How Important is Grammar in Language Learning?

 

grammar-classical-method

The Grammar-Translation Method, based on the Classical Method employed since as far back as the Middle Ages for teaching Latin and Greek, forces students to memorize declension and conjugation patterns, vocabulary lists, and other grammatical rules. Essentially a medieval method of teaching languages based on rote learning; sounds irresistible, doesn’t it?

As surprising as it may seem (maybe not if you actually remember what it was like to learn a language during high school), this method remains one of the most popular up to this day, partly because it allows to easily gauge “foreign language ability” (whatever that means) through standardized tests.

grammar-backgroundThis method has been particularly successful at making people hate learning foreign languages, and it has been particularly unsuccessful, I’m afraid, at making people fluent in foreign languages. In fact, the method’s severe shortcomings has sparked a debate (better late than never, as they say) that rages up to this day: really how important is grammar in language learning, and should language schools get over their grammar and standardized tests fetish?

Learning Grammar… Do I Have To?

I like to think that there is no one-size-fits-all solution; in other words, we all learn differently, and some methods will work well for some and not so well for others. If true, this statement brings up a serious issue: language classes typically cater to one type of student. If you’re not the ideal learner for the method used in a particular language school, too bad. You might feel discouraged and give up since the kid next to you seems to be doing so damn well, and you’re not. You weren’t born with the “language gene,” after all.

While I do believe we all learn differently (up to a certain degree), my experience learning languages in high school and university, as well as the experience of numerous highly successful language learners I’ve interviewed over the past year, all point to a similar direction: focusing on grammar at first is simply not the way to go. Does that mean you don’t have to learn grammar at all? Not really. Just later, and with moderation.

 

So How Should I Approach Grammar?

Inductive ReasoningI like to think of language learning from a top-down approach. You look at the big picture first, and then as you go, you figure out the details. This is similar in many ways to the strategy of guessing based on past experience, also known as inductive reasoning, and it’s awesome. In fact, as Kathryn Schulz says, it’s the engine that drives the entire miraculous machinery of human cognition.

The theory that you should add the suffix “-ed” in order to form a past tense verb in English, for example, is a brilliant inductive inference. It’s largely correct, it teaches you a huge number of words in one fell swoop, and it’s a lot less painful than separately memorizing the past tense of every single verb there is out there. Of course, it also means that sooner or later you’re going to say things like runned and eated and swimmed. Big deal. But really, you’ll get yourself understood anyway, and you’ll eventually overcome these small mistakes.

Grammar makes sense only if you’ve been exposed to the language for a reasonable length of time. As Benny Lewis from Fluent In 3 Months says, “studying grammar 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.” He adds something that I fully agree with, and that I believe is worth quoting at length:

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.

Pieces-of-puzzleDon’t make grammar a priority. Think about it: why exactly are you learning a foreign language? If it’s to actually communicate with human beings, you should consider mostly skipping grammar and coming back to it at a later point. The best thing with this approach is that you’ll get all those “ha-ha!” moments. After having been exposed to the language for a while, you’ll read about a certain rule and then suddenly all the pieces of the puzzle will fall into place. That’s an approach that language methods such as Assimil and Michel Thomas are based on, and that’s perhaps the reason why they’re so popular with experienced language learners.

I’m also sorry to say, but people, especially native speakers of your target language, are highly unlikely to be impressed by your grammatical prowess. In fact, it can at times serve as a dividing bridge between you, the “foreigner” who’s learning to speak the local language, and the locals. Remember this: in many languages, spoken language is in fact entirely different from the written one. Speaking the “written version” of the language will make you sound foreign and unnatural. On the other hand, if you sound natural when you speak, people will be honestly impressed and feel closer to you.

Conclusion

In the end, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to language learning. But, if there’s one common thread that seems to bind a huge majority of successful language learners, it’s the fact that they don’t make grammar a priority. They tend to learn more inductively and take a top-down approach to language learning.

I’m really curious about your opinion on grammar. Is it desirable to focus on it right from the start? Should you ditch grammar altogether? Or you should skip it in the early stages and come back to it later? Comment and share your thoughts and experiences below.

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  • Show Comments (18)

  • Alexander Krasnov

    I actually used to make that mistake when studying German. I studied it before through courses in Berlitz (which were very very helpful, although quite expensive), but after I finished with that and started studying on my own, I started from reviewing grammar. Needless to say, my speaking ability and general understanding of the language have gone down, even though I better understood the skeletal structure of the language.
    Now I also believe that learning the main vocabulary is the first step, after which you start learning some of the grammar. It helps when you have the “ha ha” moment you talked about, so perhaps also studying phrases first is a good option (although in my experience, it tends to be a lot harder than studying words).

