Reading a grammar book is like reading a manual

grammar book

Reading a grammar book is like reading a manual. Grammar explanations are very hard to understand and absorb until we have enough experience with the language. As a person commented on a video I did a few years ago called “Krashen and Grammar“:

“This is consistent with James Paul Gee’s statement that textbooks are “manuals”, and we need to give people the “game” in which they can collect experience before the “manuals” make sense.”

Check out the video. It’s quite interesting, especially from 5:45 to 7:06.

When we try to learn to play a video game, or even try to use a camera we have just bought, it is difficult to start by reading the manual. At least in the case of the camera we have a rough idea of how cameras work. In the case of a video game, and I am just assuming this since I have never played a video game, we have very little knowledge about the details of the game. However, we naturally want to try to experiment using the camera, or playing the game, before we feel inclined to read the manual. What is more, without some familiarity with the game or the principles of the camera, the manual is relatively useless.

Languages strike me as being very similar to this. In fact, I find just jumping in by listening and reading in a language, using resources such as LingQ,to be much more enjoyable than trying to read the grammar book – in other words, the manual. This is how I learned most of my languages, including Spanish, Japanese, and Chinese. Once I have some experience with a new language, the explanations in the grammar book start to mean something. So as I have said before, my strategy is to get an overall sense of the language, a brief and incomplete overview, and then come back to revisit the grammar explanations later, when I feel like it. Most of my time, however, is spent listening or reading or speaking – in other words, playing the game or using the camera.

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6 comments on “Reading a grammar book is like reading a manual


Bang on! But here’s the crux – how to gain that experience of going throught the language and having it make sense piece by piece (when we don’t have a teacher), so that when we do have a peek at grammar, we already have a background:

European languages are simple in this aspect, lots of online tools like side-by-side translators and outloud readers (google & bing translate, apples “read aloud” function, browser mouse-over extension for reading texts, etc). I leave these for French, Spanish and Portuguese.

But the “tough languages” aren’t quite so straight forward (Chinese, Thai, Burmese, Arabic, etc.). I’ve done both Arabic and Chinese. Personally, getting to grips with the writing was the number one step; spend 2 years just learning the script, copy out graduated readers so ask to learn and re-read what you’ve wrote, being able to write / prononce it at a glance, and then move on to studying sentences. Arabic is weak in this respect, but Chinese has more and more resources. Pleco is an amazing dictionary, and has a wonderful vocabulary pop-up function for pasted text and news. There’s an open list of 20,000 Chinese sentences online. Use that in conjunction with books like “HSK one hour per day to a powerful HSK vocabulary”, and you’ll be at an upper intermediate / advanced level within 5 years. Unlike the AJATT or GLOSSIKA learning methods, plucking all those sentence into excel yourself for ease of cross-referencing (using excells magic search function) will give you instant and ever-so-important vocabulary CONTEXT, and you’ll see yourself leap light years ahead in your language learning (I built a database of almost 60,000 chinese to English phrases – a years’ worth of what a parent or teacher might say to a Chinese child in a real Chinese setting) ; comprised of the entire 3 books of 18,000 “HSK one hour per day” sentences (which I spent two years typing into my database, including translations for words I didn’t know), the open source online 20,000 open HSK sentences, and a mish mash of other sentences from online for the 8000+ HSK vocabulary, derived from sites like,,, etc. And at the 5 yrs mark, I pick up a newspaper and read it cover to cover quite fast with 80% comprehension, I’m reading full novels for the pleasure of it in chinese, I can fully work in mandarin (I now have a new job where 90% is in mandarin with colleagues who can’t speak anything but mandarin, so my notes, emails, meetings are all in mandarin), and my social life is graduating more and more to mandarin. Top it with an excel spreadsheet of the 10,000 most common words (so you can notate them, quickly cross reference them, and check their context with your 60,000 sentences database), and it’s like you’ve basically created a shortcut of years immersion without a teacher.

But you MUST do the movie / TV / radio bit online, and orally repeat, reapeat, repeat until you get the accent. Otherwise, what’s the point if nobody can understand your accent. I’m a big fan of Quebec French, so am a big supporter of “local” twangs. So I decided to go all-out with a Qingdao Chinese accent. For the last five years I did everything I could to get my hands only on Qingdao accent online material and broadcasts. I open my mouth now and the first thing Chinese people always say “you must have lived in Shandong” or “you must be from Qingdao”. As someone who’s not ethnically Chinese, that’s when you know your 5 years of work has paid off.

Back to Steve’s original point… The grammar book really start to make sense and fill in the holes. But they can / should still be used as casual references from the get go. Get familiar with them in the beginning. That way, when you see a concept crop up along the language learning path, you know you’ve skimmed it before in a grammar book and you can re-reference it. My personal recommendation is “Intermediate Chinese, a grammar workbook” by Yip. Start to go through it after you’ve done (written word-for-word) two years of learning 2000 characters throught graduated learners (I wrote out, by hand, the entire 6 books of “Business Chinese”, beginniner, intermediate, and advanced.

(Of course, if you have the luxury of learning with a teacher from square one, then grammar books can rightfully play a role much earlier)

Those complicated languages can be real challenge, but if you’re up to it, it CAN and has been done in 5 yrs.

Good luck! And Steve, you’re an awesome inspiration to a great many people!



    Hi Brad,

    It was really interesting to read your post on your ways of learning Mandaring.

    I’ve been struggling with it myself for the last few years. Recently, I came accross the HSK One Hour Per Day book you mentioned and I’ve completed the first volume, checking the words I didn’t know and making notes in the book, but I find that it’s really difficult to review the new words. Normally, I use Anki for revision and I would love to be able to create a database with the words and sentences from this book.

    I know it is a lot to ask, since I can imagine how much time it took you to transcribe the words and sentences, but is there a way you could share your files, please? It would really be a tremendous help for me.




    Hi Brad,

    It was very interesting to read your post. I’ve been struggling with learning Chinese for years myself. I use a variety of sources, mostly graded readers and podcasts from various websites, as I find textbooks for learning Chinsese quite dry. I also use Anki for repetition, including the 20000 Chinese Sentences deck.

    I have recently come across the book that you mention, One Hour Per day, as I am thinking of taking HSK5. I went through Vol1, but I did it by hand and I find that since I don’t really review it with Anki, I forget a lot and it feels like a wasted effort, really. The book is great, it contains lots of really good examples and I would love to be able to incorporate it into my daily reviews.

    I know it’s a lot to ask, but would you be willing to share some of the files you made based on this book, please? It would be extremely helpful.

    In any case, thanks again for your post, it’s very motivating.



Thanks for dropping by and commenting in such detail, Brad.

We all need to find the methods that work best for us. For me it’s largely listening and reading and the kind of functionality that we have at LingQ.

Language is grammar, and grammar is language. I’ve studied both Chinese and Japanese, and I always find that it’s the grammar books that help the most, not only in grammar but also in vocabulary. The problem is, knowing the grammar doesn’t mean you know the local language, as, just as in English, many people speak based on habit, not correctness.

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