Want to Learn Languages Faster? Go Easy on the Grammar
For the last week I’ve been studying Serbo-Croatian. We have the Serbian mini stories at LingQ, so I’ve been at it for a week. I’m going to try to speak, obviously, when I’m in Croatia. I’m going to try to understand. That’s why I’m trying to learn as much of the language as I can in this short period of time, it will make my stay there more interesting, more pleasant. I don’t know how much I’ll be able to do. I don’t want to be a perfect speaker of Serbo-Croatian, I just want to communicate and understand some things.
I realize that I’m not really focused in on trying to nail the case endings or any of this other stuff, the difficulties of Slavic languages, the aspects of verbs and verbs of motion. I’m aware of these things and I realize that my willingness to not be preoccupied with these points of grammar is very much going to help me engage more with the language. I realize that this doesn’t just apply to a brief fling at Serbo-Croatian, I think it applies generally.
I remember in learning German when I stopped trying to ace the declension tables I actually spoke more and got into the language. The more you get into the language, the more you listen, read and speak and just engage with the language without second thoughts or doubts about the grammar, the better you’re going to do. That doesn’t mean I ignore the grammar. Obviously, I want to get a bit of an overview, although, there isn’t that much.
There are a few things in Croatian that seem different, but you come across them anyway. For example, one of the interesting things in Serbo-Croatian is that they have the same pattern as I’ve found in Romanian and Greek. In other words when you say, ‘I want to go…’, the second verb is not in the infinitive. I don’t know if it’s in the subjunctive or what it’s in, but it’s the same person. There seems to be a pattern in the Balkans that wherever you have one word following another they don’t use the infinitive, which is kind of interesting. They don’t do that in the other Slavic languages.
Actually, I should have checked how many times I’ve listened, but in essentially a week, because I started last Monday, I did check my stats there and I have listened to eight and a half hours of Serbo-Croatian. I know some 2,000 words. I’ve gone through the mini stories. I’m going through them a second, third, fourth time. I begin typically by going through the flashcards. If there are 12 yellow words in the lesson, I go through them, knock that down to four because I know most of them by now and then I read through the story again. So I go through the stories and I’m on my second pass here in reading. I’m at about 26 because I’ve been through them once, but I’ve listened to them many, many, many times.
When you listen without really worrying about the grammar, it might be, that patterns seem to appear quite often and I notice it. You start to pick up on these phrases which embody the ending without having to worry about the declension table.
I have become aware that in Serbo-Croatian it seems like the plural, the instrumental and the dative blend into one form and every time I listen I try to notice these things. That’s the tremendous advantage of the mini stories is that I know the stories. I’m listening through to try and focus in on some of the patterns to try to get those into my brain as patterns, as phrases, rather than as the result of me reconstructing a sentence based on what I know about the grammar.
You can only do that so often then it becomes boring, so I’ve also downloaded this book Bridge on the Drina. Very difficult, I’m looking up every second word or more. I have the audio book, so I’m listening to that. I’m hoping that in time I’ll be able to understand some of it when I listen, but it’s also a break from the stories. It’s obviously very difficult and challenging so that when I go back to the stories it’s fresh again, it’s easy, it’s pleasing and I’m focusing in on the phrases, but I’m not trying to ace the grammar.
When I am in Croatia and Bosnia, to the extent that I’ll be engaged with people, speaking and trying to understand what they’re saying, I’m not going to worry about how my cases come out. It was the same when I was in Ukraine speaking Russian and Ukrainian. I was even on television. Apparently, I made lots of mistakes. It didn’t bother me. I was quite capable of understanding what people were saying and I was able to express myself.
As I said in Montreal, I think we’re in this new age of language learning which should be more of a polyglot experience where we can learn more languages, not necessarily one to perfection. Although, if that’s what someone wants to do, go for it. It’s a legitimate aspiration, no doubt, but I know lots of people who speak very fluent English who are not grammatically correct.
We have an employee who is a programmer. He’s Russian. He speaks very good English. He can explain things. He’s great in dealing with our users (this is on the wood product side) getting their needs and then he converts it into software. He communicates very, very well, but to him articles are optional. Sometimes he hits the article, sometimes he doesn’t. It doesn’t bother him. It doesn’t inhibit him from communicating.
Yeah, articles don’t exist in Russian, so no amount of explanation is going to make it meaningful. He can’t be thinking of rules every time he’s speaking, whether there’s an article there or not. Either he develops that habit or he doesn’t. It’s the same with the famous third person singular of the present tense in English. So many people leave off the s, even though they know it’s required there. It’s because for whatever reason they haven’t developed that habit.
So my advice on grammar, first of all, I think people should learn more than one language. I’m increasingly convinced of that. I think it helps us in all of our language learning. Plus, it enables us to discover new languages. If we’re going to do that, then we’re going to have to accept less than perfect results and be less obsessed with achieving perfection.
Now, this is perhaps not such good advice if you need say English for your work and you’re corresponding, but even in English I have dealt with people in Europe and Japan in English and they make mistakes regularly and yet the English works for them wonderfully. They understand and they get their meaning across.
I think we can gradually get better at grammar. The more we involve ourselves with the language, the more listening and reading, the more speaking, the more engaged we are with the language, gradually more and more of the phrasing will become natural to us without us having to think about why.
In many ways, an obsession with the grammar holds us back, inhibits us. We’re worried. We’re uncertain. We think. It’s what Stephen Krashen calls the effective filter. So in language learning you want as much as possible to get it into your brain, you want to engage with the language as much as possible and you want to minimize interference, inhibitions, frustrations, fears.
So to that extent, I say take it easy on grammar. Don’t ignore grammar. If you are curious, look something up by all means, but don’t expect that you’re going to nail it down. Expect that you will continue to make mistakes for quite a while and only gradually improve.