the good old grammar debate

Hi all, sorry for the recent absence, but I’ve been apartment-hunting in Berlin. Today I just wanted to chime in about the recent Yearlyglot article about grammar. Firstly, I think the post is quite interesting and highlights some rather amusing mistakes that are possible with incorrect grammar. In general I quite enjoy Randy’s writing. However, I think this article, overall, is attacking a Straw Man.

In the past, I’ve advocated that if people are stressed out by grammar rules, then they don’t really have to bother too much about studying them specifically. What I’ve suggested instead, is that through lots of exposure to your target language, by reading books and watching TV, you can acquire a lot of grammar naturally, without really having to think about it much.

This is not to say that grammar (in the sense of speaking correctly) isn’t important, but rather that studying formal Grammar Rules as one might find in textbooks is in many cases unnecessary, especially for beginners. Currently I’m getting compliments left and right about my spoken German skills, and I think it’s because I mostly speak correctly and I have an accent that makes it hard for people to guess where I’m from. But if anyone asked me to describe various “Formal Grammar” features of the language, I’d be hard-pressed to do it. I get some of my accusative adjective forms wrong, and I also mis-guess the genders on a lot of nouns. I start stumbling when the style of speech is something outside of what I’ve had exposure too, but it usually works out to something understandable even if not quite correct. But almost all of my German skills came from reading multiple novels while listening to the audiobook version, looking up words in a dictionary, and watching TV. No grammar books involved.

So, I still stand by my recommendation that people shouldn’t worry too much about grammar. I think formal grammar rules are best used as a tool to refine your speaking once you’re in the intermediate or advanced stages. If you want to learn more about how the language works in the beginning and intermediate stages, I strongly think that it is best done through reading some targeted example sentences. Pick up a “grammar” book and just read through for the example sentences, and you’ll probably get the concepts quite well.

When studying a language, be curious. Explore around, read lots of descriptions, read lots of examples, but overall just read lots (or listen to lots). It’s not necessary to actually read grammar books or study the grammar specifically in order to speak well, but speaking well is definitely important. You should strive to speak correctly, and you should pay lots of attention to the ways that people say the things that you want to say. Emulate the way real native speakers are saying things, and you’re on the way to learning to speak correctly.

2 Responses to the good old grammar debate

  1. Randy says:

    I quite enjoy the irony of someone saying grammar is not important, and in the course of saying so, they use a phrase like “outside of what I’ve had exposure too”.

    You’re proving my point for me.

  2. J says:

    As a beginner, you do need to know the basics like what nouns, verbs, and pronouns are, but I agree with you that you don’t need to get into crazy, arcane, academic stuff just yet.

    On the other hand, I’m not great at deducing the rules from observed examples. What I advocate for is learning sentence patterns. There’s grammar involved, sure, but you can start generating plenty of sentences based on a few templates without necessarily knowing why the syntax is correct.

    That’s my compromise between the “grammar/no grammar” debate.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: