Sunday, January 04, 2009

the discussion on grammar

People are having a fun debate over in the comment section of Steve's blog. Steve seems to be saying that explicit instruction in grammar is not only unnecessary, but unhelpful as well. The pro-grammar side is saying that without studying grammar, you cannot become fluent in a foreign language.

And then Steve has written a follow-up post. In that post he states,
I learned Mandarin by listening and reading and focusing on phrases, and ignoring grammar explanation. After 8 months I passed the British Foreign Service Exam in Mandarin.
So if it took Steve just 8 months to reach a respectable level of Mandarin his way, I think the TV method will work much faster. With the TV method, I am not spending time looking up words or pronunciation. My time is spent receiving a nearly constant flow of the language into my brain. And it is not my pronunciation that I am hearing. It is the pronunciation of native speakers. Also, I am not getting in the way of my brain's natural abilities by trying to remember what words mean for every sentence. I am not constantly interfering with the natural process. Constant interference will only become a natural habit. A habit of second nature. Avoiding the formation of this habit is one of the main objectives of my approach.

It is interesting, or maybe sad, that none of the people who comment, seem to know about ALG World. One person there wrote:
I am sorry, but the intuitive approach has been disastrous wherever it has been applied. You end up with people who cannot be described as knowing a language, who can parrot a few sentences, but cannot analyze what they do, and will never be able to go beyond a very basic and simplistic understanding.
That statement is completely false. At ALG World, students who complete the necessary time are able to understand the language in exactly the same way as a native. The reason why is because they don't speak from the beginning, they don't take notes, they don't get in the way of the natural acquisition process.

The same person also wrote:
Try mastering Mandarin without being able to understand how grammar and syntax work!
I say to him, I am trying this. I will never study Mandarin grammar.


  1. Keith,

    At what point do you believe simply watching TV can work? Does one need to go through some sort of introductory textbook/course first, or is that superfluous?

  2. Frenkeld, I actually believe that the TV method can work without any previous knowledge of the language whatsoever. Though I guess most people would be happier if they had learned a few words first through studying. According to Dr. Brown (founder of ALG World) in his book, nobody who had studied the language for over 100 hours had ever passed up his own ability in Thai. But those who acquired Thai through ALG World or even not through ALG World without the previous study of the language were able to surpass him. Based on that, I would say it is safe to study (up to 100 hours) the language before starting the TV method but also that it is not necessary.

    I think it would be better to have not studied and not known any of the language before using the TV method because when you do hear any words or phrases that you've studied, you will flash the translation in your head, and that is a habit you don't want. That is what slows us down and what you will have to break later on.

    But most of us will not have heard of the TV method before starting to study the language we want to know. So most of us, if willing, will have to try the TV method with whatever knowledge we already have.

    I am using the TV method for Chinese right now. 2 years later, I will switch from watching Chinese to watching Japanese. That is when I will see how well it works for a language that one has already studied a lot. At some point after that, I am thinking I will try a language that I have no knowledge of. Probably Korean. If I manage to do all of this, I will be able to compare my results among three different languages and see if the previous study of the language actually is detrimental to acquiring it. If Dr. Brown's theory is correct, I should get to the highest level in the language I didn't study at all and my lowest level will be in the language that I've studied the most in spite of also living in the country of that language for so long.

    It will be a long time before I can make that comparison! And it all depends on how well this first time with the TV method goes.

    I know most people cannot fathom the possibility of acquiring a language without studying the basics first. I believe there is a lot going on besides just the few words you learn at a slow pace.

    But for anybody who would be quick to say it wouldn't work, I always remind myself that they haven't tried it. It's amazing how people can instantaneously develop a strong opinion about something they've never done.

    Thank you for your questions Frenkeld. You have very good questions.

  3. For a Western language 100 hours is actually a decent amount of time to get one's feet wet. One can think of it in three different ways:

    (a) It's an hour a day for a little over 3 months;
    (b) It's a 100 lesson Assimil course, 100-lesson passive + 100-less active wave, at 30 mins per lesson;
    (c) It's a 30-lesson textbook at 3.3 hours per lesson, or a 50-lesson textbook at 2 hours per lesson.

    One should be far enough along at that point to continue with native materials. It would be a bit tough at first if one doesn't want to use bilingual dictionaries, but it should be doable at that point.

    I am less clear how far 100 hours would take one with a non-Western language, especially an East Asian one.

  4. I applaud your dedication to the movie project. That said, I don't think traditional grammar instruction will necessarily halt your progress in language learning forever. I've met several chinese speakers who were indistinguishable from native speakers. All of them sat through the grammar instruction in the beginning, although most of them achieved fluency through the type of immersion experience you're following. Also, when you're looking for some new tv materials you should consider a non fiction chinese series called 探索发现。Sometimes the boxes have the english word exploring on them. The series is the equivalent of the American national geographic channel. Given all the chinese students in Japan, you should be able to find it somewhere.


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