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Learning grammar… do I have to?

| 67 comments | Category: learning languages

For most people, the grammar issue is a huge question. So you may be surprised to see I haven’t written a post just about it despite a year and a half of blogging about languages and related topics.

The reason is simple: there is no one-size-fits-all solution. I have my method, and someone else will tell you the exact opposite. Ultimately any method could work due to a combination of aspects of it that may indeed be efficient or simply the placebo effect of it motivating you to do something else useful.

What is mostly crucial in any method depends hugely on the end-goals, and on the person’s own learning style. This definitely applies to studying grammar.

Having said that, today I’ll share my opinions on learning grammar as part of your language learning goals. I’ll try to give a good guideline for what I feel works best when the end-goal is spoken fluency. For different goals (like passing an exam), a different approach would be necessary.

Grammar: The endless quest for perfection

My general advice for beginner second-language-learners when it comes to grammar is simple: Don’t make it a priority, or better yet, skip it and come back to it later, after you have already gained the confidence to speak using set phrases and gotten a feeling for the language in a real context.

German was ruined for me in school because of how much grammar was discussed. I am very confident that this is similar for many people – a grammar-focused approach frames a language as a totally unnatural set of rules, making it feel like the language is made up of nothing but those dreadful tables.

At the end of the day, grammar does not help you speak. Studying it until you knew it perfectly, wouldn’t help you in the slightest bit if you had no words to fill it in, or confidence to use what you know with actual human beings.

The problem is that grammar is a never ending story, or an endless quest for perfection as I like to call it. You’ll never know all the grammar. There are always hidden exceptions, strange irregular verbs you might not have mastered yet and so on. When you see all this, it’s depressing and really makes it feel like a language actually should take years to learn to get beyond just the basics.

The best time for grammar is mañana

You do not need grammar to speak a language. Academics can be cry babies all they like, but this is a fact.

You can indeed get by with some phrases, and if you understand a decent amount of vocabulary, as well as being familiar with how they sound, you can get the gist of replies. The problem is of course, that you can’t speak a language well without doing it correctly, so in the intermediate to upper level stages in your progress in a language, grammar starts to become much more important.

But the thing is – natives don’t tend to learn grammar of their own languages until much later in life (if at all), and that’s only really an issue in formal contexts like writing.

In English for example, people regularly use double negatives (I ain’t going nowhere) and in my dialect some of us don’t care much for precise use of the present perfect, so you’ll perhaps hear me say “I done” (with no “have”). Both of these are the grammatical equivalent of burping loudly at a high class dinner party and would cost you dearly in exam situations. But these and many more “mistakes” are actually the norm for many people.

I’ve even had to unlearn grammar rules to make myself sound more authentic. In Portuguese for example, I use “incorrect” conjugation when trying to speak like a Carioca, and I’m congratulated for it way more than I would be for using the right one!

What natives do is to just speak a lot and one way of saying it becomes really natural. It just sounds right.

Until I started teaching English, I didn’t have a clue what a past participle was, and I didn’t need to know. In languages that I have been practising for long enough, I can assure you that I am not stopping to think about having genders agree with one another, it just sounds right because of all the practice I’ve had.

Grammar is useful for making a language sound correct, but not for actually getting started

As well as this, it has no context in your mind. Grammar acts as a wall between you and fluency – holding you back from the language rather than being a vital part of it.

My good rule of thumb for many people is to start with phrasebooks, continue learning and constantly practising despite speaking badly, and when you are somewhat familiar with the language and how it sounds, then when you go look at grammar books, they are actually interesting!

Seriously – you see the rule explained for something you’ve heard hundreds of times already and suddenly think to yourself so that’s why they say it that way!! When grammar has something to attach to, then it starts to really become a crucial part of a language.

But grammar CAN be fun!

Because grammar explanations can make what otherwise seems completely random, and way too confusing, actually make sense, I should say (despite the tone of this post) that I’m not anti-grammar. I actually like grammar believe it or not!

I make grammar learning a crucial part of my work in improving my level in a given language. When I’m at a particular stage I really do like to break things up and analyse the precise grammatical reason for saying something one way, and make sure I understand it fully so I can apply it myself to a brand new sentence I just made up. This way I can be confident that what I’m saying is right.

Although this is the first post about grammar in itself that I’ve written, I have indeed discussed grammar in the context of particular languages, to reframe it to make it seem easier in the cases of Czech, Hungarian and German. My goal is to make it interesting and make sure it seems logical and straightforward.

My beef with the traditional academic approach is in how it drowns people in grammar from the start, and does it in such a way as to make it as inhuman and robotic as possible. When the language is a means of communication in your mind already, then applying grammar to that could be a good idea and you may even like it!

