Timothy Doner, Jerry Dai And The Issue Of Grammar

Timothy Doner

How much time if any do you spend studying the grammar of your target language?

You’ve probably read or heard about Timothy Doner, the 16 year old YouTube celebrity who produced a series of online videos of himself speaking various languages (including lesser-known Central Asian, Middle Eastern and minority languages), reported on recently by the BBC, NY Times, MSNBC and the Sydney Morning Herald.

Here’s a quote from Tim when asked about his method for language learning:

“I tend to begin with an in-depth study of the grammar and the structure of the language.”
- Timothy Doner

Hold that thought.

I also want to share another quote with you from Jerry Dai, another YouTube personality who migrated to Canada from China in his early twenties, who is alleged to have had little or no knowledge of English when he arrived in the country but after two years was almost indistinguishable from a native English speaker:

“Do you know what the biggest joke in language learning is… grammar.”
- Jerry Dai

Two completely contradictory approaches by two seemingly successful language learners.

Now despite being the cynical bastard that I am, I’m not going to discuss Timothy Doner’s claim to speak 23 languages (many of which he claims to have learned in a few weeks) or even that of Jerry Dai’s (having no prior knowledge of English before entering Canada).

The issue that I do want to raise here however is whether or not a grammar first approach is actually advisable (or a grammar-at-all approach for that matter) considering the effectiveness of the approach used by Jerry Dai which I’m strongly in favor of.


Jerry Dai’s Language Learning Approach

Here’s a video where he explains his approach using Mandarin Chinese as an example:

In case you can’t view this video, his approach entails forgetting about grammar and listening to and repeating the same chunks of language (sentences) thousands of times as set patterns that you can use in a multitude of other contexts. For grammatical aspects that are difficult or impossible to explain, Dai’s advice is simple: forget about why. Just accept it and move on.

Dai’s method is also (I believe) along the same lines as the “Sentence Method” used by Mike of Glossika Language Training.


Some more examples of how Jerry Dai’s approach works

I’ll give you some more examples in French and Irish:

Let’s say we take an audio sample of the sentence Je suis dans une banque (I am in a bank).

We listen to that sentence many times (Jerry says 4000-5000 which I think is a way more than necessary) until the sentence is totally familiar, permanently placed in our long term memories and instantly retrievable. After this amount of listening if we’re ever standing in a bank this sentence should come to mind effortlessly.

According to this method, we haven’t just learned one sentence by learning this but rather many sentences by learning a set pattern (or chunk) where we can then substitute parts as we acquire more vocabulary. For example:

  • Je suis dans une école.
  • Je suis dans la voiture.
  • Je suis en face de la maison.

Although this is a simple example, you can see how initially you might be able to form new sentences by making basic substitutions but over time as you learn more chunks/sentences you gain more flexibility with the language and can make more complex changes.

It’s not just the content you’re listening to either, it’s the intonation and the way it’s being said by native speakers.


Two sample recordings

I created two audio samples using Irish to show you what I mean by this. In the first one, I’ve taken a snippet from the Teach Yourself series where the native speaker says Tá ocras ort, is dócha (You’re probably hungry).

I’ve listened to it dozens of times and recorded myself saying it exactly the same way she does and I’ve then substituted ocras (hunger) for brón (sorry/sadness) and tuirse (fatigue/tiredness) so you can see what I mean:


In the second sample that I recorded, I’ve used the same audio sample I used for my Earworms experiment a few weeks ago, listened to it repeatedly and recorded myself saying it exactly the same way that the native speaker is saying it.

With a little bit more practice I could probably pass as a native speaker of Irish with this one audio clip. This is why this method is so damn effective:

You don’t need to go near the grammar because you’re learning correct set patterns/chunks that are spoken by native speakers and simply substituting elements as you learn more vocabulary and other chunks/sentences.

The problem with a grammar-first approach is that you end up thinking in your native language and translating into your target language, piecing together the grammar and vocabulary which is unnatural and a slow way to communicate. This is where L1 (first language) interference becomes a major problem for learners.

For my Irish endeavor I avoided studying the grammar and focused almost solely on an approach similar to Jerry Dai’s, and I’ve been really impressed by how effective it’s been for me.

I’d be curious to hear from Timothy or anybody else favoring a grammar-first approach on how it affects their ability to use their target language conversationally. I’ve taken that approach for academic languages that I don’t speak, but don’t see it being very helpful for natural conversation.

What are your thoughts on this? Comment below.


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Learning When You Don’t Have The Energy For It

Happy Easter all.

Well, I’ve finally returned to civilization.

It’s been an utterly exhausting week relocating from the Hinterland mountain area of SE Queensland down to the coast and I’m struggling to write this having used up all my energy moving. I should be settling here now until mid-year when I pack up and jet off to East Asia (Korea or Japan likely) for work and to start learning the local language which I’m really looking forward to.

I purchased a book on Japanese kanji recently so I might start to learn a few each week for shits and giggles until I know exactly what my plans are. Even if I end up heading to Korea it’ll still be interesting to learn to read some Japanese in the interim.

I’m now living on the same street as a huge mosque which means plenty of Arabic practice and I’m only 5 minutes away from a French learners meet-up group that I’ll be meeting up with each week (thanks to Meetup.com). New locations bring new opportunities to meet new people!


Exhausted? Don’t force yourself to learn but try to have ‘active rest periods’

Nothing overly profound this week. Just a very straightforward piece of advice (totally relevant to how I’m currently feeling).

Having to deal with lack of sleep and physical exhaustion while learning isn’t an easy task. There are times when it’s actually beneficial for you to put learning on hold so you can rest but it’s important for you to have active rest periods as well.

Just like physical exercise, a day off doesn’t necessarily mean you sit on your arse and do nothing. Do something relaxing but also active.

With language learning this means a day off should entail some kind of fun or leisurely exposure to the language, whether it’s target language music, watching a movie or even just using target language that you already know. Talk to yourself or a native speaker using language that’s easy for you – you’re active but you’re not trying to force yourself to learn anything.

One thing I like to do when I feel like this is go back to earlier sections of a language course book – stuff that I find easy – and just read over it. Most of it is already known, but occasionally I’ll encounter a word or point here and there at that level that I missed.

Another excellent way I’ve recently discovered to have active rest periods is to listen to Earworms MBT (which I wrote about here). I’ve spent this week just listening again to these French music tracks from Earworms and not trying to learn anything. I just listen to it for enjoyment and find that I soak up more of the language in the process.

Active rest periods mean a higher chance of incidental language acquisition so when you feel like crap and can’t muster the strength to study, do something entirely fun and effortless in the language and you’ll find that learning occurs anyway.


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