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You Don’t Need To Study Grammar To Learn A Foreign Language

Grammar Language Learning

If there’s one piece of advice you take away from this site, let it be this:

You don’t need to study grammar to learn to speak a foreign language.

It’s a fact that flies in the face of a whole world of failed classroom methodologies for foreign language instruction and misconceptions among learners about the way in which we acquire language.

I’ve seen this topic cause arguments with people who are adamant that grammar study is necessary and I’ve had fellow co-teachers argue with me when I’ve approached the subject as if the idea of learning a language without grammar study is ludicrous.

Well, before you start chucking a tanny (Australian for tantrum), read on and hear me out for a moment.

 

Education departments’ grammar focus consistently results in a failure to produce proficient speakers

One of the main reasons why so many education systems around the world are failing to produce students who can speak a foreign language properly (even at an elementary level) is their strong emphasis on learning grammar as a foundation to speaking.

When I posted my 6 month progress video for Gaeilge (which in my opinion wasn’t anything extraordinary) I received lots of comments and messages like this:

I just want to say you just completely blew me away. Your accent, fluidity and confidence speaking the language completely outdoes 99% of any student whose been learning the language for at least twelve years, and that’s seriously no exaggeration. Speaks wonders for the power of a what someone can do with the internet and a little motivation, and also for just how broken our system of teaching is.

As you can see my level at the 6 month mark is nothing incredible but it’s enough for people who spent 12 years learning in school and graduated as non-speakers to reflect on the way they were taught:

Up until this point, I’ve never studied grammar for this language. No verb tables, conjugations or syntax. Nor have I memorized vocabulary lists.

My intention is to take an exam around the middle of next year at Teastas Eorpach na Gaeilge to get my level certified according to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) which I’m hoping, if I continue at the pace I’m at now, will be quite high by then.

When you see students who have been learning a language for years yet still can’t communicate with that language it’s safe to say that there’s something seriously wrong with the approach they and their instructors have taken (motivation must also be taken into consideration too of course).

I’ve encountered students in schools around the world who can read brilliantly and know English grammar better than I do yet they can barely produce basic greetings or understand a simple spoken introduction. Some of these classes are reading advanced level English texts, yet when a native speaking teacher like myself asks a simple “how are you?” they can’t respond.

They’ve got nothing by way of conversational fluency to show for years of wasteful memorization of grammar rules.

 

Grammar rules are what fluent speakers use to describe what they already know

You didn’t become a fluent speaker of your own language by studying its grammar.

Well before the age of 5 (around the time you begin studying grammar in school) you were already a fluent speaker of your native language. You knew how to use verbs in different tenses before you even knew what a verb was. Toddlers start using complex sentences on their own without ever receiving explicit instruction or memorizing grammar rules.

The primary reason why we actually learn the grammar of our own language in school is to enhance our literacy skills (reading and writing) – not to make us better speakers.

I do acknowledge that there are valid arguments against comparing first and second language acquisition; adult learners have certain disadvantages when learning another language (e.g. interference of the first language) as well as advantages (e.g. being able to study). However, there’s still so much we can learn and attempt to emulate by observing the way that children learn their first language with hardly any effort.

If you’re a parent or have observed the language learning process of a child, you’d be familiar with stages like this in his/her development:

  • 1. Incoherent babble
  • 2. Single word utterances/naming (“car! car!”)
  • 3. 2-3 word simple sentences (e.g. “I want”, “big house”)
  • 4. Complex sentences with prepositions and morphemes but grammatically incorrect (e.g. “I goed Daddy’s work”, “Daddy work there”)
  • 5. Grammatically correct simple sentences (e.g. “Mum, I’m hungry”)

Consider for a moment that during this process of language development the child is obviously unable to read and learns all of this vocabulary and structure simply by listening to people around him/her.

They receive occasional error correction from parents and other family members. For example:

Child: Want dis one.

Parent: You want this one?

Child: Yeah. Dis one.

But certainly not enough explicit error correction to say that children learn grammar by having their parents correct them.

Children learn grammar by listening and repeating the sound patterns they hear other people say, beginning with 1 word utterances/naming and gradually moving up to small sentences.

They also make lots and lots of mistakes.

I’ve had a lot of children call me dolfin or domvin because that’s what my name – Donovan – sounds like to a learner’s ear. They just repeat what they hear and over time, through constant exposure and input, correct themselves.

 

The Lexical Approach and Chunking

So if children can learn a language and its grammar in this way, what’s stopping adults from doing the same or something similar?

Languages are acquired in prefabricated chunks - words, collocations and expressions that we hear repeatedly. This is why kids go from babble to speaking – to the amazement of their parents – seemingly overnight.

To give you an example, “I want” is a chunk. You’ve used those two words together in that order a multitude of times in your lifetime.

It’s a set expression that you heard and learned as a whole, and are able to create an infinite number of expressions by adding another chunk (a name or an action). Thus, ice-cream and to go are other chunks that you’ve also learned.

What we do as fluent speakers is essentially put together or insert pieces of prefabricated language. Very little of what we actually say is original content.

Here’s a key quote from a book that revolutionized the way I understand language learning, Michael Lewis’ Lexical Approach:

Modern analyses of real data suggest that we are much less original in using language than we like to believe. Much of what we say, and a significant proportion of what we write, consists of prefabricated multi-word items. Fully fixed expressions must be acquired as wholes in precisely the same way as individual words or very strong collocations.

I would go a step further and say that every verb tense you know was learned as a prefabricated item. For example, you didn’t learn the verb write and then learn how to conjugate it. You learned I write, she writes, they write, etc. as whole items and over time you gained an ear for what sounds right and what doesn’t.

When you hear something that doesn’t quite sound correct (e.g. they writes, he writed) you immediately detect the error – not because you’re aware of grammar, but because you’re so used to the correct, prefabricated forms that anything else doesn’t sound right. Imagine hearing a song that you know really well – if a single note is played incorrectly you’ll detect it, even if you’re not musically inclined.

