The Mezzofanti Guild Language Learning Made Simple

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



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 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.

 

 

Comments

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  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.

    1. 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.

    2. 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 🙂

    3. I know this is an old post, but i must say that you're right donovan. I have to young boys (ages 3and4) and i correct their language mishaps often. and guess what….they continue making the mistake over and over again, for months until they eventually pickup on the right way to say it. i assume a small part is from my corrections, but the larger more important part is just hearing other people say it the right way and having that ingrained in their little mind.

      Also, i absolutely loved this post, I'm currently learning french, and i am trying to compare learning french with how i learned english, and although i couldn't word it as clearly as you did…it dawned on me that "I'm not all that good with english grammar" yet my vocabulary is vast and i can spell some pretty difficult words. as you said, grammar is good to delve into at a later point, but starting out i think its best to listen and repeat…listen and repeat..thanks for this article.

    4. A great tool I’ve found when learning a foreign language is HelloTalk. It’s a phone app similar to What’sapp. Say you’re learning Russian. You can talk with Russians in Russia who are learning English and help each other. Making connections to native speakers aside, the app also always both you and the person you’re talking with to correct your sentences. It will show you a before and after the correction as well.

  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!

    1. 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.

    2. I believe the real answer is somewhere in between. Studying a little bit of grammar can really speed up the process or at least give you an overview of what you are up against, like a general map of a landscape, but after that, you are right, it is much more useful to memorize chunks: common phrases, expressions, verb-noun combinations etc. so that these become automatic, rather than memorizing meaningless tables of verbs, for example. This was how I learned English: We learned grammar at school, but it was when I started reading books on my own, and completely stopped paying attention to any grammar and instead just memorized words, phrases and expressions that I learned to speak English perfectly.

  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.

    1. 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 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.

  4. 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.

    1. 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.

    2. 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.

    3. 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 🙂

    4. 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

    5. 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?

    6. 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.

    7. Dear Polyglossic,
      The comparison made by Donovan is quite acceptable. I am a second language arabic learner and I have encountered the exact scenarios. Speaking, at first, is broken, as it is difficult to phrase the words you have learnt correctly. Granted, I am not yet an adult, but the rest of my family is, and they are learning arabic in the same way. It requires listening to people, even though you don’t understand a word, and then questioning the meaning. so then you learn certain word, then you have to learn how to say that word in a sentence, which takes a lot of trial and error… exactly how you hear a toddler speaking.

  5. 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".

    1. Hi Ruth.

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

  6. 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

    1. 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.

  7. 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

    1. 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.

  8. Thanks.

  9. 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

    1. 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?

  10. 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.

    1. Yep.

      Thanks Jason! 🙂

  11. 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.

    1. Thanks a lot, Matthew 🙂

  12. 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.

    1. Will check that out. Thanks Anthony!

  13. 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".

    1. 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.

    2. "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? 🙂

    3. Haha, interesting, but I can't help but feel that "shockingly bad" sounds better in this context than "shockingly badly". It's another example illustrating that grammar is only grammar – we need it to help us understand the workings of a language but it really isn't the authority over anything.

    4. Tony, it is shockingly bad that you don’t appear to know the difference between an adverb and an adjective.

  14. 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.

  15. 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.

    1. 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?

  16. 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.

  17. 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.

  18. 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…..

    1. That’s not how I would say it in Spanish. It would actually be “¿cuánto se tarda en aprender un idioma?

    2. I believe Guapo is Spanish native.

  19. 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.

  20. 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.

    1. That\’s the best way to do it. 😉

  21. 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!

  22. 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.

  23. 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.

  24. 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.

    1. 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'….

    2. 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.

    3. 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.

    4. Ils a and il a sound the same.

  25. “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?

  26. 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.

  27. 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.

