by Steve Kaufman: Do you need grammar to learn a language?

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Grammar? No!

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I often get resistance to the idea that language learning should not emphasize grammar instruction. I do not try to learn grammar rules when I learn a new language. I deliberately ignore them. I do not understand or remember them. I just imitate what I hear and see.

Research by Krashen and others has shown that learning grammar will not enable people to become fluent. Yet the pressure for grammar instruction remains strong, even from learners at The Linguist.
At The Linguist we believe learning should be driven by enjoyable input and a systematic approach to learning words and phrases. We do not encourage grammar instruction. Many of our learners have had 10 years of grammar and still cannot speak. We do provide grammar explanations when we correct writing.

This lack of grammar instruction does not go down well with many teachers and learners. “You have to learn grammar to stop making mistakes” is the refrain. However, just understanding the “why” of a grammar rule will not ensure accurate language. Chinese speakers regularly say “he” when they mean “she” and vice versa. They understand the principle, they just cannot say the correct word when speaking because spoken Chinese does not make this distinction. You would think that this rule would be easy to learn, but it is not. It is not the understanding of the principle, but the development of the correct language instinct that will enable the speaker to be accurate and fluent. Only enough exposure and the gradual training of the brain will make that possible. The emphasis is on the word gradual.

Learners can have a grammar book for reference, the smaller the better. It is often interesting to look up questions of grammar. I have often done so myself. I have looked up verb conjugations and noun declensions in languages like Spanish and German. It did not help me to speak. It did not enable me to use the correct word. I still needed to learn phrases from real contexts, to notice phrases when reading and listening, and to repeat these phrases when speaking, in order to gradually improve.

One of our learners was told by a friend that she needed to work on her grammar. She always said “deal a problem” rather than “deal with a problem”. She had problems with prepositions. But to me the problem was not one of grammar. Why do you “deal with a problem” but “manage a problem”? You cannot create explanations for every possible situation. The learner just needs to make “deal with” a phrase that she knows, uses and masters. Any rule would only get in the way.

I still feel that The Linguist language learning engine is the most efficient way to make a breakthrough. Many of our learners have found this to be the case. If you have struggled with grammar for years and still are not satisfied with your English, perhaps it is your learning method that is holding you back. Set yourself free from grammar study. Start enjoying your learning. Spend more time listening and reading and noticing the correct structure of the language and spend less time studying grammar rules that you will forget.

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