How Grammar Can Save Your Life

How Grammar Can Save Your Life

I’m not a Latin teacher; I’m a doctor. I didn’t learn Latin growing up, other than maybe the conjugation of amo, but I’m learning it now as I teach my children. I have heard many times about the benefits of Latin—not only how it helps to build vocabulary knowledge, but how it helps you to better understand and master English grammar.

Grammar is indeed important. We are linguistic creatures. There is something about the structure of language that reflects things that go very deep into our souls. As a doctor working with PTSD patients, I have seen this again and again.

One morning in 2015, I was seeing a patient suffering from PTSD at Eisenhower Army Medical Center in the Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Clinic in Augusta, Georgia, where I was a physician. I had not planned to teach a grammar lesson that day, and yet I found myself reviewing basic categories of verbs with a patient.

I asked her, “Are you safe?,” which is an existential “I am” question.

She answered using an entirely different kind of verb: “No, I don’t feel safe,” which is an attributive “I feel” statement.

So, having repeated her answer, I asked my question again: “I know you don’t feel (attributive) safe, but are you safe (existential/identity)?” And then a wonderful thing happened. She paused, looked around, and started to implicitly distinguish between existential verbs of being/identity (“I am”) and attributive verbs of internal experience/physiology (“I feel”).

“That’s weird,” she said. “I don’t feel safe (inwardly in my body), but I am safe (outwardly in time and space).”

I had received prior training and experience with vagal tone and primitive brain stem reflexes, so I asked her to do something very simple. I told her, “I want you to verbalize that out loud—’I am safe’—and then feel the air moving in and out of your nose slowly, while you move your tongue around the roof of your mouth and gumlines until you swallow, sigh, or yawn, just like a baby does when nursing.”

My training taught me that the movements and primitive reflexes associated with nursing when we are infants are strong signals of safety and help the body with internalization. In that moment I was asking her to affirm and then focus on and internalize a very significant and (for her) relevant truth: her safety. Over the years, I’ve learned that this step is extremely important because it is not just the truth heard that changes people, but the truth that is heard, received, internalized, and acted upon.

Sure enough, about thirty seconds after verbalizing that she was safe, she swallowed, looked up, and asked, “Why am I feeling safe now?” which is both an attributive and existential question.

I said, “You feel safe because you just noticed that you are safe.” She had become aware, not just of her feelings, but of the reality of her circumstances, largely by focusing on it with the aid of a few simple grammatical concepts.

At that point in my career, I had been exposed to a variety of neuromodulation techniques, such as adjusting inputs to the brain through muscle signals, joint position, and breathing patterns among other things, but this was my first foray into grammatical modulation of our sense of reality.

Through that and countless other experiences over the years, I now know that the inability to distinguish between basic categories of verbs, tenses, and other linguistic modifiers can cause significant physical and emotional problems (in this case, anxiety), and that an ability to do so can actually promote health.

The inability to make these important verbal distinctions can be virtually invisible to an individual until it is brought to his or her awareness. I have learned that these kinds of issues can develop due to the neglect of formal instruction in school or a lack of healthy daily conversation that provides informal instruction. They can also develop because of injuries, such as traumas, which disrupt sensory and verbal integration.

In fact, the more severe the trauma physically or spiritually, the greater effect it produces on speech centers (Broca’s area), sense of time (prefrontal cortex), visual processing (Brodmann’s area), sensory integration (through the hippocampus and thalamus), and executive/organizational/planning function (in the prefrontal cortex and left hemisphere).

We often hear people say they are “left speechless,” “dumbfounded,” or “without words to express” things they have seen or experienced. This is not just a euphemism; it is a literal truth. When language deserts us, we are left without the means to properly integrate experiences in our minds. And without the order that grammar brings, we can misappropriate and misinterpret our experiences to our own detriment. Disorganization within language structures can be trained, organized, healed, and built up through grammar.

Grammar doesn’t just order language, it orders the mind—and an ordered mind is a healthy one.

I am now retired from the military and pursuing a career in developing hybrid linguistic and neurologic tools for others.

I am also a parent who, with my wife, is homeschooling our children. I often sit around our kitchen table with the older of our seven children, Simeon (10), Ransom (9), and Sava (7). We are now working through our first year of Latin together.

In one recent lesson, I asked, “What are two reasons you would conjugate a verb in a sentence?”

One of them answered, “To explain who or what is doing it, or when it happened.”

And that’s when I came to a realization about what I do as a doctor working with PTSD patients. I have discovered, in grammar, an important and effective tool: I conjugate experiences for a living.

David Lindemann trained at the University of Kentucky and Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation (PM&R). He retired from the military in 2017 to pursue his current work assisting clients healing from chronic health issues related to trauma. He and his wife, Jenn, live in Kentucky and have seven children.

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