  28. One thing it seems no one mentions but nonetheless important.
    Without enough attention to grammar, you run the risk of falling into the pidgen trap. Haven't all of us seen someone speaking a horrible version of a langugae barely understandable. I've seen a guy from South America who has lived in the US for over 25 years but speaks such a mangled English because he apparently lacked formal schooling and studying. It's as if his English is advertising his unflattering background.
    It's one thing if you're already a learned, language sensitive guy, but for an average person studying proper grammar keeps you from acquiring a butchered version of the language.

  29. I truly appreciate this post. I've been looking all over for this!

  30. GRAMMAR STUDY KILLS YOUR ENGLISH SPEAKING ABILITY, KILLS YOUR ENGLISH FLUENCY AND WHATNOT? Do not study grammar again. Grammar is the reason why you’re not making progress after 2 or 3 or many years of learning english.

  31. Personally, I think that grammar is important in learning foreign languages. The question, of course, is what do we mean by “grammar”? The Grammar-Translation method is a hopeless way of learning to speak a language. It’s like learning ABOUT a language rather than learning to use a language. And learning grammatical terminology, while useful as a kind of shorthand (it’s useful to be able to refer to the “definite article”, for instance), is pretty useless when you’re learning how to speak.

    One of the big problems with grammar is that it has been perverted by educators who try to use knowledge of ‘grammar rules’ as a convenient way of testing students in exams, without regard to their actual ability to use the language.

    But I don’t think it has to be that way. If grammar, especially in the form of word and sentence patterns, can be tied directly to speaking, then I think that it can be very useful in learning languages. For instance, you mentioned the imperfect/passive form in Gaelic. Rather than picking it up tiny bit by bit, I suggest that it’s more efficient to learn it as a grammatical pattern that you can expand and use in a flexible way. But the key is tying grammatical patterns to actual speech, whether through pattern drills or (preferably) a range of examples that students can refer to and apply. Language should always be aural. Hearing structures and rhythms is a good way of memorising them and putting them to use. The idea is that grammar should be made to SERVE language learning rather than having a life of its own divorced from any kind of practice.

    Needless to say, grammar is only one aspect of language. “Chunks” and set phrases are extremely useful, and communicative ability — the joy of finding that you can actually communicate with the speaker of a foreign language in their language — should also be given priority. But grammar, not as esoteric rules and terminology, but in the form of patterns that can be listened to, memorised and used, seems to me to be a useful addition to the arsenal of language learning.

  32. Different individuals have different preferences and strengths in language learning. Young children simply cannot learn complex grammar structures directly. Adults can. The advantages to teaching and learning grammar are input flooding (many examples of the same thing) and the ability to write, practice independently, and self-correct. Personally, I have learned several languages and I cannot stand the “just soak it in” approach. Some of my siblings are the opposite and learn best that way. I’m a grammar nerd and successful language learner. But I realize not everyone is the same.

  33. I agree with your approach, but don’t think it’s revolutionary – outside the formal education system things have been moving this way for a while

  34. What you have written is simply brilliant!

  35. I live in Denmark, where the English spoken here is rated quite highly amongst nations who speak it as a second language.

    They study lots of grammar, and yet can never differentiate between things like ‘he has’ v ‘he have’. As a native English speaker ‘he have’ simply sounds and feels wrong.

    My children speak both English and Danish and my youngest can understand statements like ‘se facessi questa un’altra volta, ti metteresti nei guai’. I don’t fully understand the learning process, but those who neither listen to a language nor try to speak will never become fluent irrespective of how much grammar they have learnt!!

