Learning grammar… do I have to?
For most people, the grammar issue is a huge question. So you may be surprised to see I haven't written many posts about it despite running this blog for over 5 years 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 folks
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.