Why You Need To Learn Grammar

A site I visit had a discussion about the best way to learn a language. Like a moth to a flame, I flew in. There were some great suggestions, outside of the usual “A tool is not a method” problem. However, one disturbing thing I noticed was a tendency for a lot of the participants to say things like, “Don’t learn grammar.” There are a few reasons people stated that they shouldn’t learn grammar. Needless to say, they’re wrong. However, I’ll go into detail here.

Why Shouldn’t You Learn Grammar? The Arguments

Common arguments include that you shouldn’t learn grammar because it stifles you and de-motivates you. That’s a fair argument, because some people are daunted by the idea of learning a whole new set of rules.

Another argument is that 1000 hours of learning from a book is worth less than an hour talking to someone. That’s not true. 1000 hours of book learning will mean you know close to every grammar rule there is in your target language. If you don’t think that being able to construct a sentence in every tense and with every case and rule obeyed is helpful, I really don’t know what to say. Besides, one hour of speaking with a native speaker is useless if you don’t get beyond point-and-speak vocabulary. Grammar holds all the rules which allow you to extend your use of vocabulary beyond that.

Another argument which is very false is “People understand you with bad grammar.” The example given by a person in the thread was, “Me you see movie tonight.” Alright, that’s a vaguely understandable sentence. If you had a close friend who was a native speaker, they probably would know what you were saying. But the fact is if you learned the most basic grammar rule in the language (in this case, word order) that would instantly turn the sentence into “You see movie with me tonight?” That’s not a correct sentence, but it’s far more accurate and would take about ten seconds to learn. The social dimension also cannot be understated: Most people you meet aren’t going to want to talk for more than two minutes to a person who is speaking like a Neanderthal. It’s mentally tough to try and work out what broken language is saying, and it makes you sound far less intelligent than you are.

An example of a guy who should learn grammar: I was at a bus station. A person who couldn’t speak English save for a few words came up to me. He said, “go durby.” I didn’t know what he was talking about, and he kept repeating the same two words. I worked out that he meant “Derby” after a few repetitions. I still didn’t know what he was talking about.

“Go Derby”
Did he want to go to Derby?
Was I going to Derby?
Should I be going to Derby?
Does this place have buses that go to Derby?

A simple understanding of the way verbs work and basic word ordering would have helped this man. Instead, he used his limited vocabulary and asked multiple people for help, none of whom could help him.

The Reason You Need To Learn Grammar

Most languages are intuitive. They all have their internal rules. Otherwise, they’d be random and it would be impossible for anyone to learn them. Even people with far-below-average IQ’s can pick up their native language, and that’s because of grammar.

Learning Vocabulary is all well and good. If you were to learn the verb conjugations as vocabulary for each Spanish verb, it would take you hundreds of hours. Or, you can learn the way regular verbs are structured, and then you only have to learn the root of the verb. When you’re dealing with native speakers, if you have an understanding of the rules you give them a chance to understand you.

In the UK, many foreign language students come every September to start University. They understand English grammar, but they don’t understand the irregularities. Still, the fact that they over-generalise means that most people understand them. Take the guy above. If he had said this to me:

“I wanting to go Durby”

It would have been a lot easier to help him. Even though he hasn’t understood all the grammar and has got word endings wrong, that little bit of grammar knowledge turns his vocabulary into a much more powerful language tool.

Also, if you learn rules as opposed to words, you end up doing less work. Like I said, with Spanish, you can learn all the different words for all the tenses. Or you can learn one word and apply the one rule hundreds of times. One is easier. One is efficient. Learn Grammar, save yourself time. Learn Grammar, get better at learning a language.

Language Bug