth or have Swedish as a third or fourth language) but way more confident and fluent at speaking because they get it from television, movies and the internet. Though the level of their writing and spelling is dramatically lower than their speaking – because they do it so seldom. They tend to write the way they speak which is no problem in text messages, online chat or informal emails. Work emails and formal letters, which is what they need, are very difficult for them.
One thing that has helped me more than any other is learning Latin. I studied Latin for six years and it helped me with vocabulary, spelling, conjugation and syntax. It also taught me how to translate difficult texts in a very technical way. In addition I became bilingual as a very small child (English and Afrikaan) before I even went to school, where I studied a further two languages – Xhosa and Latin. I am sure that this, far more than my aptitude for languages, helped me learn three further languages almost painlessly.