Studying grammar has never been a favorite task of mine when it comes to language learning. Hundreds of hours spent in an Irish classroom having grammar rules drilled into me (with little tangible results) completely killed my enthusiasm for this part of language learning.
Yet studying a new language’s grammar to an encyclopedic level is traditionally viewed as essential in the school system. Is there any merit to this approach?
Or is there really any need to focus on grammar at all? Can you safely ignore grammar entirely and still reach fluency?
So what exactly is grammar?
The Wikipedia entry for the term ‘grammar’ reads:
In linguistics, grammar is the set of structural rules governing the composition of clauses, phrases, and words in any given natural language. The term refers also to the study of such rules, and this field includes morphology, syntax, and phonology, often complemented by phonetics, semantics, and pragmatics.
Already the definition makes for a technical and heavy read. :D
Moreover, the entry goes on to cite the following:
These rules constitute grammar, and the vast majority of the information in the grammar is—at least in the case of one’s native language—acquired not by conscious study or instruction, but by observing other speakers.
And therein lies my hypothesis, as native speakers do not (normally) actively study grammar in order to learn it, could we as language learners not mimic this native learner process and learn grammar more passively through our interactions with native speakers?
Me interacting at a German language meetup (“Stammtisch”) in Odessa, Ukraine
Kommunikation Über Alles
As my language learning philosophy has evolved over the last decade, I’ve being placing more and more emphasis on communication over rote memorization (of grammar rules and vocabulary).
That doesn’t mean that I completely ignore grammatical rules entirely:
- I always start a new language by researching its general structures and looking for shortcuts (or ‘hacks’) that will bring me the biggest benefits in the beginning, like for example, how is the new language related to languages that I already speak so that I can understand the grammatical similarities.
- Next I focus on communicating or ‘getting the ball over the net’ as Michel Thomas used to say in his courses and pay attention for the implicit or explicit feedback from native speakers.
- Then I read and absorb plenty of (interesting) media and entertainment in the target language so that I become familiar with the patterns in the new language.
- Importantly, whenever I realize that there is a trend emerging that I don’t understand or am unsure of then I google what I think is going on to look for a simple and immediately understandable explanation.
This way I marry the passive absorption of grammar from interaction with native speakers with the curiosity and active research of an enthusiastic language learner. :)
This makes for an effective and enjoyable method of learning the grammar.
Communication with native speakers is vital for me so that I can analyze the grammatical structures inherent in the language
While I don’t believe that you can really reach ‘mastery’ of a language by completely ignoring the grammar (even native speakers have some schooling in the most complicated elements), I do think that you can reach functional ‘fluency’ in a new language without emphasizing grammar too strongly.
So while I don’t advocate ignoring grammar altogether (that would make it really difficult to reach mastery of a language), I have found that being ‘grammar-lite’, especially at the beginning, with a new language has brought better results for me personally.
I didn’t find that the rote memorization of grammar rules and tables was an effective method of learning for me and moreover, it bored the life from me.
This worked even for languages that are not so closely related to English, like Russian, which I have learned primarily from traveling through the ex-USSR and conversing with the local people in Russian.
Do you love or hate studying grammar? Write me your opinions in the comments section below the article!
Michael has been an avid language learner and traveler for many years. His goal with LanguageTsar is to discover the most fun and effective ways to learn a language. He is currently learning Japanese, French and Indonesian.