You Don't Need To Study Grammar To Learn A Foreign Language
- Donovan NagelTeacher, translator, polyglot🎓 B.A., Theology, Australian College of Theology, NSW🎓 M.A., Applied Linguistics, University of New England, NSW
Applied Linguistics graduate, teacher and translator. Founder of The Mezzofanti Guild and Talk In Arabic.
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 it. Move 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 talk about the usefulness of cheap phrasebooks often.
Phrasebooks, along with resources that are full of natural, real dialogues are far more useful to you than something with a strong grammar focus.
I’ve found the Rocket Languages series excellent for this as well (it’s arguably the best and most comprehensive natural dialogue course online).
For Irish, shortly after I began learning it 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.
Make sure to visit my Essential Language Learning Tools page for useful resources to help you learn languages.
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