    • Scott

      I’m starting to see the use in studying more grammar where as I was quite opposed to it previously. We all learned our first languages without learning grammatical rules, but just by being exposed to sufficient quantities of input.

      As native speakers we don’t really need to know abstract rules in order to speak correctly. Bad grammar mostly just ‘feels’ wrong. Originally I was a proponent of the comprehensible input method. Expose yourself to enough input and you will start to get native speaker like ‘instincts’ about the language.

      Although I feel sufficient qualities of input are necessary to learn grammar correctly it isn’t the entire story. Firstly, the quantities of input needed to build this instinct are far more than the average language learner has time for. Secondly, as we age I believe our ability to absorb languages through exposure becomes muted.

      These days I believe that in order to absorb some aspects of language they need to be pointed out to us. We need to become conscious of them. A neatly worded grammatical description or rule can often help us start noticing certain features in the input more and thereby start absorbing them.

      I think some people spend far too much time studying abstract rules without accompanying this study with appropriate quantities of input. So they never truly internalize these rules like a native speaker would.

      In short, I think grammar should be used to notice features in the input and work as a shortcut to developing instincts about correctness.

      So I’m with you. Grammar in moderation seems to be the best fit,

      • Scott, I think it also depends on the language you’re learning. For me, a Romance language such as Spanish or Italian does not necessitate a whole lot of focus on grammar, and I would definitely be one of those persons not to care about very much in fact.

        That being said, the rules of languages much farther away from one’s language are harder to induce and so at times grammar will definitely be more efficient than trying to figure out things on one’s own.

        But the main point of importance remains; you need to first be exposed to the language before looking at the grammar, otherwise your brain will not be able to associate rules with actual examples of how those rules are used.

    • I agree Alexander. I would add that going through whole sentences is very important (i.e. top-down approach), rather than vocabulary lists. This is what makes inductive reasoning possible; you see all the words in a sentence, and you can manage to induce a lot of the grammatical patterns on your own through those.

  • Farshid rf

    Actually I love grammar, When I first start to learn a new language I study some phrases like greetings, farewell, What to say in a restaurant and different situations in about one months and also study pronunciation rules of the language along with them. After this one month I begin to study grammar, like 200 pages and as I study them I understand the rules because they were applied in those situational sentences. So I think grammar should be studied first not exactly the first step but not also in the last steps. And after this 200 pages are done, then I restart the conversational studying of the language! It worked for me while i was learning German, In fact I studied about 700 pages of German grammar, and I loved it. So to me, Grammar is mega Important!

    Nice post by the way Sam, I really like your website!

    • Thanks for sharing your insights Farshid, and thanks for the kind words!

      I think your experience relates well to the advice I’m giving in this post: basically, study grammar but after having been exposed to it through sentences/dialogues and so on.

      I’m also aware of the fact that there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to language learning. Some people, such as you, literally love grammar. But from my experience you are not the majority!

      Anyway, thanks for commenting!

      Sam

      • Farshid rf

        Yeah, I know! I agree completely !
        most people are tending to more “speech-based” methods. Because that’s the number one purpose of language learning, to be able to talk and communicate in the target language. Of course If I knew 700 pages of the language grammar and couldn’t talk , that would be a true waste of time! for me grammar is a foundation that I build my speaking competence on.

  • Kay Murphy

    HI. I just found your blog and it is fantastic.

    I know I’m jumping in on this thread a little late, but I wanted to share my experience in learning Spanish. I met a native speaker a few years ago and we used to get together once a week over the course of several months and do nothing but verb conjugation drills. I know it sounds like fun times, but it was invaluable because as I progressed in my learning I was able to use this information to directly expand my knowledge in other areas of the language. Prior to this, I might have only been considered a beginner, but this exercise easily pushed me up to an intermediate level.
    I’m so glad I found this site!

    • Hi Kay!

      Thanks for commenting. Doing nothing but verb conjugation drills sounds like a pretty dry activity to me! I guess it can work for some, but I personally wouldn’t approach language learning this way.

      Have you been learning Spanish until now? Or are you perhaps learning another language? If you have any questions or additional comments, don’t hesitate to let me know!