It depends on your style

As I said at the start, there really isn’t one solution to this grammar problem that will work for everyone.

Although I hate to use these labels, since they tend to do more damage in imposing restrictions than anything else, let’s go with the broad idea of imagining that you consider yourself either artistic or technical.

If you are artistic, then the technical nature of grammar can be really tedious and hold you back from natural conversations. You’ll be more likely to just get that it “sounds right” after enough exposure. It isn’t Je suis and tu es because the French grammar book says so, but because you’ve simply heard it this way thousands of times.

You could even learn the language to fluency without ever touching a grammar book, however if you sat an exam it would phrase questions so unnaturally that you’d be scratching your head.

But very few of us actually sit such exams in the real world after college, so to be totally blunt who gives a shit if you can’t explain why something is right if you know it’s right anyway? Maybe you simply have no real need to intensively learn the grammar.

Then again, maybe your mentality is more technical.

How an engineer looks at a language

I certainly consider myself more of this technical mindset. In this case, some logical analysis and lateral thinking could help you tidy up the edges of what you’ve been speaking. I actually look at a language the same way I do at a Chemical or Mathematical equation, since I apply engineering concepts to languages.

So I treat:

Las papas fritas son pequeñas

the same way I do:

(x + 5)(x - 2) = x^2 + 3x - 10

Where each colour is something to be equated on either side of the “equals” (is/are).

Leaving anything out creates an imbalance, which lingers on as an aftertaste as I say something if I made a mistake. That last word can’t be “pequeño” because it creates imbalance in the sentence, which is all feminine plural. It has to be “son” (they are) and not “es” (it is), because the ‘s’ at the end of the words demands this conjugation.

Now I know what most of you might be thinking – performing these calculations as or just before you speak would be a monstrous task that would likely lead to your brain melting. I don’t do this. Grammar for me is only useful in retrospect, as a correction tool to help me improve what I’ve got.

The priority is always to say something. So I will just say it wrong and then self-correct after I’ve said it (nothing wrong with saying it twice) and have time to analyse my words, but have done the more important thing of getting my meaning across to the other person.

So for me, grammar comes in to fine tune what I’ve already got. I get corrections and see “oh yes, that correction is because I’ve used a plural noun so it has to be the third person conjugation…” or whatever. Most natives would instantly tell you what’s wrong, but unless they are academics would be at a loss to tell you why.

I learn the rules so I can make the absolute best out of natives’ corrections, not so I can try to perform all of these complex calculations before speaking. Doing so could and DOES intimidate people to never even try in the first place.

If you think nobody could ever put up with your “pathetic” attempts to speak their language with so many mistakes that is bound to happen without the grammar, then you have to realise that firstly people are much more patient than you think they are (especially in other countries) and secondly without getting corrected, you are stuck in a vicious circle of being too afraid to ever make mistakes and you’ll never improve.

Different strokes for different folk

Now of course, I am not suggesting that everyone treats language learning and grammar in the same way I do as illustrated in the colours above. If you have a technical background though, it may be a helpful suggestion to you. Then again maybe you love grammar anyway and are happy to learn it from the start.

Or perhaps the thought of spending any time learning about cases and genders makes you want to run screaming for the hills. That’s fine too – you just have to realise that you’d need more exposure to learn a rule that could make a hell of a lot of sense when explained the right way to you.

In my opinion, for the quickest path to fluency you have to bite the bullet and study grammar, but only when you have something to apply it to. But you will definitely find many successful language learners who never touched it (although they would have needed way more exposure and hence time, for a particular phrasing to just sound right).

But even getting the right books to explain that to you is an entirely other issue. Various popular courses tend to mix it in with some context and vocabulary so you aren’t drowning in it. This tends to be a huge improvement over the academic approach, but if you’re really feeling adventurous you can buy a book entirely about grammar for that language.

This is what I tend to do, but it’s only because I’ve been so inundated with grammar through various languages in the last few years that I feel like I should almost count ‘grammar jargon’ as an extra language that I know… getting used to this terminology is in itself a huge drag on your potential progress, but once you speak a few languages it starts to become second nature. So as you can see, it’s pretty damn hard to define the “one magic way” to deal with this thing!

I can’t give the one solution, but I hope this post perhaps inspires you as to what way you could deal with or avoid grammar (i.e. use your time more efficiently in other aspects) in a way that will best work for you.

Just keep in mind that grammar is not a language, it’s polishing to make that language sound more correct. Never forget that – you are allowed to make grammar mistakes with natives. Not being afraid to make mistakes may be the biggest thing by far that helps you progress in it.

