More on grammar

The importance of grammar in language learning is often played down in language courses and by people who blog about language learning. They claim that you can learn a language either without actively studying the grammar (whatever they mean by the word), or that you only need to glance at grammar books and explanations now and then. This is partly a reaction against the grammar-translation approach to language teaching in which you concentrate on learning verb conjugations, noun declensions, etc, and on translating from and to the target language.

I think that grammar, i.e. how a language works, and grammatical terminology (if you don’t already know it), can be short cuts to achieving competence in a language. If you spend all you time learning nouns, for example, and don’t know how to put them together with other words to make sentences, then your ability to communicate will be very limited. Grammar provides the framework of a language and vocabulary provides the content. You need to learn both.

The question for me is not whether you need to learn/acquire grammar, but how you do so. Some people are able to read a grammar book, absorb the information and apply it – one friend, for example, spent nine months learning Finnish grammar, then moved to Finland (from Germany) and became fluent in Finnish within a few months. For most people though this is probably wouldn’t work. You can absorb a lot of grammar from extensive listening and reading, with some checking of grammar books, but some overt study can be useful as well.

What is your approach?

This entry was posted in Language, Language learning.

3 Responses to More on grammar

  1. I agree. Many language learning websites claim that you can ‘become bilingual’ or ‘learn a language easily’, etc leading people to believe that you can learn a language like “a child” when in fact there is a difference between ‘language acquisition’ (subconscious) and ‘language learning’ (conscious). Once you have acquired your first language/s, you already have a grammar established in your mother tongue, which causes interferences with the new grammar. The grammar-translation method underlies any language learning process, no matter how sophisticated it looks. If we could learn a language like a child, we would.

  2. michael farris says:

    For whatever reason (cause I’m a linguist?) I can only learn through grammar and would undoubtedly flounder in a course that neglected it.

    By grammar, I mean structure, so I learn languages best in terms of conscious knowledge of structure.

    A colleague of mine attended a seminar on very multilingual people (people who deal with three or more languages on a daily basis) and as it turns out they all go about learning a new language the same way (apart or in addition to some kind of programmed course)

    1 Read some kind of descriptive grammar (teaching or reference) through as quickly as possible to get an overall view

    2 Go back and look at individual parts in greater detail (as need and/or interest indicate).

    That’s what I do too.

  3. Shimmin Beg says:

    I tend to find studying chunks is most helpful. So I’ll start off learning common phrases, then when I want to learn a new bit of vocabulary or a new feature (conditionals, say), I’ll look for authentic phrases that use them. I find it easier generally to learn a sentence than isolated vocab, plus that gives you some grammatical context, which is crucial for things like inflection, mutation, particles or other modification. Learning sentences from a known context also helps you pick up on nuances of usage, like whether certain structures tend to give a negative tone. For me, reading grammar is generally a reminder or a preliminary to understand what I’m looking for.

    For languages with roman script, I read regularly to help reinforce the use of structures in context. Sadly in non-roman languages my reading’s far too slow to casually read things and gain much from it, because all the effort ends up going into looking up characters and so on. I also find podcasts helpful, because they give more indication of tone than reading can (picking up tone in written L2 is hard!) and you’ll often hear similar structures come up repeatedly because the hosts like to use them.

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