  36. The start of this article was quite good, but when the author start
    using a child as example, it completely makes me scroll down all the way to the comment section to write this up,
    Children leaning speak first and grammar later because it’s their first language, because it’s quite impossible to learn otherwise.
    That’s the main cause of illiterate of native speakers.
    When you are talking about learning foreign language to learn, which is completely different from your mother language, you will
    and definitely need to learn the grammar first.
    It’s remains true to me as someone who learning English as my second language, which is quite different in grammatical order of my language.
    As you stated at some of the phrases up there that your grammar and vocab maybe a little inferior, so I will just make a simple example,
    Try making a sentence out from Japanese dictionary without having a clue of their grammar, you can figure how bad it is.
    Vise versa to Japanese people who trying to making sentence out from English dictionary without knowing a clue of English grammar, it will just ends up like this :
    魚が好きな人 (chisana ga suki na hito)
    “Person who likes fish”
    But when you translate it out right from dictionary, it would be
    “Fish is like person”
    Which is doesn’t make any sense.

    So let me point this out once again, learning grammar of a completely different language from your native language is essential.

  37. Very interesting look at grammar Donovan, I’m impressed. I’ve found myself discovering something similar when learning Mandarin, i.e. don’t focus on exact translation rather focus on getting the gist of what the other person is saying and learn how to repeat that. Good article.

  38. I agree completely, and what a great bunch of comments. As well as using the idea of ‘chunks of language’ another idea is that we learn through pattern recognition. For example, we remember a face as a whole, not by working out various distances between and sizes of eyes, ears, nose etc.

  39. I’ve really enjoyed the article above, as well as many of the comments! I agree that, while useful, knowledge of grammar isn’t essential when looking to learn a language. Even in English, my native tongue, knowledge of correct grammar can at times be a hinderance, especially when speaking with people with a speech pattern which uses grammar ‘incorrectly’. I certainly don’t attempt to ‘correct’ my conversational partner when I hear “I goes to school”, “She do drive a bus”, or “Where to you going?”, as the meaning of the phrases are obvious, despite not being what one would learn from a textbook. I’m at the very early stages of learning Levantine Arabic, and my future conversational partners will range from those who are fully-educated and proficient in their own tongue, to many who might be illiterate and may themselves have scant regard for grammar. All I want to do is to learn enough to ensure that I can make myself understood, and to understand those with whom I speak. I’ll leave ‘correct’ grammar for later!

  40. Hi everybody
    Thanks Donovan I feel I’ve finally found my language soulmate that I’ve been l
    looking for , for years!
    After learning my English mother tongue in the US , I learned French at 8 when the family moved to Paris so with my sister we are, what we call indetectable bilinguals.
    This sounds very impressive but it turns
    out half of the world population speaks two languages every day( one of which has no written grammatical rules ) and most of them are illeterate.
    30 years ago , I joined my father who had been teaching languages both French and English orally for the previous 30 years.

    1 First of all being an agricultural engineer he gave me some scientific information about oal language:

    A study by the Sorbonne linguists recording 300000 words of adult conversations all around France:
    175 words represented 80 % of them

    2 Another study by a language school named Rapid English showed a Britsh persons use of spoken english:
    3 tenses represent 60%
    Present :20%
    Preterit :25%
    Future: 15%
    Present Perfect: 3.8 %
    Present Continuous 1.8 %

    3 A French linguist doctorate reseacher in the Lyon university discovered the following scientific facts about oral French
    Oral language speed 12/16 sounds per second .
    Aural (hearing ) 4/ 6 sounds per second

    The Stroop effect discovered by this scientist and explained in his PHD thesis in the 1930’s
    It demontrates quite simply the great difficulty of processing two pieces of information at the same time(try it online
    ,it’s fun)

    Personally , I’ ve continued on this quest for scientific facts to help me understand

    1 An article in “Courrier international ”
    in 1992 described the following market study

    4500 adulfs from 10 founding European countries were thoroughly tested for their understanding of a fictitious english tv news program

    Scandinavian countries+Holland 75/80%
    ( they have no dubbing on tv so they english every day)

    Others:less than 10%
    Portugal 10% only dubbed partially)
    Germany 9%
    Belgium 9%( the Flemish don’t dub)

    France2.5%
    Italy 2%
    Spain 2%

    2 Equally an article in 2005 in Courrier International read by CEO ‘s in France :

    South Koreans spend 17 billion dollars in english language learning evey year
    As it’s their personal money they spend 900 million dollars a year in recognized tests like the TOEIC

    World rank in 2005 : 120th country

    At my son’s marriiage to a South Korean I experienced this firsthand in the high tech city of Daejon .
    Only international hotel personnel understood english. In the enormous showcase Samsung store with 50 employees, only one spoke english.