The resource I’ve mentioned above, Michael Lewis’ Lexical Approach, was actually developed as an approach to ESL teaching but its application to learning foreign languages is incredible.

 

Be deliberately ignorant

For many people, including myself at times, there’s a rush to know everything.

Our curiosity compels us to want to know all the details, now.

I see far too many people stressing over features of grammar in their target language that they’re trying desperately to get their heads around as if by doing so their command of the language will improve.

But why is this particular verb conjugated like this and why does it come before the noun in that case?

It doesn’t matter. Just accept itMove on.

Knowing that information will not make you a better speaker. All you’re doing is impeding your progress toward fluency by focusing on details that you’ll pick up automatically over time anyway.

Focus on the meaning and function of what you’re saying and forget about why it’s said like that. Over time it will start to make sense to you as you learn more.

 

Phrasebooks and authentic dialogue are the best investments

I talked about the usefulness of cheap phrasebooks here.

Phrasebooks, along with resources that are full of natural, real dialogues are far more useful to you than something with a strong grammar focus.

Shortly after I began learning Irish I got myself a copy of An Ghaeilge Bheo, which is a book full of natural conversational dialogue in Irish (with audio). It’s aimed at higher level students but as a resource full of chunks of real language spoken at natural speed with transcripts of the audio, it’s the perfect type of learning tool.

I don’t ask questions about the grammar that’s used – I just observe the way that native speakers are saying certain things and I imitate what I hear.

At times, I’ll take one sentence and let it be my focus for a whole day speaking it, writing it, creating new sentences by adding new words, and Googling the sentence (or using PotaFocal) to find articles where that sentence has been used elsewhere.

By focusing on a single sentence like this you’re incidentally learning a new aspect of grammar and new vocabulary while enjoying what you’re doing.

I challenge you to give the grammar study a rest until you’re at the stage where you need to focus on your literacy skills. 

Focus on identifying and learning whole chunks that you can practice using in conversations immediately.

 

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54 Responses to “You Don’t Need To Study Grammar To Learn A Foreign Language”

  1. Let me first start off by saying I've studied Italian on my own for 1.5 years and now Portuguese for 4 months. I wouldn't consider myself fluent in either of these languages, yet.

    I always find it weird when people compare children to adults. Firstly, children are immersed in the language 24/7. That is huge. I think that if I were to be dropped off in the middle of China without a single english speaking person, no phone to call home/friends, and no internet, tv, radio, newspapers, books etc. in English, I would manage to become fluent much faster than a child could in 5 years.

    Most children also have the benefit of a parent/teacher/guardian who cares and will constantly correct their pronunciation and grammar. My mom still corrects me to this day and that is why I don't have the same accent as my friends that I grew up with. My mother frowned upon the locals accent and considered it lower class and uneducated. I find it hard when talking with Italians or Brazilians, to get them to correct me. I feel like most of the time they are so impressed that an American (english speaker) is learning their language that they seem content to just let you speak poorly as long as they can understand the gist of what you're trying to say.

    I don't enjoy studying grammar. I took French in high school for 4 years and never spoke it partly due to the focus on grammar and partly due to the fact that I hated the teacher. Coming from such a small school we only had one teacher that taught both French and Spanish. I was stuck with her for ALL 4 YEARS! However I find that studying a little bit of grammar can be a huge help.

    On a side note, have you ever heard of the language learning game "Where Are Your Keys?" I recently stumbled upon this online and am quite fascinated by it. There's a lot to it so I'll let you check it out for yourself. Here is an introduction (Gaeilge!) and a few resources.
    http://www.languagehunters.org/try-it/current-pro
    http://www.whereareyourkeys.org
    http://www.languagehunters.org

    I would love to hear what you think about this WAYK method. I think it's pretty amazing but haven't had the chance to try playing it with anyone yet.

    By Briar on Aug 1, 2012 | Reply
  2. Here here! You have put together a fantastically simple, yet powerful way to explain what I have been trying to tell people all the time. I have 4 kids and watched them all learn to speak English fluently. It happens in Chunks. That I why I recommend people do what I call Speak Your Language. Which means speak what you know in the Target language and fill in with English. The filling in with English is more for our own mental benefit to feel like we finished a thought or sentence. What it does is lets you develop the Chunks you know.

    Some will criticize it that it will develop "fossilized" problems. My son right now says chik win to say chicken wing. I am not worried that will be fossilized, because I know it will slowly correct itself as he talk and listens. Anyway Great post!

    By jarvis1000 on Aug 1, 2012 | Reply
  3. Good grief. You can’t even take a little robust criticism. But have no fear – it’s massively unlikely that I’ll be back for your TEFLing tips, though whilst I’m here I feel I ought to point out that if you’re writing about how you don’t need to study grammar, it’s wise to make sure you make no mistakes of your own (and in your mother tongue, no less):

    “it’s application to learning foreign languages is incredible.”

    Hmm. Is it indeed? Perhaps a few grammar classes are no bad thing, eh.

    By fleafreethree on Aug 1, 2012 | Reply
  4. I removed your comment because it was unnecessarily hostile and downright rude (exactly the type of response I was talking about in the second paragraph above).

    I wrote this with people like yourself in mind: http://www.mezzoguild.com/2012/02/23/online-commu

    I don't like to censor people but if you come on here shooting your mouth off with insulting garbage like you did then I'll hit the spam button.

    Thanks for pointing out the typo. Fixed.

    By mezzoguild on Aug 1, 2012 | Reply
  5. Thanks mate!

    Great to get some feedback from a parent. :)

    I agree. Excellent point. Sounds a lot like bilingual code-switching and it's definitely an effective way to practice the parts of your target language that you do know.

    By mezzoguild on Aug 1, 2012 | Reply
  6. Donovan,
    First of all, obviously you need to clarify what it means to "learn" a foreign language. Those students you describe who "can read brilliantly" obviously HAVE learned English, at least one component of it, to excellence, despite "wasteful" instruction.

