The Mezzofanti Guild Language Learning Made Simple

Fact: Grammar Study Is Bad For Language Learning

Timothy Doner

UPDATE: For the record, I do not and never have believed Timothy Doner’s claims (or at least the media’s) to speak so many languages.

He’s a kid who made a couple of YouTube videos and the media went to town on him. End of story.

This post is not about Tim per se, but rather the issue of whether or not studying grammar is the best way to learn a language.

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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 teenage 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 the fact that I completely reject Timothy Doner’s claim to speak 23 languages (many of which he claims to have learned in a few weeks) and to a much lesser extent that of Jerry Dai’s (having no prior knowledge of English before entering Canada), it’s worth discussion.

The issue that I do want to raise here 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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  1. I think that you can have the best of two worlds. Yes, the sentence mining approach can work, but it takes a long time to build a true understanding and intuitive feel of grammar. What you can do is combine both approaches where you work with sentences specifically focused on certain grammatical patterns. This is the approach that I'm using with some materials from http://www.llangcal.com.
    P.S. Donovan, I think you should contact the people at that site and ask them to do a guest post because you seem to have a lot in common.

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  2. I think everyone learns languages very differently. I like it best, when my sources give me examples, passages, and grammar pretty much alongside it. Like with Romani, I know grammatically that "mande" is the prepositional first person pronoun, but I also just know now that it goes after certain word, prepositions, like "ka mande", "pe mande", etc. But for me, it's helpful to learn about the grammar at the same time, because if I want to practice writing and speaking, I would like to know how to say "Look at the dog (dikh po žukleste)", or something similar.

    The same happened to me with Hungarian. I've been interested for a long time with the language, but have only now found a book that gives me examples and grammar together, unlike the one I had bought two years ago, which gives me examples upon examples, and the grammar is only considered about halfway through – yet it expects me to answer questions in a format it did not introduct (i.e. asking "what is the tourist's name?", when the only example given was a dialgue of "What is your name?" "I'm Robert", yet the answers in the book say "The Scottish tourist's name is Robert"). Yet the book I have now, which gives grammar as well, has me reading lengthy passages and I'm understanding. I think if I stick to this, then in some months, I'll be thinking "Magyarországról" and thinking about the grammar construction, as with Romani. "Pe mande" just comes naturally now.

    So, I say it completely depends on the learner, and there is probably no ultimately correct or incorrect way.

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  3. I like study the lenguagese but i know spanish and english and not very well. How i learn best the lenguagese???

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  4. languagese not lenguagese!! 🙂

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  5. Having read very many books about the English grammar as a result I can read and write (badly) and I can't speak English .(even badly.) I completely divide these processes and consider that just speaking is more difficult. This method is perfect. It is like scales and arpeggios in music.The separate brilliant learned technique which will just be working for sense. I was going to use it only how the final stage… (Excuse for English.)

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  6. I am mostly in agreement with Jerry, although the thousands of times thing sounds scary.

    Despite his sales pitch in attempt to make learning languages so easy, Jerry actually emphasizes the importance of hard work. In fact, he himself often mentions how much hard work and dedication he put in learning English when he just arrived in Canada.

    Most native speakers cannot answer grammatical questions of their own languages. I am sure many language learners have experienced this before.

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  7. Very interesting post !
    I would like to know a little bit more about your routine…

    How many sentences per day do you practice with ? Do you review them later (via a SRS for exemple) or not ?

    Jerry Dai tell us to listen/repeat the same sentence thousands of times. This is a lot !!!!
    What is your opinion about this ?

    Thanks for answering my questions and for the excellent contents of your website !

    Reply
  8. I think his method is very effective – if you think about it, it's the same way an infant learns a language. They hear certain phrases repeated over and over. Eventually they learn to recreate them. You can hear them experiment with variations on the phrase (with and without mistakes) when they are 2-5 years old before they have "mastered" the grammar of their native language well enough to have an actual conversation. It's quite the same thing.

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  9. According to my own experience limiting grammar and focusing on exposure to the language is much more effective. I used a method similar to Jerri's method while I was starting to learn German, though I repeated much less than he suggests.
    I found that grammar can be useful much later when focusing on learning to write, which I think should be learned after good listening and speaking skills.

