the grammar debate…a red herring?

I was just reading Language Geek‘s discussion of the “no-grammar” method compared to the “grammar” method, and how sometimes it’s nice to have a blend of the two. Lately I’ve been thinking about this debate and wondering whether it’s sort of irrelevant.

What i feel with chinese (and i think this applies to other languages too) is that there are two levels to it…there are sentences that are technically “grammatically correct” according to someone’s made up grammar rules that seem to fit all situations, and then there are sentences that actual people say and that actual native speakers consider to be correct. What i mean by this is that we can all surely think of examples we have heard where someone says something in our native language but it doesn’t seem quite right. Maybe it’s technically correct, but nobody really says it that way.

Quite commonly, there are many “grammatically correct” ways to express ideas, but only a few of them are the ones that native speakers actually use. This is really what it means to speak a language…you say what other people say, because you’re used to how it works. In other words, the set of grammar rules overspecifies the language.

This comes up for me quite often with chinese. I can think of several ways to say something, but then when a native speaker tells me what they would say, i quite often think “wow, i never would have guessed that that was the correct way to say it”. Now that i think about it, this really points towards the necessity of hearing lots and lots of correct input. Along the way, you’ll notice common patterns that we call “grammar”, but going the other way by learning the grammar rules first will mean that you may end up producing things that seem correct according to these rules, but are actually not correct in the language overall.

That said, I agree with what Language Geek wrote, that grammar rules are sometimes quite handy when decoding what someone else has said. I think this can still be overcome just by exposure though, so that you (eventually) intuitively know what is being said. I have no experience that would let me say how long it takes to get to that point though, since my language learning has always seemed to start off with a big grammar component (usually through classes).

Since my next short-term project is revival of my meager german skills, i’ll have to wait a while before i can try a purely no-grammar method, but for now i’m trying to change all of my materials and methods over to mono-lingual and input-based. I’m already seeing a change in perception now that i’ve removed the english answers from my chinese anki cards. I can’t believe i’ve left them in for so long already. We’ll see how german goes when i restart that later this week, in preparation for my trip to Berlin in June.

4 Responses to the grammar debate…a red herring?

  1. rcy says:

    Yeah the debate is a bit silly.

    Grammar is a simply a map that linguists have drawn to describe the language.

    Of course, the map is not the terrain.

    Studying the grammar can definitely help, just like looking at a map to find your way around an unknown city is helpful, especially to find an address in a particularly gnarly neighbourhood. But to really know the place, nothing beats walking the streets, and you have to walk them all (several times maybe) before you can really say you know the place like the back of your hand. Takes time.

    When I have lots of time to explore, I like to just wander around, get lost maybe, discover some surprising places, and then when safely home and check a map of where I was to see what actually happened there. The map checking part is mostly to satisfy curiosity though… and fill in gaps.

    I don’t look up grammar points in Spanish (what I’m studying currently) until I’ve seen a construction several times and continue to be puzzled by it. Or I’ll check once I think I’ve cracked whats going on with it, to make sure I’m right. I find that the points stick really well at that point.

    Actually, I’ve started applying the same process to words themselves recently, but thats another story.

    Plus, I’m a total noob, so I have no idea if any of my methods or ideas are effective yet🙂

  2. GeoffB says:

    There’s no question that the grammar debates can get silly. But that doesn’t mean they’re irrelevant. People studying grammar are usually looking for two things: 1) a way to make sure they’re approaching the language correctly and 2) a way to get started communicating without having to invest the time that a native speaker needs to get up to speed. These issues are not trivial. Given that we have finite time in which to learn (unless you’re both wealthy and immortal), any tool that helps reduce the hours of immersion needed for mastery is literally a lifesaver. The point of the grammar debate, then, isn’t just about the best way to learn to speak like a native. It’s about whether grammar saves you time by giving you a “road map” to the language so you can get around in it while you’re still a novice and make use of input faster or whether grammar is necessarily deficient as a road map to the language so that you’ll lose more time going down blind alleys and getting lost in detours than you gain with the illusion that you know where you’re going with the language. If grammar really provided a good clear way to decode language, I would be all for it because I would love to be able to more methodically figure out what’s going on with a language before I’ve invested months in studying it.

    The problem, as I see it, is that because all languages are different, when we’re new to a language we fall back on those structures in the new language that make the most sense to us, not the ones that native speakers most often use. However, I’m not sure that’s avoidable, even with a “no grammar” method because we’ll still gravitate to what’s familiar. Where you go with this is what people like me are trying to sort out on their blogs, sometimes as partisans in the debate, but more often because we really love languages and wish we had a better way of learning them better and more quickly.

    In short, I think advocates on both sides get quite worked up because there really is a lot at stake: How proficient we can really become in another people’s language, and how much of our lives we will have to give up to do it.

  3. David A says:

    Forgive me, but I stopped reading after “whether it’s sort of irrelevant” and the lower case i and chinese. You clearly don’t get it.

    Grammar is an invention to get the idea from my little head into your little head with the greatest possible accuracy. Consistent grammar means that 100 years from now when your great-grandchildren read what you written, they will be able to understand it. Of course, that will be possible only if we can stop going down the slippery slope. and like dude thats gonna happen b/c theirs nothin ta stop it anyways.

  4. Seb says:

    I think it can also vary a lot depending on the language. For example with Swedish what is generally written follows the grammatical rules a lot more than what is spoken. This is common in many languages but can vary depending on the language.

    So a combination of both grammar and ‘real life’ listening and conversing is needed.

    We need to also consider the fact that not every native speaker follows what is ‘grammatically correct’.

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