    Second of all, there are more serious problems with comparing adult and child language acquisition than the ones you mentioned here. I actually wrote specifically about this: http://polyglossic.wordpress.com/2012/05/17/learn
    The problem is that you're comparing child FIRST language acquisition with adult SECOND language acquisition, meaning you're changing two different unique variables, which creates a pretty shaky comparison.

    And as far as the argument that children just learn things by chunking – almost everything I've read about child language acquisition recognizes that the transition away from unanalyzed chunks is precisely how we distinguish between a child-like experimenter and a fluent, adult-like speaker. You say that "very little of what we say is original content," but very much of what we say, if we are intelligent adults and not linguistically fumbling children, consists of novel utterances. Meaning, I was able to just say the phrase "consists of novel utterances" not because I've memorized that phrase as a whole, but because I know each of those words and I know how to put them together – in other words, because I'm an adult.

    By polyglossic on Aug 1, 2012 | Reply
  7. I have had a similar experience. I've found native speakers are unlikely to correct the mistakes I make if they understand me. It's frustrating, but at the same time, having someone correct every mistake we make in another language would eliminate any fluency that the conversation would otherwise have and would actually be rather frustrating.

    By Shannon.Kennedy on Aug 1, 2012 | Reply
  8. Excellent, Donovan, as usual. I particularly agree with you on two points:

    1. Using actual contemporary sources where the language is being used ‘for real’, e.g. movies and books that are popular with actual native speakers of the language. This not only makes it a lot more fun but it results in you learning the ‘real’ language as it’s actually used, not some contrived example in a textbook that a native speaker would never actually say or write.

    2. Make it fun. This is huge. In fact I would say it’s the most important factor in determining whether or not you will succeed at learning a language because it goes straight to motivation: making it fun gives you a reason to do it every day and it removes reasons (boredom, difficulty) not to do it.

    @Shannon: This is what language exchanges are for. You have a structured environment where you’re communicating with a native speaker and the whole point of it is for them to point out your mistakes and teach you how to say it correctly. I LOVE language exchanges for this reason and others (best one I’ve tried so far is iTalki, by the way). It’s not surprising at all that natives won’t correct you while you’re buying something in a shop (they don’t want to spend the time and effort in that case, plus they may be afraid it will come across as rude) or while conversing with you casually as a friend (again, they likely don’t want to seem rude and pedantic). Set up a specific time at a specific occasion where you and a native (either a friend or a language exchange partner you can talk to on skype) have agreed to speak where they will correct any and all mistakes you make. This will fix your problem.

    Cheers,

    Andrew

  9. Right at the start I said, "You don’t need to study grammar to learn to speak a foreign language." It was clarified at the beginning.

    The students I mentioned have not learned English. They use dictionaries and grammar charts to meticulously translate (often word-for-word) texts that they would never be able to reproduce or understand in a spoken setting.

    Of course we're not the same as children and I've acknowledged that there are major differences but that doesn't mean that academics should dispense entirely with any notion of us being able to learn from their acquisition process.

    We do learn in chunks.

    "Consists of novel utterances" is not a prefabricated chunk, but "consists of", "novel" and "utterances" are.

    To prove my point:
    Google search (with quotation marks) these examples:

    Consists of other utterances.
    Consists of small utterances.
    Consists of utterances.
    Consists of noisy utterances.

    That pattern is not as original as you thought.

    By mezzoguild on Aug 1, 2012 | Reply
  10. Donovan,
    I'm just referring to the title of your post, which says "You don't need to learn grammar to learn a foreign language." The students who "can read brilliantly and know English grammar better than I do" have learned English, perhaps not to conversational fluency, but they have learned some of it.

    And what you call chunks aren't "chunks" at all, but are single words ("consists of" is how that verb behaves), and your googling example actually proves my point – as a fluent English speaker, I know that I can take a verb and add a direct object, and add an adjective to that direct object, and I know which order to do that in, as do all of the authors of the other examples you found – in other words, we use the grammar we know. Of course I learned that grammar implicitly, as a child, since I'm a native speaker. But just because one CAN learn grammar implicitly does not mean that one CANNOT learn it explicitly, and just because one learned something one way as a child does not mean it is the only, or even the most appropriate, way to learn it as an adult.

    I'm not necessarily saying you have to be able to recite conjugation charts to learn a language, I'm more just sort of playing devil's advocate (and I'm not "throwin' a fit", as the Okie equivalent of that Aussie expression would go). I just think that being skillful with grammar can actually be seriously advantageous to adult learners, so I don't think it's fair to always dismiss it out of hand.

    By polyglossic on Aug 2, 2012 | Reply
  11. Thanks! Great article! Although is not easy for adults to learn like children (it´s just not the same ! ;-) it´s possible to learn a language without learning lot of grammar. I know of some great language learning methods (e.g. audio-visual method, story telling approach, immersive learning, etc.) which works for most adults. These methods are very easy and it´s fun to learn. Lingorilla.com is combining these methods into the concept "learning languages with videos". Check out http//www.lingorilla.com in order to learn more about learning languages with videos and short stories.

  12. sorry, the correct link is http://www.lingorilla.com

  13. Donovan,

    This is great news for many of us who suffered through language classes through school. I had the typical experience of many people in the US (and I'm guessing other countries) of studying Spanish for 6 years and yet knowing almost nothing after those years. There is a whole lot of blame to go around (including for myself, I wasn't the most eager student) but it mostly comes down to having boring classes. And I attribute that in part to the grammar we were force-fed.

    I am (slowly) working through a Pimsleur course at the moment and I'm amazed at my Italian level after 25 lessons, each about 25 minutes. There's no grammar at all. And I'm enjoying the lessons.

    I have learned throughout the years that the key to learning a foreign language (perhaps more than learning other things) is to understand yourself and be honest about your interests and time commitment. I started really learning Spanish through an hour long class every day during my lunch hour at a job. The class was great. And early on I let the teacher know I'd be there every day, wouldn't miss a class, but would do absolutely nothing to study or prepare outside of that hour. She adjusted her teaching based on this and everything worked out well.