    3 The M.I.T director of the Cognitive Science deparment Steven Pinker talks about the following experiment in his book : Instinct of Language
    They reproduced electronically the sound frequencies of an 8 word common sentence.(no human sounds

    They asked a large number of people to hear it individually with no explanation to see if anybody would recognize it.

    Nobody did
    Most people said they heard electronic beeps
    Some said it sounded like Star Trek

    Luckily one said it sounded like the robot R2D2 in Star Wars.

    Happy that one person recogniised a communication system and,
    after thinking about it they decided to tell them the truth and asked them if the recognised the sentence

    30% recognised it!
    The most extraordinary thing is that

    4 Children learn to understand their language much faster than I thought

    One of my cousins who lived in Montreal started teaching a very simplified sign language to her 8 month old baby girl.
    A few months laterghis cousin visited my mother in her ihouse in the U.S
    She told me that this 1 year old came into the kitchen and asked where the cat was in sign language . My mother explained to her without gesturing where she thought it was , and the little one came back with the kitten a few minutes later.

    All this boils down to a simple discovery that you’ve experienced yourself .

    Something stops people who have learned languages in school from being able to understand them.

    Analysing what indetectable bilinguals do with their oral languages that monolingjals don’t is a possible answer:

    1 They don’t have a word dictionary in their head which means they very rarely translate words .
    To translate a word I need to say a sentence with it , which brings up a similar sentence in the second language.

    2 Most important and practically impossible for school trained monolonguals.

    They separate their eyes from their ears:

    Most language learners can’t help seeing the words in their heads when they hear them in a sentence and many think it’s useful.

    3 They don’t divide back into words contracted and linked sounds heard.

    To make sure they understand, monlinguals often want to
    isolaTEACHWORD ( because of links and contractions other words and sounds appear in english sentences like CHW TEACH….)

    4 They never refer to grammar either tne functions or the rules.

    Just to wrap up the situation .

    Maybe but just maybe, if language learners , including myself in german and russian could begin to acquire these four
    bilingual approaches , providing they stop reading english and they listen everyday to very basic english audios. .
    There’s a good chance fast oral progress in their school learned languages will appear even in the first month of listening.

    There was a language revolution in the first years of the 20th century but there were no blogs so each linguist around the world had only one new idea. My favourite is the British linguist Edgar or Edward Sweet:

    “Although language is made of words we do not speak in words but in sentences.
    From a practical point of view, as well as a scientific point of view the unit of language is the sentence not the word.
    From a purely phonetic point of view the word does not exist.
    If someone can learn their mother tongue by repetition , reproduction and imitation of sound patterns without learning anything by heart
    then they can learn any other language the same way.”

    Again it’s great this blog exists

    Thank’s all

    Christian Leconte

  41. I disagree. An adult has to eventually come to grips with learning some of the grammar of the target language, L2. Just simply because you’re an adult. That’s just something you won’t escape, maybe except by total immersion where you have the opportunity of, as a friend put it, ‘redoing your child’. Most native speakers of the target language you’ll meet aren’t gonna be five year olds, they’d be adults who, in addition to being totally immersed, have had varying degrees of formal education on their language, including grammar obviously. You have to realise that most adult L2 learners don’t have the immediate opportunity of an immersive experience, so they easily rush off to the nearest language book/class/school/course to meet their learning needs. The question is, do they know what exactly these needs/skills are before diving in? Here they are in general.

    Pre-literate: Speaking and (therefore) listening.
    Literate: Reading and writing.

