I’ve written about learning grammar in great detail before, but it’s worth mentioning again. This time I’ll attempt to give a concise summary of the steps I take in learning a language (skipping a lot of details obviously).
Grammar: from the start, in the middle or never?
The way I learn grammar has been very effective for me and something I’d highly recommend to people frustrated with all those damn tables clogging up their language learning studies, but who also have a technical mindset and need some structure to their language in the long term.
Some people can avoid grammar altogether, and that’s fine and a part of many approaches, especially those who claim to allow you to learn “as babies do”. Sounds great, but I genuinely feel that as adults we have a major advantage in that we can think logically about a language, and understanding grammar can help us progress quicker than trying to intuitively pick up the language passively. Incorporating a grammar rule that way will take a very long time, and require a huge amount of exposures.
Nothing wrong with taking your time, but I prefer (and require) speed and efficiency.
The other extreme and more academic solution of starting by intensively studying grammar is also a huge mistake in my view if your focus is to speak as soon as possible. This makes little sense if you aren’t studying for a grammar exam.
Without context and words, grammar has nothing to latch on to and all it may ever be is a list of tedious rules in your mind.
Getting forced to learn too much German grammar in school put me off the language entirely (DER/DIE/DAS tables are all that comes to mind; I found it all so tedious and cared so little that I ended up getting a C in my final exam which in retrospect was laughably easy) until I tried again with a much better approach almost 12 years later.
A middle approach to grammar
This is what I suggest instead of starting with intensive grammar study or avoiding it altogether:
- Learn as many phrases from a travel phrase book as you can, and learn as many words as you can (the pre-made decks for Anki used in SRS are currently my favourite for getting good starting vocab).
- Find natives immediately, even as shortly as a few hours or days after starting to learn (online through language learning sites, or set up in-person meetings) and use these phrases, and replace words occasionally. Try to invent new sentences and forget about being perfect. As they reply, try to understand individual words rather than the whole sentence, and extrapolate what they mean based on that. Ask them to repeat to be sure.
- In talking to people, the language will have context in your mind. You will also notice major issues you are having and can look those specifically up in a grammar book if you wish. Trust me, when you are actively looking for something specific it will stick in your mind! However, these are almost always overshadowed by lack of vocabulary; the real major issue when starting off and what you would learn between each spoken session, based on what you want to say. Generic courses don’t take your personal interests into account; learn what you generally talk about. Only learn what you need to learn. Go back and speak with mistakes. You know you are making mistakes, and the other person knows you are a learner. It turns out the world won’t end.
- After a few weeks of doing this intensively you will have a good basic familiarity and feel for the language. You’ll have learned enough words to express many things, but be well aware of how much you are “butchering” the language, from the many corrections you’ll have gotten and the difference in how natives speak to you. Laugh it off, since nobody really cares that much about your mistakes except you. However, with a bit of flow and now that you are knee-deep in the language, it’s time to intensively study that grammar! Get a good grammar book from your library/bookshop or search for explanations online and study them sparsely at first to get an OK overview of everything, and then go back to speak. Get some more practice and then come back and study the grammar in more detail and do exercises. Go back again and speak, now doing it so much better than before! Combine studying and speaking and you will be on your way to fluency quicker than ever.
By learning grammar after you have had a start speaking the language, it actually becomes interesting. The faceless tables and lists of irregular verbs become explanations of why your friend that you have been conversing with phrased things a certain way.
Grammar can be a waste of time when starting (unless you really do like to take your sweet time); it’s only purpose is to tidy up your mistakes so you speak properly; it does little to help in essential basic communication in many cases.
Perfectionism is what a grammar-focused approach is obsessed with. This is not useful when you have real goals with it; getting your point across is key. Conjugation, gender agreement and correct word order be damned. People will understand you as you speak initially, and be patient to help you. Be active in using what you’ve learned, while also being passive in reading and listening to native material.
As you read the rules now with some actual experience in living through the language in real conversations, lightbulbs are constantly lighting in your head as you study grammar and it all starts to make sense. Grammar actually becomes enjoyable.
Mistakes will only be burned into slow learners with no intent
Some argue that by speaking with mistakes from the start you will “fossilize” those mistakes into your head forever. This could happen if you learn slowly over many years, as the mistakes simply become a part of you.
That’s why slow approaches really require that you a) learn grammar from the start or b) not learn grammar, learn passively and never ever speak until your spider sense tingles in 16 years to tell you that you are finally “ready”. Apparently you’ll “know when it comes”.
But if you’ve been doing it for just a few weeks you can adjust how you speak. You are still moulding your language; it has not solidified into a malformed pot just yet!
The emotional impact of seeing why and how you have been speaking wrong burns it into your mind more powerfully than the few couple of times you may have used it incorrectly ever could. Perhaps you believe that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but you aren’t an old dog. Even if you are approaching 100 years old you can still look at learning a language with fresh eyes.
I’ve been using this approach in learning my languages, more recently with Dutch. After one month of speaking and studying vocabulary, over the last weekend I finally studied grammar. It was an incredible experience!
Everyone knows how much I hate studying and feel how worthless it can be when it’s your entire focus, but when used in the right context it feels like you are finally finding clues in a detective novel that you are already deeply involved in. As I read a rule, instead of looking at my watch while bored, I am saying to myself “So that’s why they say it like that!! Cool!”
Being given those clues right from the start would spoil the story. Avoiding them entirely will mean that parts of the story just won’t fit and make sense. Get into it the language learning story and then when the time is right, solve the mystery
As always, I’m curious to read your thoughts on this! Let us know in the comments below.
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This article was written by Benny Lewis
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