Let me know your thoughts on this in the comments below!

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  • http://do.australii.pl Paul Pela

    This approach works for me! This is the way I’ve learned English, Greek, French and maybe other languages too. In fact, when it comes to English grammar, I’m a total fool ;) Often times people came to me at school because they knew I’m good in English and they asked me things like “what’s a relative clause? can you explain it to me?” Well, I still don’t know what a relative clause is (except that it has something to do with the “if” word and I don’t want to know :D ) I’ve tried to learn it once because my teacher asked me to do it (she didn’t like me, as I later found out) and I got an F for following those rules. But when I learned Latin, I’ve learned mostly grammar and I can write but not speak. So maybe that’s the rule: if you mainly want to speak – don’t learn grammar, if you mainly want to write – learn grammar first. What do you think?

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      Good rule of thumb!

    • Bartek

      A relative clause, which is indeed something you don’t need to understand, is the part of this sentence between the commas.

  • http://www.phrasemix.com/ Aaron @ PhraseMix

    Agreed. Grammar is a layer that is applied on top of language. Any approach to language learning that makes it central is going to cause a lot of frustration.

    • Bartek

      A grammar is the codification of a language to standardize it…..to describe it in other words. It is something to reference, not to learn rule by rule.

  • http://www.phrasemix.com/ Aaron @ PhraseMix

    Agreed. Grammar is a layer that is applied on top of language. Any approach to language learning that makes it central is going to cause a lot of frustration.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      Sounds about right. Schools are excellent frustration factories and they’re all about the grammar :D

  • http://twitter.com/wyromaster Brian/병욱

    I’ve found that the best way to learn grammar is to ask native speakers who aren’t teachers to explain it to you. Most of the time, instead of a difficult academic explanation, they’ll probably explain it in a way that’s lets you learn how to use it more naturally. Even better, most of the time I get them to explain it in their native language, so I get twice the benefit! Lately, I’ve heard a lot of comments from friends saying that my Korean sounds too textbook-y and unnatural, so I’ve shelved my books for now and just started asking my friends for help.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      Have you had luck with that? I find that most natives I ask would just say “It’s just like that! There is no rule!” in an unhelpful way, but do indeed (obviously) tell me the right way, which is why I personally need to know the rule myself.

      I assure you, if you asked a typical English speaker (who is not into languages) what the difference between “I ate” and “I have eaten” is, you won’t get a useful answer. It depends on the culture – Germans and French for example seem to know how to explain their languages very well.

      • http://twitter.com/wyromaster Brian/병욱

        So far it’s worked out well. Of course, I sometimes get the occasional, “It’s just like that.” If they have trouble explaining the grammar, they’ll give a good amount of example sentences and explain in what contexts it can be used. That actually helps me more than any textbook explanation of grammar.

        For example, there are different types of sentence structures that are simply explained as “because” or “since” in Korean, but there are certain times when one type sounds more natural than the other. In those cases, the textbooks (at least the ones I’ve seen) aren’t useful in explaining the nuances, and that’s when I feel it’s more valuable to just ask a native speaker for examples and their opinion on usage. In my opinion, it’s easier to remember example sentences and their contexts than to remember a dry, drawn-out linguistic explanation. I guess in essence, it all goes back to using the language rather than just sitting around and studying it.

        • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

          Not sure if I agree – I feel that there is a rule for everything, no matter how many “nuances” there may be. Your books may just not be doing it well enough – this is why I get a grammar focused book myself as the brief explanations in popular courses tend to be too superficial.

          Lots of examples will get you a good feel for it, but as I say I still use grammar to understand the logic behind it, even if it’s dry and drawn-out ;) . Whatever works though for you personally though is worth keeping up!

          • http://joop.kiefte.eu/ Joop Kiefte

            I agree with you both I think, and let me explain you why.

            As far as I learned languages until now there are basically 2 kind of languages: languages with an easy grammar, where people can know the grammar rules and correct you on that mercilessly, and languages that are so complex that the grammar rules are practically only derived from real world use and the explaination is just a way to make you sound more natural.

            I think Spanish and Esperanto (and German?) are good examples of languages where the grammar is pretty easy and understood largely by most speakers, while English, Dutch and Portuguese are less well-described and riddled with exceptions out of real world usage, most never written in books. Of course this is never 100% the case, but it is an explaination that works for me and explains a lot of the things you “preach” (and also why a lot of people are pretty succesfull in Esperanto using grammar-based methods).