    I guess your argument here is in favour of acquiring the former first, and I will agree with you on that. Even then, some grammar learning will still be included in those.

  42. I was originally going to disagree with you, but after reading your post and a long debate between you and someone else in the comments, I think that I now mostly agree with you. I still believe that grammar is important, but I think that it may be best to leave everything aside from the very basics to after you have achieved some fluency in the language. Personally, I have found that learning German is somewhat easier because I started with a program that focused primarily on pronunciation and dialogues instead of jumping straight into heavy grammar instruction.

    Anyway, I believe that it would be beneficial to start focusing a little more on learning chunks of a language as you explained in your post. I am currently teaching myself German. Do you have any suggestions (beyond using phrasebooks) on how to start using this method? For example, would it be beneficial for a beginner to listen to a German podcast or read a German newspaper?

  43. There are several problems with your thesis in this article.

    You say you haven’t “memorized vocabulary lists” for Irish, but you’ve obviously memorised “pre-fabricated chunks” of Irish – what are they if not items of vocabulary? You say you haven’t studied any syntax, yet all your “chunks” are in order demanded by Irish syntax.

    You say you’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”; iIn other words, they *don’t* know English grammar better than you!

    You recommend ‘Rocket Languages’ phrasebooks, but their website says things like this: “you MUST know the mechanics of how French works for you to truly master French. French, like most languages, has a completely different sentence structure to English, which means that you need to have that structure explained to you, it’s not something that you can pick up by osmosis!” That goes against what you say in this article, and is also not at all true – French has a very similar sentence structure to English (i.e. SVO, placement of adjuncts and adverbials).

    Also, try learning a polysynthetic language and getting the morphemes in the wrong order – “pre-fabricated chunks” just don’t work in such agglutinative languages – you’ll soon realise the importance of ‘grammar’. Ditto the particles in Japanese – insert those by the wrong chunk and you’ll come a cropper.

    I hate to say it, but I could go on.

    1. Jac, you can know something through studying it, or by internalizing it. They are not the same, you know. I myself have internalized the patterns of English, Dutch, German and Japanese to some extent using a no-grammar, or grammar-lite approach. And you can remember words, phrases and word patterns through means other than memorization too.

  44. Word. I’ve studied Portuguese for 4 years by pretty much just talking talking talking. I read a lot to improve my vocabulary. My grammar is ok. I like studying the subjunctive grammar, but really only to learn the conjunctions for more complex sentence contruction. I tell my teacher all the time “I’m done with the grammar exercises. I need to just sit and have conversations with you and talk and practice whats on this paper.” I can conjugate anything in any tense pretty much in the language, but when it comes to actually PRODUCING the sentences on a whim, it’s much more difficult. But again, for me, its very multi faceted. I wouldn’t say grammar study is worthless, but its definitely not the MOST productive thing to be doing with my time. Oh, and BTW, Rocket Languages was the first method I used to learn portuguese, and it is an AWESOME product for beginners.

  45. I learned to speak Spanish both fluently and grammatically correctly in two years while doing volunteer work in Colombia. I arrived knowing very few words, nothing about grammar and understanding virtually nothing that was being said. The work required teaching people a set of standard lessons and the best l could do in the beginning was just read my parts as well as I could. It was clear that the people couldn’t understand what I was reading, but my fellow volunteers still had me do my parts each time. I was out among the people teaching and otherwise listening to and trying to communicate in Spanish for about twelve hours a day. After about three months of that, I found I could understand much of what was being said and speak well enough to teach my lessons without reading and otherwise meet my basic communication needs. As I started understanding more, my interest in studying grammar grew substantially because it now had become relevant to me –particularly the verb conjugations. I continued to immerse myself in the actual use of the language during my working hours and would spend some time at night studying grammar, looking up relevant words and reflecting on any communication problems I might have had during the day.

    After returning, I took a 24 credit hour Spanish college course for people who had learned Spanish via a foreign experience and easily got an A. The professor expressed amazement at my command of the grammar.