    Had I not first been honest with myself about my time commitment I would not have been honest with her either. And she would have been expecting me to show up having completed the day's assignment. And when she would have found out I did nothing, it would have thrown off her day's plan.

    The key to successfully learning a language is to find what works specifically for you. I hear people often looking for the "right" answer about how to learn a language instead of looking for the answer to how that person best learns a language. For most of us, a focus on grammar is not the way to go. But I have also seen posts where people mention all they do is study grammar at the beginning and its a fundamental part of their early language study.

    Am I the only one that thinks "chucking a tanny" sounds a whole lot more raunchy than throwing a tantrum?

    Jared

  14. Single words are chunks. In fact, it's the first and most common 'type' of chunk listed in the book I talked about above.

    I like the "consists of" example because "consists" is never really used on its own. The two words are always used together and we're not conscious of the grammatical construction when we use it.

    "Consists of" is learned as though it's a single word/chunk.

    I never said people can't learn grammar explicitly – of course we can. My point is that for people wanting to learn to speak a language it's not necessary and is more likely to impede their progress.

    I studied Russian grammar intensively for about 6 months a few years ago. My knowledge of the grammar is fantastic but I can't speak anywhere near as good in Russian as I do with Irish having studied zero grammar.

    You're welcome to play devil's advocate :)

    By mezzoguild on Aug 2, 2012 | Reply
  15. G'day Briar.

    As I said above, parents do correct their kids but not enough for us to say that it plays a major role in how we learn grammar for our first language.

    Most of what we know is acquired by hearing and repeating exactly what those around us are saying. There's no other way to explain how we acquire so much without being explicitly taught.

    I have heard of the WAYK method and I think it's a brilliant concept. I'll try it out soon myself and let you know how it goes.

    Thanks :)

    By mezzoguild on Aug 3, 2012 | Reply
  16. Hi Ruth.

    Thanks very much for sharing Lingorilla. I'll get in touch with you by email shortly with a few questions.

    By mezzoguild on Aug 3, 2012 | Reply
  17. Thanks.

    By mezzoguild on Aug 3, 2012 | Reply
  18. Thanks Andrew.

    How's your Spanish coming along at this stage? I'd be interested to hear how much time you've put into grammar study compared to movies and so on, and how effective (or ineffective) you've found that to be.

    By mezzoguild on Aug 3, 2012 | Reply
  19. It does sound raunchy. Oops.
    Of course you were the one to notice it though! :)

    I don't mean to sound like I'm saying that "my way is the way" and I do know a lot of people who have a strong grammar focus and manage to become fluent speakers.

    I'm sure however that reading a post like this is very reassuring for a lot of people who hate grammar and are convinced that in order to be conversational they need to be able to conjugate every verb and so on.

    By mezzoguild on Aug 3, 2012 | Reply
  20. Hello Donovan,

    I love the core idea – everything that you thought you needed to do to learn a language (and that scared you off) is wrong.

    In the spirit of language-nerdery, I might just add my own touch of nuance:

    Yes, you don't need to learn grammar and can focus on other things in the early stages of learning a new language. However, you may choose to consider grammar, if;
    A: it suits your personal learning style and/or
    B: it is relevant to your language learning situation

    I tend to think quite mathematically (as opposed to say, mind-mapping) and so I quite like tables (German word-endings or Hebrew future verb constructions) Someone else might look at a set of German adjectives and run screaming from the room. That's fine, just leave that until you have had enough exposure to make the table seem familiar rather than daunting.

    On the Semitic theme, I am currently learning Arabic and have been quite keen to see the Arabic structures (grammar) laid out, so that I can assess where they are similar to, or differ from the Hebrew that I have already learned.

    Have you taken similar approaches to your Gaelic and Korean? If you are using TTMIK, you will have noticed (as I did) that they like to introduce grammar in a modest chunking kind-of-way. Or do you see it differently?

    Ian http://thebabelproject.wordpress.com

    By rubinoz on Aug 4, 2012 | Reply
  21. This is great content! As a fellow lover of languages, I fully agree with EVERYTHING you shared.

    I personally prefer to listen to and say phrases/sentences, instead of paying attention to grammar.

    I am fairly convinced that just by hearing the language over and over, I will gradually intuit the grammar and thereby speak correctly. So this is more or less a top-down approach or like seeing the big picture first, and then looking at the details (grammar) later.

  22. Yep.

    Thanks Jason! :)

    By mezzoguild on Aug 5, 2012 | Reply
  23. Hi Ian.

    I'm very happy with the approach that Talk To Me In Korean takes by not talking too much about grammar and instead focusing on useful chunks. I'm thoroughly enjoying their lessons and would recommend the site to everybody. Hopefully I'll get a chance to meet up with them when I get over there next month.

    I am taking the same approach to Korean as I have with Irish. I'll be posting progress videos over the next 12 months and hopefully get in some native speaker conversations and interviews while I'm in Korea to prove that grammar study is unnecessary for people wanting to become conversational.

    Don't get me wrong – I am a language nerd too and I don't dislike grammar. Like you I was fascinated looking at the similarities between Hebrew and Arabic, and comparing grammatical features and so on but so much of what I studied didn't actually improve my conversational fluency at all. It was interesting information from a linguistics perspective but as a conversational language learner it wasn't overly beneficial to me.

    These days I study Modern Standard Arabic grammar a lot only because I spend a lot of time reading Arabic documents for translation and news articles.

    How are your languages coming along?

    By mezzoguild on Aug 5, 2012 | Reply
  24. Okay, I really should probably let this go, but…I'm too argumentative.

    Single words are not chunks. They are single words. If you insist on qualifying all single words as "chunks" then what you're saying is almost meaningless…you're just saying "go home and memorize vocabulary." Certainly vocabulary is part of it, but it's not the only part.

    From the Michael Lewis excerpt in your above post: "Much of what we say, and a significant proportion of what we write, consists of prefabricated multi-word items.." *multi-word* (Also notice the use of the word "much", not "all.") If the Lexical Approach, which you are advocating here, presupposes that grammar and vocabulary are not separate entities but are encountered together, then you need to have multi-word chunks which involves the two holistically; if you have only single vocabulary items, then the grammar is separate.