            And Benny, I must confess I am pretty addicted by good grammar explainations as well. :)

          • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

            Sorry but I don’t see how you can possibly think that Spanish grammar is somehow “easier” than Portuguese grammar. I believe those languages you listed (other than Esperanto) are actually the languages you have the most experience in. More experience means you know more of the exceptions and perhaps presume less exist in those other languages?
            Grammar difficulty depends on context and attitude and is independent of any particular books that may have been printed. Then stretching that to English is very strange – it’s the most analysed language on the planet!

  • Stealthanugrah

    I agree with you 100% Benny!

    I don’t recall telling myself that I had to make sure I contracted do-not to don’t when I spoke, or use the subjunctive or any of that. When you speak, the last time I checked, NO ONE has the time to think about grammar let alone what they’re gonna say which is why we have so many umms in our sentences.

    People and poshness these days.

    Benny the Irish Polyglot :2

    Nerds/Crybabies:0

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      Haha, not sure if I’m really against the “nerds”. Didn’t you see the quadratic equation in this post? :P

  • http://twitter.com/Lenchik_P Lenka Pakhomova

    Hi Benny,
    I found your blog 1 week ago. I like it very much. I learn English a lot of years and don’t speak or write. I feel that your experience can help me. Thank you very much. :)

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      You’re doing pretty well in the comment, so keep up the good work :)

  • Jon

    I do feel understanding the grammar structure’s like SOV, OSV e.t.c are very important to know when learning a new language , but that’s how far I would probably take it for the time being, what do you think.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      I had never even heard of terms like SOV or OSV until I started this blog (i.e. 7 years into learning languages). If that works for you though, keep it up.

  • http://www.rognalf.com Kristian

    I’ve learned both norwegian and english without bothering with grammar, just like I’ve learned music without bothering with music theory. I can’t explain the theory behind beyond the basics, but I can definitely put it to use!

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      I learned music the same way I’m currently learning languages: on day one I sat in front of the piano and played it ;) Having structure and a guide certainly made a difference, but it can’t ever compare to the practice itself, which is what really made me learn.

  • http://www.youtube.com/user/FluentCzech FluentCzech

    I sometimes think of rote-memorised grammar as my emergency parachute – which I only rely on when disaster is about to hit. For every day life you need to have developed a deeply ingrained “feel” for the language, to understand rapid fire conversations and produce rapid instinctive responses. Only when all other avenues have failed, and you are truly lost for how to structure something, can you afford the luxury of thinking through memorised grammar in order to save you.

  • http://pursuinglifedaily.wordpress.com/ Talitha

    I am studying right now for the national immigrant Swedish test and just reading your take on how to look at grammar in different ways was very refreshing. I will re-open my text books and start applying rules to useful sentences and phrases to help me remember. Love the tips :) Aussie in Sweden :D

  • http://pursuinglifedaily.wordpress.com/ Talitha

    I am studying right now for the national immigrant Swedish test and just reading your take on how to look at grammar in different ways was very refreshing. I will re-open my text books and start applying rules to useful sentences and phrases to help me remember. Love the tips :) Aussie in Sweden :D

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      Best of luck in your test!!

  • http://www.google.com/profiles/108211145653718284448 Russ

    I agree with your big picture point here. But one nitpick about this part:

    > But the thing is – natives don’t tend to learn grammar of their own languages until much later in life (if at all), and that’s only really an issue in formal contexts like writing.

    > In English for example, people regularly use double negatives (I ain’t going nowhere) … these and many more “mistakes” are actually the norm for many people.

    I.e. this part of the argument seems to be that “Native speakers violate grammar often, therefore it’s no problem if you do.” But the native speakers don’t make random mistakes like a foreigner, or mistakes influenced by some other foreign language like a foreigner. Rather they understand their own “mistakes” because these mistakes are part of the language tradition – the native speakers are in effect following a meta-grammar when they make “mistakes” so that these forms aren’t even “mistakes” in the context of colloquial dialect. I.e. a native speaker might make a mistake like “I ain’t going nowhere” and other native speakers understand because they’re accustomed to that form. But if a grammatically clueless foreign speaker says “I have went place no” or something mistaken in a way that deviates from the native speaker meta-grammar of “traditional mistakes that are not really mistakes in colloquial speech”, then other people may have trouble understanding the foreigner.

    But yeah, I agree with your overall conclusion, just not this part of the argument. :)

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      I’m not saying the mistakes can be random and as you like – of course they are selective mistakes (academically speaking), which are actually correct for that dialect and it’s clear when a foreigner’s language is influencing how he speaks.