    While I mostly attribute my ability to understand and speak Spanish to being immersed in the use of the language, I don’t think I would speak it nearly as correctly if I hadn’t also taken the time to study the grammar. I met a lot of people who could reasonably understand and defend themselves in Spanish after two years without studying grammar but I never met such a person who speaks grammatically correct Spanish.

    If I had to choose between immersion in the language and studying grammar, I would certainly recommend immersion. However, I think that studying grammar while immersed in the language is ideal.

    1. Good comment. The method you describe puts grammar in its place.

  46. Dear Mr. Nagel,

    Quite simply: You remove the FEAR of learning and introduce JOY. I am 72 yrs., of age & discovered this shortly after I left school some 56 yrs., ago, wondering why I could not remember anything I had learned, not French, maths, History etc., I picked up a ‘Learn French’ book in 1997 & realised I knew everything; it had been in my subconscious all that time. I have since applied this theory to many different skills. Thank you.

    Yours faithfully

    F.J.K.

  47. I always wonder why almost all the English native speaking teachers say that English learners should learn English without translation and without learning grammar. Have they ever seen English speaking people learning a foreign language without translation and without learning grammar? In this post the author recommends the Rocket English as a very good language learning course. Haven’t he noticed that all its language courses have English transliteration and English translation of each word and of each phrase? Furthermore, all of them have grammar sections which is accessible only in the payable version. It means that that learning program is bad because it violates the main principle of native speakers: no translation, no grammar. Why then the author recommends it as a good program? Can he learn Russian, for example, without translation and without learning grammar?

  48. Many years ago (1970s), I took two years of German in high school and then studied it for two more years and received a Two-Year Degree in German from a Junior College. Funny thing is, I never really learned German. What did we study? Mostly, grammar.

    I can still recite most of a monologue I had to memorize in high school. But ask me to compose my own sentence on the fly — probably not going to happen.

  49. It seems like the article presents the study of grammar as a straw man- the article seems to talk about cases where people focus heavily or exclusively on learning grammar, with boring materials that don’t use key vocabulary, and with translation. Of course such an approach is destined to fail- although translation is not without its merits. Like any other method, it shouldn’t be used exclusively.
    The article says that all over the world, people get bad results in their learning because of focusing only on grammar. But there are places where people have good results in their learning, and they definitely study grammar. For example, in Northern European countries, they generally have a great level of English, and they definitely study grammar. Not as the core of their studies, but it is definitely in the curriculum. It’s safe to say that none of those very successful language learners learned English without learning its grammar.
    I can say from my personal success stories learning languages (French, Russian, German, Spanish, all but the last at B2 level or higher), that learning grammar was one of several critical ingredients in my success.
    I can also say from my own teaching- I have been teaching English since 2005- that grammar, while not critical to making oneself understood in speech, is critical when trying to understand others. I have had beginner-level students who don’t know how plural endings are pronounced, the difference between “Who do you like?” and “Who likes you?”; these people understand the words of the texts they read- but they don’t understand the message of the text because details are lost.
    Lastly, if you are learning a language and are translating L2 phrases and sentences into L1 ones en masse (think Glossika), then you are in fact studying grammar in some way. But without explanations of the grammar, you are just hoping for the best. Again, grammar study is useful, but it has to have its proper place in the curriculum, not taking up too much space and not too little; grammar lessons should make use of numerous examples, and high frequency vocabulary.

  50. Hi. Super interesting discussion!! I speak 5 languages and acquired in different ways. I do believe in the complete submersion idea. Not always possible and takes conscious effort and persistence unless you are dumped in a foreign country for a while. But I don’t think grammar learning is necessary actually unless for the purpose of writing . There are fantastic musicians that don’t read music. I am thinking of many gypsy musicians who learned to play together by just learning the instrument technically and then by listening to other musicians. I guess if they were to compose music for others outside of their group or orchestra they would need to learn how to read music. Speaking and writing/ reading is two different things even though clumped together as one most often. I find languages fascinating . Speaking a language takes guts and willingness to look and sound foolish. Cheers to all of you on your journeys into uncharted territory. Many blessings!!

