Many people dread studying grammar as they learn a new language. In fact, a lot of people dread studying the grammar of their native language!
If you’re one of these people, I have good news for you: it’s not crucial. In fact, it can slow you down or even take you off course. I’ve seen many a student hit the grammar wall and quit a language that had been giving them pleasure. Don’t let that happen to you.
Here’s the truth: You don’t need to study grammar to learn to speak a foreign language.
Grammar is commonly thought to entail learning the names of parts of speech, learning to describe grammatical constructions, and learning how to correct errors. However, these are all methods of deliberate learning, and the majority of grammar learning must involve using the language.
Grammar is just a fancy word to describe the rules that govern a language. While this may be the simplest definition, it’s not completely accurate.
The reality is that grammar is a set of observations academics write down when documenting a language. Those patterns are generated by native speakers of the language – whose minds, like all human minds, rarely follow set patterns.
Resistance to Nature’s Way
Some teachers don’t believe anyone can learn a language without studying grammar first. Many people are unwilling to accept this and fight vehemently against it.
Reality disagrees. Education departments across the world all focus on grammar instruction, but students still fail to learn to speak languages fluently.
In many cases, the very reason so many students struggle to speak languages at the most basic levels is because they believe that learning grammar is the foundation to speaking a language proficiently.
Grammar study isn’t how you learned your native language.
While native speakers of a language typically converse according to grammatical rules, few of them are consciously aware of the rules they are using. And sometimes the rules don’t even matter because there are so many exceptions.
French is an excellent example. With each rule you learn in French, it’s necessary to learn the rule’s many exceptions. This means you can’t just think about the rules when you’re speaking a new language, because you also have to wonder if there’s an exception.
Imagine that you’re considering the rules and exceptions while having a discussion with a friend. By the time you consider all the ways you can construct a sentence, your companion will be in the middle of playing his third or fourth game on his cell phone.
The fact is, you didn’t learn to speak your native language by studying grammar. You weren’t taught grammar until you went to school, and by then, you were already speaking your native language like a pro.
You didn’t know what a verb was or how to conjugate it, but you knew verbs, and you could conjugate them just the same. As a matter of fact, you began to speak complete, grammatically correct sentences by the time you were about two or three years old.
How Children Learn Language
Many parents have observed language acquisition firsthand. First, their children begin to babble incoherently.
Second, they begin to say just one word, often repeating a word that’s been said to them. Then they create short sentences of two or three words. Next, they construct complex but grammatically incorrect sentences. Lastly, they develop the ability to speak in correct sentences.
The process described above occurs even though the child has never read a book on grammar. It happens because she is listening to the native speakers around her.
She also has help from the adults who correct her language when she makes mistakes – and children make a lot of mistakes when they’re learning language.
Here’s an example:
The child says, “Gimme dat one.”
The parent responds, “Do you want that one?”
The child says, “Yeah, dat one.”
Children learn languages by listening to the sound patterns they hear throughout the day and then repeating them. It starts with one word, naming objects around them, and moves on to short, simple sentences.
As they grow, children repeat the words they hear, and they repeat how they sound to them. They eventually perfect the pronunciation of speech after they have heard the words countless times.
It’s useful to observe how children learn their first languages so we can imitate the process they use. After all, they seem to learn language without any difficulties at all. If children can learn language in the fashion described above, why can’t adults?
I must acknowledge the fact that learning a second language can be quite different from learning a first language; some people believe the two shouldn’t be compared.
It can be harder for an adult to learn a second language because their native language may interfere with the ability to learn the second, but adults also enjoy a number of advantages.
For instance, an adult already knows how to study, and this helps during language instruction. We’ve talked before about the differences between learning and studying a language, so you know I’m not a huge fan of the latter.
But there’s a place for studying in every adult’s language learning activities. That said, learning grammar rules first isn’t a good approach.
How Is Grammar Learned?
Grammar can be learned through listening and reading. When we encounter grammatical constructions repeatedly in our reading and listening, we learn them without having to pay much, if any, deliberate attention to them.
This is due in part to the fact that much grammar learning occurs through learning phrases; that is, we learn which words go with which other words. The more we read and listen, the more opportunities we have to improve our receptive grammatical knowledge.
Grammar can also be learned through speaking and writing. We notice gaps in our knowledge when we speak and write, which increases the likelihood that we’ll pay attention to these gaps when listening or reading.
That is, having to speak and write increases the likelihood of learning through listening and reading. We can also learn grammar by taking risks when speaking and writing.
That is, we test out unfamiliar phrases and constructions to see if they work. These attempts frequently make use of patterns from our first language. As a result, while it may lead to errors, it is an important method of learning.
Grammar can be learned deliberately by studying it and memorizing useful phrases and sentences. However, deliberate grammar study should account for far less than one-quarter of language learning time.
Using substitution tables if they are available, receiving feedback on spoken and written production (correcting errors), doing dictation activities, and having small amounts of clear, simple explanations of important grammatical features are all useful grammar study activities.
We can learn grammar incidentally through fluency development, just as we can learn grammar through meaning-focused input and output. Fluency development entails working with simple, familiar material while being encouraged to go faster.
Fluency development activities can provide a lot of input and output, and because of that, they can add to and strengthen grammatical knowledge both receptively and productively.
Learn Grammar by Listening First
Learning a language is like learning any other skill: you combine practice and study.
Let’s take learning to play a musical instrument as an example. If you were to learn to play an instrument like educators teach children grammar rules, you would study music theory without ever touching your instrument. But that would make no sense.
You can only improve a skill through practice, so when it comes to learning a musical instrument, theory, and hands-on application go hand-in-hand.
Sadly, this is rarely the case when it comes to language learning in most academic classroom settings. Students are often taught formal grammar before they have dug into the basic expressions necessary to engage in a language and benefit from native speakers.
Language instruction can be done differently, and it requires us to apply a new technique. It will be important for you to notice the grammatical expressions and the specific ways native speakers speak.
Then it will be your turn to take those expressions and incorporate them into your own use of the language and in your writing.
Many people do this naturally and instinctively, yet so few formal language programs nurture or promote this approach. This is why so many language learners fail to become fluent in a new language.
Grammar has a limited role in language instruction. Grammar instruction often involves successfully completing lessons, but this doesn’t necessarily mean the student can speak or write the language correctly and coherently.
You’ll be able to speak and write a language with proficiency if you practice imitating the words and expressions you hear from native speakers. The study of grammar isn’t necessary to make this happen.
Grammar only clarifies the rules you are learning by listening.
Phrasebooks are extremely useful tools for someone learning a new language. These books contain examples of dialogue real people have said, and they’re a great investment.
Any resource that gives the reader or the listener examples of spoken language is much better for learning than a book focusing on grammar.
When I’m learning a language, I don’t worry much about grammar.
I listen to how native speakers form their sentences and try to say my sentences in the same way. If you spend your time focusing on one sentence at a time, you’ll learn the grammar (and new vocabulary words) in a much more natural and enjoyable manner.