    Also, I would like to point out that every SLA researcher I've read, including Stephen Krashen, underscores the importance of READING in acquiring a second language. Krashen calls it "reading for pleasure," and I normally don't like Krashen, so the fact I'm quoting him here should really tell you something :) Reading for pleasure is one of the most effective ways we can build new vocabulary and acquire new forms, or be exposed to comprehensible input, however you want to put it. So if what you're saying is to abandon grammar until you want to develop literacy, well…shouldn't that be from day one, then?
    -Allison

    By polyglossic on Aug 7, 2012 | Reply
  25. I love this. After spending several ultimately fruitless years learning grammer rules, I can say that "chunking" rings with truth. It dispels the idea that learning language necessitates INSTANT understanding of abstract matrices and tables. Those things are well and good, but only context truly gives meaning to grammar, and in the meantime you might as well be speaking meaningful utterances.

    It also highlights two excellent concepts brought up again and again in this blog: 1. meaningful conversation with real human beings, and 2. making lots of mistakes in order to learn. Knowledge for its own sake quickly stagnates, but the prospect of creating community with your knowledge makes it very worth while.

    Keep up the good work.

  26. This is why it's really important to have texts accompanied by an accurate translation as a reading aid.

    You are gaining literacy skills from day one of course but my point was that grammar study serves the purpose of 'fine-tuning' our literacy skills when we're already speaking fluently.

    In my honest opinion, until you're at a very high level in a language you cannot read unassisted by either a translation or a native speaker. There are too many expressions, polywords and colloquialisms that you'll miss if you're doing your own word-by-word translation of a text.

    I translate Arabic now after 10 years of it and I still have to make phone calls to native speaker friends because I encounter things that no dictionary or grammar can explain to me.

    For Irish I've got the book An Ghaeilge Bheo which has a series of native dialogues and transcripts but also comes with an English translation to help you read. I read The Hobbit alongside the English original too.

    Just to give you an idea of how I use these texts, in An Ghaeilge Bheo there's a dialogue where a guy says, "Rugadh agus tógadh mise in áit arb ainm an Tóchar" ("I was born and raised in a place called An Tóchar").

    For the past 5 months I've been using "Rugadh agus tógadh mise" (I was born and raised) as I've heard it without ever questioning its grammatical construction. I did a Google search on the grammar just now for the purpose of this debate we're having and found that it's listed as an impersonal/passive form in the past tense.

    I don't need that information.

    I know how to recognize that sound pattern and to use it accurately when I need to by parroting what I've heard native speakers say. I've heard that exact pattern used many times on Irish television and understood it immediately without having to make sense of the suffixes or word order.

    I recently heard "briseadh an ghloine" (the glass was broken) which I understood incidentally because I've heard "rugadh agus tógadh" so many times that the sound pattern of that suffixed form is now familiar to me.

    I've learned a passive verb form without ever having been explicitly taught.

    I learned a prefabricated chunk, used it a lot and the rest worked itself out naturally. I'll make lots and lots of mistakes sure but so what? So do children.

    You didn't respond to what I said about "consists of". Did you learn the word "consist" and then learn how to grammatically construct "consists of"?

    Or did you learn "consists of" at one time as a whole?

    I'd also like to hear more about your own experience learning a second language. What process did you personally take and how would you rate your success? Would you take a different route next time?

    By mezzoguild on Aug 8, 2012 | Reply
  27. Thanks a lot, Matthew :)

    By mezzoguild on Aug 8, 2012 | Reply
  28. Well, then, this raises all sorts of other problems. The idea is to read authentic texts *in the target language.* Having a translation for everything just isn't pushing you to learn/acquire in the way that most applied linguists argue for. Plus, translation just brings in a whole host of other potential problems; if you watch the video for Learning With Texts (which you posted on your blog), you'll notice how many times he says "well that's not *quite* the same…" when comparing the Czech translation to the English original. But he only can tell that because he understands the Czech well enough. If you're a beginner working with a translation and drawing conclusions from the comparisons, I can see all sorts of trouble…

    I can't tell you how I acquired "consists of" because I acquired it when I was too young to be cognizant of my learning process. But I still don't think it's a good example, because "of" just comes with the verb; unlike, say, a phrasal verb, it is ALWAYS followed by that preposition, almost like it's a vestigial part of that verb, and it doesn't change grammatically. If you're saying an English learner would have to acquire that as a "phrase", you're saying that learner would have to acquire at least four phrases that I can think of:
    -to consist of
    -consists of
    -consist of
    -consisted of
    Four individual phrases. HOWEVER, if that learner knew the pattern for regular verb conjugation, there wouldn't be any memorization of multiple forms necessary. They could use that pattern on any number of different verbs, instead of acquiring each form of each of those verbs as a single point of memorization.

    And again I would object to your equating "natural" acquisition to the phrase "so do children." Adults don't acquire second languages like children acquire their first language. Period.

    My own experience is a long story, but I will say that grammar has been an impediment when it was taught poorly – just like everything else in education. When the grammar has been taught well (this includes self-teaching), it has been a tremendous advantage to me, in both comprehension and production.

    By polyglossic on Aug 8, 2012 | Reply
  29. Nice article! If you are interested, there is a newish textbook on the market called English Unlimited. It is based on a nice corpus of English and presents students with language chunks to build up their speaking confidence. I've used it in beginner classes and compared to other texts I've used it's fabulous!

    All the best,

    Anthony.

    By Expat teacher on Aug 9, 2012 | Reply
  30. To speak a language correctly, you must know the grammar—whether consciously or unconsciously. I've seen what happens when people use this approach. Last year, I finished a fifth-year university course in German. One of my fellow students had obviously been taught somewhere else by this method of "let's forget all that corny old stuff about genders, cases, and adjective agreement*. If you didn't know German you would have been quite impressed, because she sounded so fluent and confident; but actually it came out like "Me Tarzan, You Jane".