      My point is that making mistakes isn’t the end of the world, since (in one form or another) it happens to everyone, even natives, when you compare it to the book standard.

      But many times it goes beyond dialects and even natives make mistakes on things like exceptions and irregular verbs. It’s not influenced by another language, but by what is expected normally in that language.

  • http://www.creativityandlanguages.com/ Peter

    I agree that grammar is totally secondary to practice. I am learning German right now and I just decided that I will look at declinations only once I would be able to speak decently otherwise they would just confuse me. I also try to learn well few structures/rules in-depth instead than many so-and-so before learning a new one.

  • http://howlearnspanish.com/ Andrew

    “Seriously – you see the rule explained for something you’ve heard hundreds of times already and suddenly think to yourself so that’s why they say it that way!!”

    Nailed it. That’s precisely what works for me. I prefer using some type of language-learning course like Pimsleur over a phrasebook because that way you learn how to actually speak and pronounce things properly at the same time,but it amounts to the same thing: first, learn how to speak the language at at least an intermediate level, then learn why things work the way they do, and honestly it’s not even necessary even at that point.

    Cheers,
    Andrew

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      A good phrasebook like LP or Berlitz has a pretty decent pronunciation guide that can be easier to emulate than trying to mimic a native audibly for some people. I prefer to fine tune my pronunciation when I can say something already. Phrasebooks win hands down over Pimsleur in my opinion – a one dimensional course that you can’t skip to what works for you is way too limiting for me. You can skip pages in a book, but all of Pimsleur is reliant on you following their steps, even when you learn silly phrases like “My husband is hungry” irrelevant to you.

      But both Pimsleur and good phrasebooks casually mention some grammar in a non-technical way. That really is fine for our needs until we’re ready to get back to it more intensively later.

  • Alex

    Abridged version:

    Don’t study grammar from a book if you are beginner.

    Extra commentary:

    Do analyze the grammar of language that you hear, including dialects that include language like double negatives because, despite what Benny writes, even pidgins and creoles have a grammar, but not a standard one. For example, you might hear in a Black Eyed Peas song, “I’ma get drunk,” but you wouldn’t hear, “I’ma gettin’ drunk.” There’s grammar in all language, even non-standard language.

    Also, despite what Benny’s vitriolic comments insinuate about “academics”, those of us in the TESL/SLA/applied linguistics fields do have a grasp on what constitutes as productive methodology, and no self-respecting professional educator would tailor a class around rote-memorization of grammar patterns and metalanguage. Quite the opposite – We aim to enable students to be productively autonomous, much like what Benny is promoting here.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      Academics are the type of people who use words like “vitriolic”… :-P

      No need to use an “us vs you” standpoint. I thought I’ve said several times that I was a language teacher for many years. In fact, I’ve been teaching various subjects for well over 12 years, so I know a little bit about “those of us” in such fields…

      I never suggested there isn’t grammar in dialects! Bloody hell. I mean these aren’t covered by grammar books accessible by us mere mortals. I prefer to learn the grammar of the spoken language, which does indeed follow patterns, but from an academic viewpoint that isn’t grammar. I don’t mean academics as in linguists necessarily, although those who make language exams that don’t reflect what the language really sounds like, may be narrow minded linguists with a thing for the queen’s English / upper class Parisian French or whatever it may be.

      So enough with this “despite what Benny says” please. What you wrote *after* that “despite” is actually what I feel is the case in the first example, but has not been my experience in the second example other than cases like TESL, which I’ve written about in detail.

      I think you totally misunderstood what I was writing about, especially if you think I put some greater weight on the grammar of standard language as being somewhat superior! A lot of my grammar based work after finishing a book on it involves unlearning some of the nonsense it taught me that none of my friends say.

      Non-standard use of a language is something I’ll be writing about again soon.

  • Julie Duran-gelleri

    Amen to all of that!! Actually as a language teacher I find it VERY difficult to change the focus of *students*. They want to learn grammar, badly, they want rote memorization, they want mindless mechanical homework, because it feels cozy.
    Blundering in a foreign language? Not so cozy. At the beginning of each class I remind them that the more mistakes they make in my class, the better, since I can give them the right answer, and that they need to talk, talk, talk, however badly at first, to make any progress, that I’m not judging them, that I’m here to help…
    All they want to do is grammar exercises. A language teacher friend of mine was even once *reported* by her students to the head of her language school for not sticking to the grammar exercises in the book, and wanting her students to actually talk!
    Now I’ll give them the URL to your blog, that’ll teach them!!

