Tuesday, December 27, 2011

why you don't need to study grammar

Everybody should read this article on why you don't need to study grammar. It describes how we can learn to do things without knowing how we are doing it. It also tells us that thinking about, or analyzing, is too slow. No one would be able to hit a fast-ball if it had to be consciously processed.


  1. Grammatical structures are objectively real things. They are not inventions. Native speakers and other fluent speakers must be using these structures intuitively.

    But it doesn't follow that just because people use these structures intuitively that a conscious study of grammar would be unhelpful.

    I would agree that memorizing tables of verb endings is a waste of time, but studying grammar may still be useful. It may help us to hone our intuitions.

  2. Going from knowing the grammar rules to being able to use the language without thinking about the rules can be a long and difficult process for some of us.

    The conscious effort to apply the rules seems to become a habit that will inhibit the intuitive use of the language.

    I feel it is better to use the language that you are used to hearing from native speakers than to try to consciously construct language from the rules that one has studied.

  3. The way I think about it is that you try to use the language intuitively from the start. You try to associate spoken sounds with linguistic "feelings" (sorry I don't have a better way to express that), but you use rules from grammar books to validate your intuitions and to make sure you are on the right track.

    I would only throw away the grammar book if I had a very patient fluent speaker to practise with. Babies have mothers with whom they can try stuff out and get immediate feedback and corrections. We adults don't have that. For those of use who are learning by consuming media (TV shows etc.), the grammar book can act as a surrogate mother.

  4. I think that article is perhaps a little confused about the different types of learning and how they are done. In general, pattern recognition tasks are always taught by example, but that doesn't mean they can't be sped up by some formalised learning. For example, chicken sexers are shown how to examine the birds and what to look for (the size of a lump in the cloaca), then given lots of practice with an expert trainer. This trainer will pass on little bits of their own learned wisdom along the way which the student then applies to many examples.

    I totally agree with you that you can't expect to start out learning a language by learning one rule at a time, perfecting it, then moving on, because you won't be able to put those rules together in real-time to have a conversation. Indeed, even in writing you are likely to be slow.

    However, I think that as adults we can benefit from learning from a grammar book, especially in small doses. My preferred method of beginning would now definitely be to use parallel translations which you will easily remember later as you listen to (and repeat) any associated audio over and over. This is training your pattern recognition engine. However, some information about the grammar can help you to what's going on and why and therefore speed up your future comprehension.

    I've been studying German for just over 1.5 years now (and speaking it reasonably regularly for just over 6 months) and I recently found a good grammar book and started reading it. Every section I've read, even the things I thought I knew well, has something interesting to learn and discover, and it has helped me to re-arrange some of the "false patterns" that I had formed due to insufficient examples, or just a minor misunderstanding here or there. In theory, given enough examples, all this information can be learnt, but sometimes just a quick read of a grammar book will help you later on when trying to make sense of some of the real world :-)


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