  31. I reckon you´re right, and wrong mate.
    Obviously, language acquisition is no simple task, and is one which has been debated since the first Neanderthal grunt.
    I believe it is entirely possible to use a langauge, even to a high level, without studying grammar (as I myself am doing in spanish, though this is due more to laziness, and a preference for the practical rather than the theoretical)
    I do believe, however, that a sound grammatical knowledge of the language being learnt, provides the learner with a greater depth of comprehension and production (as is the case in ones first language), and also with the ability to form and understand, more varied and original (if only to them) constructions.
    To achieve a similar depth, the non-grammarian would have to read and listen to a mountain of material, and of huge variety, which would probably bore them to death.
    At the end of the day, it depends on the leaners needs, abilities, wishes and intentions, I guess.
    I also think it inappropriate to compare a childs first language acquisition, with an adults second, due to factors such as; previous experience, learning preference, environment (EFL or ESL) etc.
    You´ve got your opinion, I´ve got mine, everyone´s got theirs, let the debate continue…but hopefully, always with the best intentions for the learner in mind, coz it´s all about them.
    On a final note, it´s good to see you put your head above the parapet mate, and well done for raising such a controversial, but important, subject.

  32. As an English teacher and a Chinese learner I find this very interesting. Thinking about the way I teach….it is actually in chunks. We know what grammar point we're teaching but they don't. They just know it's a new sentence and a new topic of discussion. As a Chinese learner I am definitely aware of the grammar. At this point I'm not sure I could go back – especially since I'm also writing. BUT I've noticed that I haven't fully learned the grammar properly and by listening to native speakers its helped to correct my mistakes. I wish I was a child and could just soak it up. I think about it too much and too often I care about making mistakes.

    By Joy on Oct 17, 2012 | Reply
  33. Will check that out. Thanks Anthony!

    By mezzoguild on Oct 17, 2012 | Reply
  34. I could list multiple examples of cases where that hasn't been the case.

    You shouldn't reject this idea because of one person who spoke poorly especially when you're not even sure if she was actually taught using a method like this.

    I've met people – linguists included – who know grammar like the back of their hand but speak shockingly bad.

    One guy I met in Ireland last month who had been studying Irish for years (much longer than myself) simply couldn't communicate even though his knowledge of Irish grammar was extremely good. Whenever he spoke you could see him scanning his mind for grammar rules trying to piece dialogue together and it took him 5 minutes to get a sentence out.

    By mezzoguild on Oct 17, 2012 | Reply
  35. Hey Joy.

    Thanks for your comment. It's great to hear from another ESL teacher/language blogger in the region :)

    As adults we're always going to be aware of grammar to an extent. There's no way to change that. In Korean at the moment I'm learning new aspects of grammar without actually studying grammar which I'm definitely aware of.

    Embrace your mistakes :) Fear of making mistakes is what holds most people back.

    How's your Chinese coming along?

    By mezzoguild on Oct 17, 2012 | Reply
  36. BRAVO!
    I love this….all of it! I have been trying for a few years to explain this to people. I have had about nine years of Spanish and all throughout high school (even college) my language acquisition skills were completely swarmed in grammar drills with an emphasis on grammar, focusing on GRAMMAR.
    I grew up in Chicago where I had many spanish-speaking neighbors and friends, and I can honestly say that I remember basic phrases they spoke, or their parents spoke to them, more than most of the grammatical points that I have learned in my Spanish speaking journey. I feel as though all of these years I was so caught up and distracted with getting key grammatical points correct, that I couldn't really immerse myself in the actual language.
    When I moved to Spain for about six months, my speaking abilities, alongside with my listening capacity, skyrocketed! Living around the target language, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week allowed my to REALLY build up those language "chunks" and speaking came easier and it actually gave me the confidence to just SPEAK the language and not care about mistaking a word or speaking incorrectly. I found that with time, I was able to build those key phrases that I heard daily into authentic Spanish conversations and truly was able to communicate flawlessly.

    I think its endlessly important for an individual learning a second language to learn its speaking habits first, and THEN learn the grammar, because like you stated, it is how we mastered our mother tongue! I am currently learning German, and am going to take French. My goal would be to learn German and French in SPANISH……but, there is not much opportunity (that I am aware of) in the United States to do such a thing. …..which, Foreign Language development in the United States is another mess I choose not to declaim… for I do not have sufficient time, nor patience to do so.

    By Jaclyn on Oct 25, 2012 | Reply
  37. The actual conversation process consists of two integral parts: listening and speaking.
    Only adequate regular long-term practice in listening comprehension and speaking a language including of course communication with native speakers can develop fluent speaking skills. Correct oral communication in English is based on knowledge of English phonetics, grammar, vocabulary, and on practice and experience in communicating with native English speakers in real life. In my opinion learners can learn grammar and practice it in communicative grammar exercises with real life content (with sentences that most likely can be used in real life situations).
    In the process of learning English grammar learners can devote a portion of time at each lesson for learning first fixed thematic conversational phrases that don’t require grammar knowledge. Later based on known grammar learners can concentrate more productively on listening, speaking, reading and writing practice on each daily life topic and on thematic vocabulary expansion. Grammar exercises that contain dialogues, interrogative and statement (or narrative) sentences on everyday topics, thematic texts and narrative stories are especially effective for mastering grammatical structures. Grammar practice should include exercises in listening comprehension, speaking, reading and writing.
    I believe that vocabulary matters much more than grammar to use a language. The more vocabulary a learner knows how to use correctly the easier it is to convey a thought in a language in writing and in speaking, and to understand the listening and the reading content. And there is another fact that knowledge of grammar rules reduces making grammatical mistakes by learners. Without adequate knowledge of English grammar rules learners often cannot create their own grammatically correct sentences and often cannot understand what they read or hear in English exactly. It would take foreign learners much less time to learn grammar rules that are explained to learners than to figure out grammar rules on their own intuitively from texts because grammar rules may have exceptions and other peculiarities. Grammar books with explanations and exercises have been published by knowledgeable language specialists to make learning grammar easier so that learners don’t have to discover grammar rules anew the hard long way.