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      Yeah, speaking is something people tend to want to avoid. I look at the language learning industry of all the software and CDs as a very complicated and expensive way of postponing the inevitable. Glad to see a teacher pushing her students to something that’s necessary, even if it’s initially undesirable! Keep it up!

  • http://mooncountry.wordpress.com/ oranje68

    I think that you make some excellent points here. Grammar is really a skeleton but you need the flesh of vocabulary to really be able to say something in a language. I think that learning simple grammatical points does help you at the start with some languages but it is definitely tedious and inefficient to spend time on the finer points of Japanese grammar if you can’t order a sandwich or ask the time.
    I have found the the Teach Yourself Instant (Language) series really useful in this respect because they are only focused on giving you basic survival vocabulary and phrases. I have been following the Russian one and it is really nice especially when I compare it to the awful Polish classes I followed ten years ago where the teacher was obsessed with the grammatical rules and didn’t seem to realize that the only people who were actually saying anything were those of us who were married to Poles and had learned it some words through exposure.
    There are no kudos for knowing the grammar of a language but keeping schtum when you are exposed to native speakers. It’s better to speak what you can badly, nobody expects learners not to make mistakes. When you can say ‘bon appetit’ spontaneously in somebody’s language you get a smile that is worth more than a grade A for grammar.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      I’ve also found Teach Yourself to be useful. It’s one I recommend, especially since it isn’t overly expensive like Rosetta Stone or Pimsleur. Then again it happens to work with my learning style and I know other people need other types of materials.
      And you’re right about people’s reactions. I’ve never had much applause for conjugating my verbs right, but when I use an interesting slang term or say a fun phrase at the right time they love me!

  • Cielo

    My English improved tremendously after I stopped bothering with grammar rules, and now I can speak fluently without a problem, it doesn’t hurt my grades, either :D A friend of mine, on the other hand, who knows all the rules by heart, is always struggling at speaking. I even learned basic Japanese just from listening to the language and repeating.

    So, from personal experience I’d say don’t bother with grammar rules! They will restrict you if you’re still insecure.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      The more rules you learn the more you have to think to apply them all. This is why I feel grammar’s place is to tidy up when the time is right rather than being constantly there from the start to intimidate you.

  • Victoria Ferauge

    “You do not need grammar to speak a language.”

    What a relief to hear someone say this.

    As a veteran of the Alliance Francaise, I can testify to the uselessness of endless grammar classes. Looking to be able to survive a job interview in French, this was not helpful. Eventually I learned because my company gave me a team of French/North African IT people to manage. What I learned was that I process language in “blocks” which vary depending on the context.

    It went much better in Japan. My Japanese professor put the focus on real situations (forget the grammar, she said). In a few short weeks I was walking into a chain store armed with “Marlboro lighto, onegaishimas” and I could give directions to the cabbie from the airport to my home in Shirokanedai”

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      I wish more people would read comments like yours so they can see I’m not the only one getting through languages quickly by focusing on natural use!
      Please spread the news – I need all the help I can get :D

      • http://www.getintoenglish.com David

        Some of the discussion seems to shoot at grammar as being the culprit, when the problem to begin with was probably the teacher.

        Today’s courses for teaching English as a foreign language put grammar in its place, a good thing to learn, yet no over-riding concern. The main skills are instead focussed on in teaching, along with vocabulary.

  • http://tlllanguagecoach.blogspot.com/ Aaron G Myers

    I fınd myself want to go the academic route of focusing on grammar but find when I hold off and maximize input it works out better in the end. Great discussion piece though and one post that ought to be shared with language learners and teachers everywhere.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      I find it funny that people see input-focused strategies as “less academic” than schools just because they decide how and when it works. To me anything that involves *studying* over natural use of the language is academic, even if there are no teachers or curriculum involved. Input-focused approaches are still studying for a future date rather than using it immediately with a native.

  • http://tlllanguagecoach.blogspot.com/ Aaron G Myers

    I fınd myself want to go the academic route of focusing on grammar but find when I hold off and maximize input it works out better in the end. Great discussion piece though and one post that ought to be shared with language learners and teachers everywhere.

  • http://twitter.com/ichigoichielove Lisa W

    A great post! I’ve done all my best language learning without much grammar, at least to start. The languages I learned “naturally” (apart from my native English and Swedish) have stuck far better than the ones I’ve only learned in the classroom/with extensive grammatical explanations.

    People give the funniest looks when I try to explain this though… but now I have a great post to link ‘em to, thanks! ^^

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      Haha great – thanks for the future sharing ;) :)

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      Haha great – thanks for the future sharing ;) :)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    Yes that’s fine. I love Mathematics for example, even when I never intend to use it in the real world.