  51. Late to the convo. I do agree with you that speaking and reading heavily (and writing) are the best ways to learn a language. It needs to be heavily tilted that way. I have taught Latin several years and my real breakthrough was conducting the entire class in Latin orally. It’s still not as good as the old days when it was immersion in Latin and fluency in a year.

    That said grammar is very important and the logic that goes with it. It can be fun and interesting. It’s mastery, however, or unconscious recall only comes from speaking or reading (the latter especially in the case of fine distinctions that are not used in oral speech). Anyways, I agree with you mostly. In learning Spanish now, I’ve done no grammer yet really. I probably will soon, but just bit by bit. I’m actually putting it all together without effort in my mind since I’m very much a grammarian.

    For real grammer I recommend the site “The Underground Grammarian”, and you’ll see that their is much more to it that you think, not to mention logic and rhetoric, the lost arts.

    1. Of course, my grammar on internet posts is deplorable. Embarrassing! But I write quickly and without attention. haha.

  52. Hello,
    I would like to ask if you have any materials to learn English through chunks. Any short dialogues or videos which I could listen and also I think it is important that would be helpful if someone could explain particular chunks. Because I can find some dialogues on Youtube but for me where English is my second language it is difficult to find out which phrases are actually chunks. Do you have materials like that? Made by you or someone else?

  53. Hello
    For the last 20 years , I’ve been teaching english with a chunk method called
    L’ANGLAIS TOUT DE SUITE from Langues pour tous, because it’s the best I’ve found.
    Each bilingual french/ english audio unit deals with only one structure and as there are 20 units you can enormously improve your english with this one audio.
    This method is based on a scientific study that demonstates that 75 % of oral language is covered by 175 words.
    Here’s a link where you can download the audios several different audio methods .
    Start with the first to consolidate your oral english bases.
    LISTEN to one unit ( about one minute ) everyday once for one week before going on to the second unit . If you find it too easy , your ears don’t , so give them the time to really hear the basic sound chunks that are going to change your your english.

    Have fun
    Christian Leconte

    1. Thank You very much.
      I don’t know why but this link doesn’t work. Are you sure this site exist?

      Thank you in advance

  54. I am fascinated by your methods. How would you apply chunking to Koine Greek and biblical Hebrew?

  55. You’ve missed ‘n’ in ‘impeding’, sorry.

  56. I am nearly 7 years late…but oh well.

    What happened to good ol’ grammar AND speaking? The problem in the classrooms is not becaus epeople don’t speak, it’s because they have neither real motivation nor partners to talk to (it’s either teacher or their fellow students, and they talk on pre-set topics and not because they are genuinly curious about something).

    Duolingo practices the same approach. Minimize the grammar or cut it out completely via A/B tests, make people go as far as possible without reading anything about their target language. As the result, comments are full with learners asking questions like “why is it ‘an’ instead of ‘a’ here?” or “what the hell is ‘nous sommes mardi’?” over an over again, when all it take it just one line of explanation to read and remember. Nouns starting with a vowel require ‘an’ in English. “Nous sommes ___” is a set phrase used in French to talk about days of the week. That’s not that hard and long a read.

    Once I was supposed to go outside for a few hours and I asked the girl that was going with me if I should take water. She said she took it. Turned out she didn’t, she just mixed up tenses necause of her poor grammar. And now every time I hear or read that grammar is not really neccesary and you can do just fine without it, I sincerely wish that person to find themselves in rural India when it’s +40 (~104 F) outside with no effing water.

    Sure, speaking is important, and it’s important to learn live language, not tables and spreadsheets. But it must be supported by reasonable grammar studies that will help you navigate it so much better.

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