I understand that many students ask this question simply because in their own experience they have always been presented with two main scenarios, and nothing in between. They want to know where they are going to be standing as regards to their learning.
Which are those two scenarios? Well, in one extreme we have those language courses that teach grammar almost exclusively, as if preparing the students to be grammarians of the second language rather than users. In the other extreme we have those “communicative” courses in which the only thing that is done is to talk about something or to read an article and comment on it. In many cases, what is seen in one class has no resemblance to what is done in the next.
In my experience, both scenarios may seem good for very specific purposes but I personally feel both are inappropriate for most language learners. For starters, by itself, a good command of the grammar of a language does not imply that the person is able to communicate effectively, as we usually see with students who have only been exposed to an all-grammar-oriented approach sometimes for many years. Many could recite the grammar by heart but if asked to express basic information, they would hesitate too much and browse through all the grammar rules in their heads before making an utterance, or simply dry up.
Secondly, just talking in class without anything else done in order to learn from the actual conversation is not good enough either. It may be helpful of course, but up to a certain point. This approach may be more useful for very advanced students who just need to brush up their second language, but for those in need of building up the foundations of a new language, it is certainly too vague and flux, without any consistency.
So then, when asked: "is grammar really important for a second language learner?" I always say "yes", but, the real question, or issue here is not whether grammar is important or not but rather how we should present grammar to our students. You may be surprised to hear that most of my own students, even advanced ones, have very little awareness of grammar jargon and terminology, in spite of the fact that they can make a pretty good use of the second language. "How is that possible?" you may ask. First and foremost, teachers need to know precisely what they are trying to prepare their students for. I do know that what I want is to "create" users of a new language.
I want to prepare people to actually engage in communicative situations using appropriate language and patterns. I am definitely not interested in their explaining to me or making a mental list of all the grammar uses that a certain pattern has.
For example, think of your own native language. Name all the tenses that you can find in your own native tongue with their corresponding uses and structures. Unless you are a teacher, a translator or someone who needs to have a very good grasp of this meta-language, more likely than not you may feel at a loss to answer that question. And that does NOT mean in any sense that you are not a terrific user of that language. After all, you can understand and express whatever you want with ease. What is more, by being able to do so, you show an awesome command of the internal grammar of the language. If you knew no grammar patterns you would not be able to make a single sentence but you can. This means that although you...