    However, I like to remind language-enthusiasts that to me language is nothing more than a means to an end. I can enjoy studying grammar and learning vocabulary, but only when I know it is bringing me closer to being able to express myself as I try to get to natives.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    Good for you! But grammar tables are actually less intimidating after you have seen and used the language in context. This is a major reason why I learn languages quickly. But since that work is behind you now, I hope you’ll be using the language ;)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    I was in translation for a few years – I just wrote as was natural to me and told my clients to take it or leave it. If they want American English then they can hire an American instead – if they want a watered down standard international English, then they can hire a non-native ;)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    No worries! I also like grammar, but only once the language has some context for me ;)

  • Vicky Samson

    Hi I’m really impressed about your post… I’m an ESL teacher in the Philippines and I’m teaching Chinese and Koreans online. I find this very interesting… ^^

    I actually learnt English without minding the grammar!!! ^^ ————-That make sense right?
    I totally agreed with you… But sometimes I realized I still need to open my grammar books or make a study in the internet about grammar rules for the sake of my students who were really so into English… ^^Thanks for posting this… Now I’m inspired to teach grammar… hahaha

  • http://www.facebook.com/charlesjeanhalliwellbridges Carlos Halliwell

    Well, I learned English with both grammar and practice, but if you ask me about some English grammar now, I would be lost!

  • Mickey Take

    Το λεξικό δεν βρήκε καμία λέξη.
    I am having trouble pronouncing this. Can you help me please? It is all Greek to me.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Becky-Johnson-Henderson/1160036064 Becky Johnson Henderson

    I’ve been wanting to learn the old Irish language. I’ve heard that it’s changed through the years to different dialects. In high school, a foreign language was required (2 years on advanced diploma course). Coming from a small town, spanish was all that was offered-I would have rather learned french at that point. ANYWAY, I like what you said because it does make sense-all we did was learn the grammar of the language and how to conjugate the verbs and other words of it. I, to this day, only know a few phrases and just minor details of it. I know that at the end of nouns, when you’re speaking of female it is a and male it’s o. Maybe, I think…now it’s not so important for me to learn spanish (as it looks, in the US I may need to, lol) I’d rather learn something more interesting like the Irish language. I’ve heard it called different things, but I’m sure you understand what I mean. I’ve been listening to phrases and trying pronunciation. I can’t even begin to understand writing it and breaking it down yet. I’d love to know it, speak it, and write it. Possibly one day visit Ireland. Have a holiday there, as I’ve heard it called. I have read, though, that some of the native language speakers over there get irritated when Americans come over and try to speak the language-especially when it’s badly. I know what you wrote above, but have you ran into people who weren’t so “kind” in helping and appreciating you trying to learn their language? Just a question for you….after all of the rambling. Thanks and you’re doing a great job-keep it up!

  • tania

    the grammar is very boring

  • http://www.facebook.com/renrobles Ren Robles

    I’m taking formal language classes (gasp! heretic!) in German at the moment… I’m horrible at self-starting, so having that external push is important for me. Anyway… while we do study grammar in our classes, it very rarely feels like the main focus. We usually have certain themes or topics which help introduce grammar rules, but ultimately, the goal is being able to communicate and talk about that theme/topic.

    As for me personally, whenever a new grammar rule pops up, I try to memorize it and learn the rule, but try not to stress too much about it. I’ve seen many of my classmates try and analyze the grammar rules, or compare it to English (or another language)… and for me personally, that’s just going to confuse me.

    Ultimately, though, for testing purposes, I need to learn the grammar. As far as communication goes, I’ve found most Germans don’t really care. :-P

  • Naomi

    Thank you for that. I’ve been learning with a couple of online resources but I’m finding the grammar painful. I think I’ll just get lots of phrases in and leave most of the grammar ’till later

  • بهزاد چودار

    hi

    when I think about the time of my school i was only reading grammar and after 7 years i couldn’t speak a word

    but now after six months of listening and speaking I can speak not really well but without thinking

    I think its a mental issue .People hardly accept giving up studying grammar because they think its impossible

    don’t you think so?

  • Claudia Al-Meida

    I am visual learner, So I need to see written words in order to fix them in my mind. So learning grammar, as well as reading a lot, reading and listening to books at the same time, watching movies with subtitles, has helped me become fluent in English and also be a good writer in my own language – Brazilian Portuguese :o) Thanks for all the great content, Benny! I am using a lot of your tips on my blog!

  • Gabrielle

    C’est parfait! Thanks to you, I actually love learning French despite the mistakes. My next goal is to hold a basic conversation in French without stumbling. Merci beaucoup et bon voyage!