      Sam

      • Kay Murphy

        Hi Sam,
        Prior to that, I had dabbled in Spanish for many years. When I decided to get serious about it, the verb exercises were just one tool in my arsenal. I was also one of the early beta testers for Duolingo, which was where I learned to read Spanish.
        Since then, I traveled to Uruguay to immerse myself. And these days, I read, watch movies, converse when I can, and follow blogs such as yours.
        I’m in my 50’s now, and I want to one day tackle Brazilian Portuguese , but I would like to achieve fluency in Spanish first. I think I’m getting there, but still have a way to go.
        – K

      • Helena Vereczy

        Hi Sam,
        I am going to ask for help from you.
        I am trying to find some evidence that would prove that learning grammar is essential.
        I am from Slovak Republic and I work in a comprehensive school with students from my country. About 30 of them spread out between years 7 and 11. Our EAL department seems to think that the language acquisition of our students is sufficient. Sort of E GCSE in any subject is a win. I am trying to persuade them that that is nowhere near enough.
        These students have been England for at least 5 years, no one ever taught them any grammar and I am horrified by their inability to write a sentence that would make sense without support.
        What I am after is an evidence that not focusing on grammar at all at any point is completely wrong. That it is not fair on these students to let them work out the rules of the language them selves. It obviously doesn’t work.
        I think it is strange that in a school where every teacher can see that these students are improving their language skills very very slowly want me to prove to them that we are doing something wrong.
        If you can help in any way I would really appreciate it.
        Thank you Sam
        H

        • Hi Helena. That’s a tough question. I mean, if it’s your school policy not to teach the kids grammar, it’s really up to them to look at whether the kids are benefiting from it or not. Maybe your school is focusing on speaking skills? It’s really hard to judge this situation from my standpoint.

          The best piece of advice I can give you is to show to your supervisors the fact that your students are “unable to write a sentence that would make sense without support,” as you say. Other than that, you could always look for academic literature on the subject (which should be rather easy to find), but I think it’s pretty obvious and well-known that writing skills and grammar do have to be taught to children at one point or another in school.

          I hope this answers your question. Good luck!

          • Helena Vereczy

            Hi Sam,
            thank you very much for your kind words and advice.
            No it is not our school policy not teach kids grammar. It is only this: EAL co-ordinator ”I cannot teach what you want me to because I don’t know how”. Every occasion I have come across when talking to English native language speakers who are also teachers in our school is this: -ed past tense, – ing present tense, will future tense. When I ask how many tenses there actually are, they will say three. When I explain that there are 9 of them and -ing means continuous tense – either past, present or future; the reaction I always get is: ”Helena, you know far more about the grammar of my own language than I do.
            So, I need access to the academic writings that you mentioned should be easy to get to.
            What I find is that every info on internet is concerned about beginners.
            Our students are not beginners. I need a study that is concerned about what should the intermediate students be taught, If you have a link to something that would help me… I would do whatever to get that. Probably I am searching for the wrong things. I don’t know.
            I am just struggling to get evidence for my argument although it is in my opinion obvious.
            Thank you Sam
            Helena

          • Helena, most intermediate English textbooks will cover grammar that is at an intermediate level, including verb tenses such as past and present perfect, past, present and future continuous, etc. Textbook series such as ”Impact Issues,” ”Headway,” ”Introduction to Academic Writing,” and even “National Geographic” all contain extensive grammatical explanations.

            The book I have quoted in this article, ”Grammar in Use,” is also a rather popular grammar reference but it’s extremely dry and boring, and it is meant to be more of a reference rather than a textbook.

            From the way you have explained the situation, I think the problem is not the textbook but the teachers! Good luck and I hope this helps 🙂

          • Helena Vereczy

            Hi Sam,
            thanks a lot again. Yes you are right in EVERYTHING you say.
            I used Grammar in use to polish my grammar. I use it with one of the students because his English teacher agrees with me and polishing is all he needs. He enjoys ‘a-ha now I understand’ moments and that is how it should be.

            I will look in the other books you have mentioned for some valuable evidence.
            Thank you very much!!!
            I will keep you posted.
            Helena 🙂

          • Gurpreet Singh

            there are 12 verb tenses in english language,

  • شاعر الوداد

    those who pretend vocab over grammar can give it a try with japanese and they will see how it’s gonna be hard to understand texts even when they know all the words of the sentence, grammar is so important fot non indo european language guys!

  • Jessica bedi

    I am starting to feel grammar is so important in studys
    I suppose I should use it more often in my book
    I should progress in later life such as exam GCSE and more other places where I might take over the world.
    Nothing’s better than grammar
    .

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