on April 29 2010 09:39 am 2

Grammar: Now for the (Kind of) Bad News

Browse the ads for language learning software or flip through language school brochures and you’ll probably see most of have one promise in common: freedom from the horrendous unspeakable torture known as “grammar study.”

All right, I know some teaching methods and teachers really do overemphasize grammar study—including memorizing tables of case endings or verb conjugation patterns—at the expense of actual communication. When you’re starting out, you really don’t need that much grammar practice.

For beginner and intermediate learners, I’m a huge fan of “reverse engineering” grammar whenever possible. This is a fast, highly effective, low-stress way to learn how the grammar of a foreign language works. It also helps you absorb complex information in a way that memorizing some chart, table or list of rules just can’t.

That method’s fine if you only want to reach an intermediate level in the language, but when you’re aiming for real fluency, you’re cheating yourself by not investigating and practicing grammar.

Reaching High-Level Fluency

If you want to learn to speak and write near the level of an educated native speaker, you’ll eventually need focused practice with grammar. After all, not too many of us managed to get through school without some grammar lessons in our native language. We generally write and speak better after post-secondary education than before. Even professional writers sometimes make grammar errors and syntax errors, which is why editors exist.

As foreign learners, we also get tripped up by the assumptions we make about a new language based what we know about our first language. This is known as linguistic interference or language transfer.

Unless you keep seeking and destroying your grammar errors, you risk getting complacent at a certain level—probably around high upper-intermediate—and not progressing further. Your grammar errors will not clear up on their own just because you’re constantly hearing correct grammar. Interference from your first language will see to that.

Drills? Not Necessarily.

Focused practice with grammar doesn’t always have to take the form of working through pages of fill-in-the-blank sentences with the correct preposition or a verb in the right tense. My favorite way to practice grammar is translation. (And before you run away, there are alternatives that, too.)

When you write or speak your own thoughts, you can work around any “difficult” grammar. When you have to translate whatever’s put in front of you, though, you’re forced to confront those grammar structures you might rather avoid.

For more common languages you can find books with complete sentences and their translations. I recommend having a native speaker around to check in with, though, because you may come up with translations that are different from the book’s, but just as correct. If you can’t find a book like this, translating any relatively high-level text from your native language into your target language will do.

Grammar Practice Alternatives

If you don’t particularly enjoy translation, though, try writing on a topic you enjoy and finding a native speaker you can correct your grammar. Pay close attention to the mistakes you make repeatedly (keep a list, too) and if you feel like you don’t understand a certain grammar feature, study up on it.

And if you hate writing, you can always hold conversations with someone ready to stop you and point out your grammar errors or awkward phrasing.

The point is that grammar study isn’t inherently useless. Not everyone can reach a high level just by reverse engineering everything. Once you’re at upper-intermediate level, if you want to improve, you’ll probably need at lease some with the grammar structures you’re making mistakes with.

What do you think? Have you been able to reach C2 or near-native level without really studying grammar? If you have, leave a comment and let me know how you managed that one. I’d love to know!

Related posts:

  1. Learning a Foreign Language: Tips for Learning Grammar
  2. Which is Better: A Native or Non-Native Teacher?
  3. A Real Answer to “How Fast Can I Learn a Language?”
  4. Dealing with Interruptions in Your Language Studies
  5. Using Songs to Learn a Foreign Language: Get More From Your Pop Music

Filed under Grammar

2 Responses to “Grammar: Now for the (Kind of) Bad News”

  1. “Unless you keep seeking and destroying your grammar errors, you risk getting complacent at a certain level—probably around high upper-intermediate—and not progressing further.”

    You’re spot on with that statement. Here‘s my system for doing just that.

  2. Amelia says:

    Thanks for your comment. Yes, I do think reaching a plateau is a problem for a lot of advanced learners. It’s easy to get lazy. :-) I read the post you linked to. Very clearly explained. I admit, I do things a bit differently in the earliest phase, though. I’d probably start out with a bit more exposure. Of course, it all depends on your goals and preferred learning style.

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