  • Enrique

    I agree completely with this article, I remember feeling so overwhelmed and and a tad bit discouraged when I was starting to learn English because of the sheer amount of grammatical rules that I supposedly had to “master” in order to learn the language, “as my teacher used to say.” Now in retrospect I realize that the moment I decided to give up on grammar and only focused on learning the useful vocabulary “the things I found myself saying the most in an everyday conversation in my native language” along with listening to the language non-stop was what cut the deal for me. I don’t know how but after a while I acquired a certain sense of rightness and I started to find logic in syntax because it just sounded right, and it didn’t take long before I was actually conversing in the language. I still suck big time in the grammar department but my way of getting better is by “reading” which is something that I enjoy doing and I don’t have to memorize absolutely anything, As of now I’m doing the same for German which is even more intimidating grammatically-wise because of the gender cases, but hey! I speak Spanish and I don’t remember ever stopping to think why I would say Los carros rojos son mejores or Las papas fritas son pequeñas they just sound right.

  • Jessica

    I’ve never heard of rhinospike before! Seems so useful. Since I found your blog I stopped procrastinating and I have started trying to learn korean and of course improving my english :P Thank you!

  • http://www.loanshoppers.net/ Mike Wade

    Hey I know this is an old post but don’t you get the people who will just stop talking to you since you are making error after error or the way I sound is not like their town folk. So, they kind of stop talking to you or speak in Broken English to you. For that reason, I always felt more comfortable speaking to women who were more tolerant.

  • Mohamed Taqi

    Thank you so much for this post, it seems actually very logical that learning a language as a child do (before going to school to deal with grammar) is a good choice for people feeling that grammar pushes them away each time they try to learn the language.

    Personally, I don’t have this problem in Chinese, Japanese … But, I have this problem in czech and russian, in a way that takes a lot of time without getting any basic vocab.

    My mother language is Tamazight (Moroccan South Tamazight), I learnt arabic (Morrocan dialect and Fus7a) in the street and at school (respectively). I started learning french (along with arabic) since I was 6 years old.

    I started learning English and Hebrew basics when I was 14 ( I must confess I didn’t need any hebrew grammar, because I already know arabic, so hebrew sentences – as you said- look just correct the way they are, without any grammar. For exemple : Sami3a = he heard (in arabic past tense) …is Shema3 in hebrew…. In arabic for the present tense we say : Hua Saami3 هو سامع(He’s hearing) , in hebrew it’s (Hu shome3 הוא שומע) and it sounds correct and logical.

    So, I learnt hebrew for a year then I stopped at 15 because I wanted to improve my english (cause I couldn’t understand american movies at the time)… I watched movies and documentaries without arabic subtitles… untill my 18.

    I started learning chinese and japanese for 5 years now, I did a little progress in understanding news and newspapers (at least I know 2000 characters), I learnt japanese grammar and it was really funny :)) and now I’m watching Naruto episodes (with english subs) and I can say I understand a lot of what’s said in japanese. It’s the most funny part, I must confess I had to look most of the time to the subtitles… But I started feeling the rythm of the language… as I expect Naruto to say a word before actually being said.

    So, I stopped learning japanese and chinese (without making progress, just maintaining my level from time to time, not to forget something)… and I’m giving a try to slavic languages (russian and czech) , but for 5 months of learning now… I couldn’t even manage to compose logical small sentences (the biggest barrier here is the cases), plus I feel that the cyrillic russian alphabet (the reversed R’s (ya) and the mispelled Ns, which looks like an H by the way) (and the czech punctuation) are somehow boring, in a way I can’t study for more than 1 hour a day.

    For romance languages, I can catch most of the words in spanish news (without even touching any spanish book, other than spanish essential grammar)… and I can understand spoken spanish but can’t involve in a conversation…I think it’ll take less than 3 months to be fluent in spanish, since I already french speaker.

    Amongst the other languages I want to learn are : korean, persian, turkish, german, danish, greek, dutch ….etc

    I’m now 25 years old, and I want to learn new languages as long as I’m alive.

  • Arthur Stark

    Thank you! I feel a bit more relaxed and optimistic about it; I’m at the beginning with german learning, using Duolingo, german radio and a learn it yourself book, and I just begun searching, to know when der becomes den and what’s with the dein and deine and I was mind blown at the amount of information. I’ll just use your technique for the beginning- skip it till I know more words.

  • Titi

    I’ve just found your site and I love so much this one: ”

    Grammar is useful for making a language sound correct, but not for actually getting started”
    Grammar is a straight ruler, not an oil fluencer, Right?