    By Mike on Jan 1, 2013 | Reply
  38. it is true. in my opinion the best way to learn grammar is by using phrases/sentences that have the grammar topic we are interested in, and highlighting the important words. i have been using this method since i started learning english and i think i have improved alot. For instance:

    how long does it take to learn a languange?

    ¿cuanto tiempo toma aprender un idioma?

    with the example above i would highlight ¨How long¨ and ¨take¨ to know that that is the way to say: cuanto tiempo toma…..

    By Guapo on Jan 2, 2013 | Reply
  39. Hello there,

    I feel like I can only agree with you up to a point. On one hand, my husband, who learned German to the point of near-native fluency, had no idea what I was talking about when I asked him about strong/mixed/weak adjectivial declension agreement. But alas, it turned out he did know the rules in and out– he just picked the rules up subconsciously via conversational practice, and lots of it, which allowed him to go beyond the boxed-in German taught in his university classroom.

    On the other hand, I feel like the old method of vocab lists and grammar rules has its usefulness, particularly to people like me who like handling formulas just to be able to produce ideas (albeit at the expense of sounding natural/native) and then have it be corrected over time through conversation.

    2-3 months prior to a fortnight-long trip to Argentina, I decided to cram Spanish via grammar tables and vocab lists (though this is helped with prior French experience). A fluent friend filled me in on the basic conversational phrases.

    When I got to Argentina, after the initial shock of the regional dialect I was able to communicate and befriend locals and have complex conversations about lives, art, dreams, politics, etc etc (granted with a lot of English and French cognates filling words in on the fly). I'm SURE I sounded like a 6-year old caveman, but hey, they understood what I said and I understood most of what they said, and we're still friends to this date. They spoke no English by the way so what I had crammed methodically over those 2/3 months was the only common denominator linking us. With only 2-3 months of prep, using the method of going through conversational phrases and their variations would not have allowed me to express as wide a range of ideas and sentences as my method, although I probably admittedly damaged longer term prospects of sounding natural when speaking Spanish in doing things the way that I did.

    By Huyen Nguyen on Mar 20, 2013 | Reply
  40. I learned Italian in Italy with an Italian phrase book/

    bilingual dictionary. Took no Italian classes and did not study grammar yet I learned to speak Italian. I had Italian speaking friends watched and listened to Italian TV/radio.

    By David on Mar 24, 2013 | Reply
  41. That\’s the best way to do it. ;)

    By mezzoguild on Apr 2, 2013 | Reply
  42. I learnt Arabic using grammer and can read just about anything in Arabic. I hav not concentrated on the speaking aspect but have to agree with what you said. As a matter of fact I am going to use this technique of yours and see what happens. Wish me luck!

    By Zeeshan on Oct 10, 2013 | Reply
  43. I agree! Personally learning grammar drills is a very non motivating task for me. I have a grammar book with boring drill after drill which I no longer use. I think repetition is better because in a conversation I won't remember Spanish stem changing verbs or irregular verbs.

    By James Harper on Oct 31, 2013 | Reply
  44. Excellent points- this article was fantastic. When children are first learning how to speak, do we sit them down and teach them what verbs and nouns are? No! We refine their grammar later, and that is exactly what we should be doing with foreign language students. We definitely need to update our teaching methods.

  45. I really do have to disagree with you here, Donovan. I don't think your advice is generally applicable. I'm an English speaker learning French, and it is inconceivable to me that any adult could do this without taking advantage of the ability to learn and understand grammar. (first language acquisition as a child and second language acquisition as an adult are really nothing alike, for a host of reasons which you acknowledge). Yes, I suppose I would learn to just "get it" if I exposed myself to enough examples of correct grammar, but rather than building a (perhaps incorrect) set of grammatical rules, why not just learn the correct ones at the outset?

    The French have the imperfect and the passe compose for the past, and the future proche and future simple for the future. Which one do you use when? What's the subjunctive for? Won't the rule be easier to internalize if you already know what it is?

    Your example of students who did nothing but study grammar, and are thus unable to have conversations, was not compelling to me. OF COURSE if you do nothing but study grammar, and never have conversations, you'll be terrible at having conversation, but nobody advocates this approach.

    Besides, I *LIKE* studying grammar. It's fun. I don't *WANT* to just "let it go, don't wonder what the rules are, don't worry about it." I *LIKE* knowing the rules.

    I honestly think the best advice is: learn language in the way that is fun for you, and addresses your particular desires, goals, shortcomings, and background.

    By Darren X on Jul 9, 2014 | Reply
  46. "I've met people – linguists included – who know grammar like the back of their hand but speak shockingly bad. "

    That would be "shockingly badly", wouldn't it? :)

    By Darren X on Jul 9, 2014 | Reply
  47. For example: No matter how much time you spend studying the conjugation chart for avoir, you'll never effortlessly say "ils ont" instead of "il a" until you say "ils a" and the instructor corrects you (perhaps several times :). So there's no substitute for practice. However, if you *never* study grammar, you'll never know that "ils ont" and "il a" refer to the same verb, and thus you'll never be able to build new phrases in the passe compose, no matter how many "chunks" you expose yourself to. And if you never study grammar, lotsa luck trying to figure out why the passe compose isn't always conjugated using 'avoir'….

    By Darren X on Jul 9, 2014 | Reply
  48. If you don't learn grammar, you'll have to learn *everything* by chunks. You'll have to see COUNTLESS examples of the VANDERTRAMP and reflexive verbs conjugated in the passe compose before you ever begin to understand why those verbs are different.

    Or, you could spend two minutes learning grammar and have someone explain it to you at the outset. That way, you're not fumbling towards some unknown goal, you already know what the correct outcome is and you just need to practice it enough to internalize it.

