This is a part of my Language Learning series.
What is studying grammar?
The idea with this approach to language learning is, if you understand the rules of a language, then you will be able to better craft a sentence, and you’ll be better equipped to understand what you read and hear.
I have purchased grammar books in the past with an intention of learning as much of the grammar as I could. After all, if you know all the rules of the game, won’t that make you a better player?
You would think so. And you’re kinda right. But there is more to it than that.
A language is more than just rules
Of course, I don’t think anyone actually believes that a language is only a set of rules. But it is worth mentioning that the scope of what a language is goes far beyond the grammar. There is culture, history, social influences, and a wide variety of elements that are a part of learning a language.
Learning a language by just studying the grammar rules is like learning to drive by reading your car’s owner manual. Just like with the high frequency word lists, the power of a language is that it provides context and depth to a situation.
The challenge with grammar
The challenge with grammar is that languages rarely follow a specific set of rules. Or, there are so many “unwritten” rules about how a language is used “in the wild” that aren’t covered in grammar books. Often a spoken language is considerably different than the written language and you can end up sounding unnatural and strange if you use the grammar and sentence construction taught in text books.
Grammar is more of a way for people who already speak the language to better grasp and codify why their language works the way it does. Aside from a very general sense of “a verb usually goes before/after the subject” language rules are not as helpful unless you are already at a higher level of proficiency.
Evaluating this approach
In my main “Language Learning” post I said that I have two main things that I use to evaluate the effectiveness of these methods:
- Is this a natural way for human beings to learn a language? In other words, is this how we learned our first language(s)?
- Have I found this method to be effective in my own studies? What is my own experience with this method?
Most of us didn’t start learning grammar until we were at least six to ten years old (depending on your school system). By that point we are already fairly proficient in our language — at least enough to start understanding what a noun or verb is.
So, studying grammar isn’t really a “natural” method for learning a language. Certainly not a first language. Now, once you’ve already mastered one language, then getting a general grasp on some basic grammar rules can be helpful, but I would say it isn’t necessary to explore the full breadth of grammar for a language.
After all, do you actually know every grammar rule for your mother tongue? I sure don’t. And I’ve actually taught English in a university!
An effective way to study grammar?
I’ve found that studying grammar is the most helpful if you are already at a high beginner to low intermediate level in communication. Because it provides the “aha” moments that make studying grammar interesting.
Again, it is about context.
You have a basis for seeing how the grammar “rules” apply in a given situation. As a beginner, studying grammar is like someone who is learning to make toast by studying the laws of thermal conductivity.
Instead, study grammar in a very general, broad way. Here is what I would probably cover as a beginner:
- What is the normal word order of a sentence? SOV? SVO?
- “I eat food” vs. “I food eat”
- How do you use an adjective to describe a noun?
- “big ball” or “happy child”
- How do you say something in the negative?
- “I don’t eat” or “I am not happy”
- How do you use an adverb?
- “The lonely man” or “A fast plane”
That’s basically it. I wouldn’t even learn these on the first day. Maybe give yourself a week or three.
“What about verb conjugation?” you might ask. “What about learning the past tense and future tense?”
Why are you worried about those things on your first day of exposure with a new language? When you were a baby did you worry about whether or not you could describe things in the future or conjugate a verb?
Just relax. Those things will come. And you’ll learn them through the context of your exposure to the language.
And as you learn these rules through context, when you look them up and research the “reasons” for why people say things a certain way, you will not only find the study of grammar more interesting and relevant, but also enjoyable.
And enjoyment of a language learning project is probably the best barometer of future success.