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  10. Tem is great guy but some successful people dont know what exactly the thing that makes them successful

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  11. I firmly believe that learners of a foreign/second language should be encouraged to make up their own sentences on each grammar point taking into consideration their personal daily life activities (thus using grammar for their potential relevant needs in realistic situations). Imagination and creativity play a major role in this practice as learners prepare for potential use of grammar for their needs.

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  12. Jerry Dai's technique does kinda sorta remind me of Glossika's sentence method. I just purchased a voice recorder to use after I finish Assimil. I think I will listen to a sentence 100 times and say it 100 times per study session. I would love to hear Glossika's take on the Jerry Dai approach. As someone said above, it's just like practicing scales until it's effortless to play them. I'm sure you will find the tones in one phrase in many other sentences.

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    1. From what I\’ve seen of the Glossika method I have to say it works on exactly the same principle. His approach is excellent.

      I love the music scale analogy too. 🙂

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  13. I remember seeing Tim Doner say that he learns by listening to a lot audiotapes and tries to watch foreign television/cinema.

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  14. @Hashem How is any of this related to Prendergast? That method is well-know in academia, and I've looked at it for historical curiosity, but I don't see any link to either polyglot mentioned above. In fact, in both cases, the audio-lingual method is precisely what they're using. AL with overlearning (also part of the AL Method).

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  15. if I had to choose one model to follow it would certainly Jerry, mastering a language is completely different form being a jack of all languages and that what I and most people are aiming for. Also for my opinion the grammar issue isn't the biggest deal of that approach, what I really like is how much time it saves, you're practicing pronunciation, vocab, grammar, word usage, and listening all at the same time

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  16. His so-called “achievements” are definitely nothing to write on about! The famous Timothy Doner, who brags about speaking fluently more than 23 languages, when he actually can only speak 5. Check his blog and you will see his list of languages. For example, he wrote that he has a high level of Mandarin Chinese when he can barely say: 中国历史很有意思,但是语言有一点难。Which is enough proof of his poor Chinese skills. I’ve watched his videos and I can say that he can only speak 5 languages decently. German, French, Arabic, Farsi and English. There is another interview in Russian; at first he speaks very simple Russian and mentions that one of the main difficulties that any Russian learner faces is the accent. That’s all, after those sentences, he starts to speak in English and they don’t keep on showing him, why? because that would be another big proof of his poor Russian skills. Let’s make it clear, he just recorded a video in which he speaks a language for like 50 seconds or 1 minute, but during that “minute” what does he do? He only says very, but very basic sentences. In fact, what do you do need to do that? The answer is: a good memory. You can actually memorize phrases in foreign languages by heart by just repeating them several times. What is so impressive about that? Nothing! And all of you are like retarded people liking his facebook profile and helping him to become famous. He, in his linkedin account very proudly brags about being featured in several newspapers and been interviewed by some tv channels. True, but the only one in which he gives a “good” speech is in the Arabic channel. Actually, he is a liar and a very self-centered person, who just thinks about himself and wants desesperately fame and be acknowledged as the youngest hyperpoliglot on earth. Which is a big lie. If you don’t believe it, check his linkedin account, if he speaks fluently 23 language, then why did he write that he can speak 9 languages and furthermore only 5 of them at a decent level? On one hand he brags and shows off about being able to speak 23 languages fluently but he has no proof of that. Poor thing. I hope people realize the size of this lie and stop giving support to this big fat liar!!!

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  17. As someone who has learned two foreign languages (the first one being English) and is in the course of learning a third one, I can safely say that
    1. you don’t necessarily need grammar knowledge to learn a language, but
    2. you do need grammar if you want to learn it *fast*.

    Learning a language is a lot like doing maths: if you only learn the theory, you’ll lack context and forget the preconditions of your theorems and the smaller propisitions and if you try to prove Fermat’s Last Theorem without being able to add and multiply, you’d need to find 3000 years worth of mathematical knowledge all by yourself.

    Theory has always emerged during active problem solving and consequently, that’s where its natural habitat lies.

    So my opinion is:
    Sentence mining is a good approach, but grammar is a very powerful extra tool.

    Reply
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