    By Darren X on Jul 9, 2014 | Reply
  49. A good review of Rosetta Stone put it this way: sure learning like a child is great, if you're happy to spend seven years in total immersion and wind up with a second grade speaking and reading level. Most adults are more ambitious than that, and have less time. Fortunately, there's a shortcut that will help you learn faster: it's called…… "grammar"!

    "Learning grammar" and "learning the language" are of course not the same thing, but learning grammar is something you can do to make "learning the language" much, much easier.

    By Darren X on Jul 9, 2014 | Reply
  50. “Some will criticize it that it will develop “fossilized” problems. My son right now says chik win to say chicken wing. I am not worried that will be fossilized, because I know it will slowly correct itself as he talk and listens.”

    “Chik win” sounds cute when your son says it. It doesn’t sound so cute if a 40 year old man says it. (of course, this example isn’t a good one, as this is a vocabularly problem which can’t be fixed by studying grammar).

    What’s better for your language development: hearing other peoples *correct* target langugage, or your own error-riddled beginner attempts?

    By Darren X on Jul 9, 2014 | Reply
  51. Humongous post alert! My sense of unease at Donovan's suggestions have stimulated me to have a go at articulating the approach that I've been groping towards on my own language journey. It will be a useful exercise for me, and it may be helpful for someone else.

    I'm with Darren X, I think. It takes a child 50,000 hours of immersion and constant correction by committed and loving adults to reach the 7-year-old level. As adult learners we surely need to find a radically faster and more self-reliant way that leverages our adult skills and experience?

    What seems to be happening in language pedagogy is that theorists are over-reacting against the grammar-translation approach that failed me and so many other school-kids by developing a phobia against both grammar and translation.

    So we get the Natural Approach that avoids translation at all costs, but which relies on skilled teaching and is not practical for adult self-learners. Working independently, translation is surely much the most practical entry-point into the language? Target-language-only resources are simply baffling in the absence of a teacher. Why not leverage our advanced understanding of our native tongue and use it to bridge into the target language? The view that translation in the early stages cripples later fluency just doesn’t hold water: there are many outstanding polyglots who start with translation-based resources such as Assimil.

    Or we get the Lexical Approach which allows translation, but in its more extreme forms proposes learning grammar entirely deductively.

    But as Darren points out, the main reason the grammar-translation approach failed so dismally is that it was taught without significant practice in speaking and listening. So it's hardly surprising that students would emerge from years of study with poor speaking and comprehension skills. Rather than throw out the baby with the bathwater, it seems to me that we should be incorporating the most useful aspects of grammar and translation into a more balanced and functional approach that incorporates insights such as the importance of lexical patterns and the need for real speech practice with natives without obsessing about making mistakes..

    I'm becoming wary of these "one best way" theories. Looking at the literature, it seems that successful adult self-learners use a wide variety of approaches. The main thing they have in common seems to be that they have consciously developed an approach that motivates them and that suits their personal preferences and goals. If someone is phobic about grammar it would obviously be better to use another method. But for someone like myself who actually enjoys grammar, why on earth would I deliberately omit it from my toolkit?

    To me it seems that a purely deductive approach to languages is wasteful. Figuring out something as complex as grammar by parroting lexical chunks will take countless thousands of repetitions. One of the few strong results in learning research is the value of overview: we learn and remember faster when we can slot new information into a patterned overview of the ground we are going to cover. Having an overall framework from the start sensitises us to what we are looking for and helps us to categorise what we find. It’s the same with pronunciation: learning about the difficult aspects of the language from the start helps sensitise our ear to what we should be listening for – otherwise we may simply overlook key issues.

    The deductive approach to grammar ignores this insight and leaves the learner groping for the underlying patterns. A balanced approach, I feel, would involve an ascending cycle of learning, where we learn grammar patterns in the context of inputs, as with Assimil, and useful outputs in the context of grammar patterns, such as with the Teach Yourself functional grammars. This way, functional skills and the understanding of the patterns that underlie them will grow hand-in-hand.

    By Geoff C on Jul 10, 2014 | Reply
  52. My own approach to a new language is to take a good simplified grammar and draw a quick mind-map of how its basic structures work. I don't worry about details or exceptions – just the fundamentals. Now I have an overview my mind can use to quickly recognise and classify the patterns it encounters and I find that this makes it much easier to learn from inputs. I gradually elaborate this initial skeleton map as my needs and understanding evolve.

    Then I use an eclectic approach.

    For speaking I'll start with phrasebooks and Michel Thomas. This gives me basic sentence frames such as “How much is that [noun], please?” that get me started with simple functional conversations. Then I’ll work with progressive input such as Assimil and the Teach Yourself functional grammars to develop my production skills in the context of an evolving understanding of the grammar.

    At the same time I'll work on higher level passive skills in a digital immersion environment such as Yabla, so I can understand native speakers.

    For words with low lexical linkage such as "glacier", “stonefall” or "warm front" that I need for my own personal activities I'll learn them in isolation using spaced repetition and I find that I can use them fine in practice.

    For structural words such as articles, or words that are generally embedded in lexical patterns such as "to make" or "to love" I'll learn them in lexical chunks. But I'll also make up little drills with reference to grammatical material so I can produce them fluently. It seems to be that investing a few hours learning to decline "to be" and "to have" and the model regular verbs, for example, will pay off in spades because I can now recognise them in input without having to stop to look them up.

    From my reading and listening I sentence-mine colloquial patterns that I feel will be useful to my conversation style and interests and feed them into a spaced repetition system.

    And at an early stage I hook up with local language schools for face-to-face language exchanges with their students.

    It seems to me that this kind of eclectic approach, adapted to the preferences of the individual learner, will likely work better for most people than sticking religiously to any particular purist theory. There is clearly a good deal of useful common-sense in Lewis’s insights. But there’s little research data to back up any claim that it’s the “one best way”, and I for one won’t be turning it into a stand-alone learning method.

    By Geoff C on Jul 10, 2014 | Reply

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About The Author:

I’m an Applied Linguistics graduate, ESL teacher and translator with years of travel and language learning experience. I have a huge passion for language learning and for helping to raise awareness of endangered minority languages around the world.

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