Grammar rules, their importance and how we should deal with them, are a constant debate in in language learning.

Some people say grammar is a waste of time, that we can just ignore it. Other people say that you have to first learn the basics, as if that is possible to do.

I am somewhere in between. I like to get an overview of what to expect in a new language, without trying to remember anything. Then I like to refer to grammar resources from time to time as I acquire more experience with a new language.

The language teaches itself

Whether learning Chinese, Russian, or French, the grammar doesn’t teach me the language, the language teaches itself. 

Grammar resources are there to help me notice things in the language, especially patterns that strike me as strange, or patterns that somehow escaped my attention.

The Importance of Grammar Rules

I think traditional language instruction places far too much emphasis on grammar as a means of learning a language, and it does it the wrong way. It introduces complicated explanations early on, complicated rules and then exercises where you’re forced to try to practice what you’ve just, presumably, learned. But all of these rules and exercises deal with patterns that are still new to us and will in any case become familiar over time, if we continue reading and listening in the language.

Most starter language learning books consist of 70% grammar rules, with related exercises. The amount of text, learning content, stories and the like, is rarely more than 10% of most beginner books. This is backwards. The learner needs more interesting text together with a vocabulary list and some focus on key basic patterns that show up in this text. This will help get the learner through the lesson, and hopefully enable them to understand a good portion of the text, so that he or she can go on to the next text.

Starter books in foreign languages should minimize the explanations, which are often hard to understand and harder to remember, since they refer to an as yet unfamiliar language. It is a good idea to highlight some key patterns or phrases in each lesson but minimize the explanations, rules and drills.

Grammar rules are for reference

Once you have had lots of exposure, and even spoken some, you start to sense naturally what is correct and what isn’t. You start to use the words and phrases that you have read and heard.

Your brain is following the model of what you have been exposed to. Your brain is constantly making adjustments. This is what the brain does for all phenomena we encounter in life. This process whereby the brain creates patterns to deal with uncertainty and novelty is what enables you to speak naturally and freely with enough exposure to the language. If you rely on your recollection of grammar rules, you will always doubt yourself. Even when you say something correctly, you will doubt yourself. You should rely on the language habits you have acquired while speaking.

The Importance of Grammar RulesBut even as you speak you are sometimes aware that there are some aspects of usage that you would like to clarify. You will have had some experience in the language that leaves you with questions. “Is it this way or that way?”. That is the best time to refer to grammar rules. You can thumb through a short grammar book or simply search for something on Google: “Subjunctive in Spanish” or “Japanese verbs” or whatever it is. You will see an explanation or a conjugation table and this will satisfy you, at least temporarily.

Of course, you will mostly forget what you see there, just as is the case with using a dictionary. However, this activity in combination with continued listening, reading and speaking will slowly improve your command of the new language.

So the focus in language learning should be on input, comprehensible input which will provide you with ever increasing database of words and phrases, genuine experience in a new language. Once you have this experience and lexical base in the language, grammar can provide a useful point of reference to enable you to gradually address some lingering influence from your own language or other difficulties. But don’t expect to master the grammar before you have absorbed a lot of the language.