Grammar: How Best to Study it

Today I want to talk about grammar. Now, often here at my channel there has been discussion of the importance of input and the need to deemphasize grammar instruction when it comes to language learning. This very often causes a great debate between those people who love grammar and those people who are averse to learning grammar, so I want to talk a little bit about grammar and how it relates now to my most recent language, which is Romanian.

Of course, every language we learn is different for us because in each case we either know a related language or don’t know a related language, there is common vocabulary with languages that we know or there isn’t. So Romanian, obviously, is very different from Korean or Russian or Czech. In Romanian three-quarters of the words are more or less recognizable as being similar to vocabulary that I already know in other romance languages, so that makes it very different from learning Korean, Chinese or Slavic languages.

The other thing that’s different about Romanian for me this time is that I want to learn it in a hurry. I’m going to be in Romania for three days only and I just want to be able to communicate while I’m there and understand as much as possible. Normally, my strategy is to just sit back and let it come at me with the intention of eventually achieving a high level of comprehension in the language and, also, the ability to communicate with people who have common interests. I don’t think in the six weeks that I have I’m going to be able to achieve that in Romanian.

Of course, when I stated we didn’t have a lot of content at LingQ so I went and got Pimsleur, as I’ve talked and explained, then I went and got Teach Yourself and I’ve been using both of those. I also was able to get a hold of a very good grammar book for Romanian, so I want to talk about how I use that book, how it relates to my language learning and what I think is the ideal way to tackle grammar.

First of all, I have never said that one should not look at grammar. I’ve always said that we look at grammar from time to time. We look at the tables, we look at the rules, but we don’t except to learn it. We don’t expect to learn the table. At least I don’t expect to learn the table when I look at the table. I don’t think it’s possible to nail down the basics so that then they’re solid and then you can just go on and learn words. I find that the grammar sort of drips in bit by bit. Things start to become clearer over time and as part of the puzzle becomes clearer, some other parts then are more accessible.

It’s difficult to predict what’s going to be difficult and what’s going to be easy. For example, present tense, past tense. It may not be difficult to learn both those things at the same time, but issues relating to pronouns might be very difficult to grasp for quite a long time. So what I think is the ideal way to deal with grammar is, first of all, to deal with it in conjunction with a lot of input so that the grammar explanations relate to something you already have experience with or because you have seen these structures and you’re now curious. So if you’re curious about the ‘whys’, why does this happen, you’re more likely to be interested and to understand the explanations. If you are hit with these explanations without enough experience with the language, the explanations kind of go over your head.

So the first thing is you want to vary the input activities, in my opinion, with the grammar learning. The second thing, the thing I dislike the most about any grammar book or where grammar is introduced, is when they ask you questions. The assumption is because they have taught you something, a structure, a pattern, some rule, that you should be able to reproduce it. That is never my experience.

All the grammar rule or the table or the explanation does is it starts to make you aware of something, at least that’s my experience, so when I next read something oh, yeah, it clicks in. Oh, that’s that. So between reading it and experiencing it, reading the rule again and then experiencing it again, slowly, these patterns become part of things we’re able to understand and, eventually, use. So I don’t like being questioned.

In Teach Yourself they have a lot of these questions and drills. They have them on the audio and they have them in the book, I never bother. But what is useful is if they have questions relating to a specific issue with the future tense or the past tense or whatever it might be, then it is useful to go to the answer section and read the 10 answers because the answers will all be of the same pattern. That helps to reinforce that pattern.

The next point about a grammar book, a grammar book should be light on explanation, should have tables and should have lots of examples. So even if a table is introduced, which is a good reference tool, then you need to have lots of examples of how these tenses are used or how these pronouns are used. So you read those examples and you reread these examples and then, again, when you encounter other examples of this pattern in your listening and reading, it all starts to click in.

Grammar guides

I don’t like being questioned because I don’t like being forced to reproduce things. That’s part of the reason why I’m not, normally, so keen to speak early; although, as I’ll explain a little later, in the case of Romanian I am doing that. So I don’t like being asked grammar questions. I don’t like being asked comprehension questions about a text that I’ve listened to. I think both of these destroy the pleasure of learning.

If you ask me to talk about something that I’ve read, if I’m reading something on Radio Romania about unemployment in Romania, we can talk about unemployment in Romania. But if you ask me to remember details of the article and to demonstrate that I understood it correctly, well, first of all, I won’t remember the details and, second of all, I probably didn’t understand it correctly. It doesn’t matter because by reading the article and listening to audio related to the article, I’m getting exposure to the language and with that background I can go and read my grammar rules and my grammar examples and it’s all this constant reinforcing circle of input, review of the grammar, back to the input and so forth.

One other thing, I say that I normally don’t like to speak early. There’s no need to, there’s no pressure. If I’m learning Russian or Czech and I’m not going to go there for another year, then I have no great need to start speaking early because it’s difficult to arrange. I’m not going to change my social life just to go out and find Russians or Czechs here in Vancouver to eat with three times a week. I can have my discussions on Skype, which is fine, but that’s less portable to me than just listening while I’m in the car.

So my initial period is not stressful. I just read and listen on my own time and, at some point after five-six months or eight months, then I start speaking, but I can’t do that with Romanian. I’m going to be in Romania in June and I’ll only have three days there, so I’ve decided I’m going to start speaking early. I started on Romanian two weeks ago, I have now had two discussions with a tutor at LingQ and I’ve signed up for more. Of course, it’s a real struggle to say anything, but again, it helps me to notice where my gaps are. I get a report back from my tutor with about 20 phrases that I used incorrectly. I save them, they go into my flashcards and I review them. It’s part of my learning process and, of course, with Romanian I can do it.

If I look at what I’m doing, I’m reviewing those phrases that I had recorded for me or some other content that has now come into our library at LingQ, but the biggest part of what I am doing is I am reading news articles from Radio Romania and then listening to the news reports. Now, they’re not transcripts, but a lot of the vocabulary repeats and so my ability to understand the written article is very high because there’s so much common vocabulary. My ability to understand the new reports, the discussions or whatever is, of course, much, much lower, but I’m doing a lot of that to get exposed to the language. Between that and having listened to the patterns, when I speak to my tutor, if my tutor is patient and asks me questions, we can actually get going in a conversation with a lot of difficulty.

So there you have it. Grammar is important. It should not be the focus. There should never be an assumption because a grammar rule is taught that the student should, therefore, be able to reproduce it, answer it correctly on tests of quizzes. None of that, I don’t think. I mean if you look at what happens in Canada where they teach French in the school system, they test the kids every year. Most of them past the French test, then at the end of it they can’t speak.

Steve Kaufmann

So I’m not a fan of testing people on grammar at all. You need brief explanations, tables and lots of examples. The understanding is that the person looks at the grammar, reviews the grammar, not with the intention of learning or remembering it, but as part of the process of becoming aware of how the language works. This visiting the grammar rules and tables and seeing those examples and then, again, seeing those same patterns in meaningful context, all is part of that gradual process of getting used to how the language works.

So there you have it, a bit of a discussion on grammar as it relates to my latest adventure with Romania. I will be getting back to Korean when I come back from Romania. It is on my list and I definitely want to achieve a decent level in Korean.

So thank you for listening, bye for now.

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