The following article is for you if you want to learn a foreign language and are not a grammar geek. Maybe you began studying grammar because it was taught in school or because everyone else did it. Or simply because almost every language learning book covers it to a large extent. Here, I want to show you why studying grammar is unnecessary so you can focus on what’s actually important.
1. Studying grammar postpones learning
Imagine that you wanted to learn how to drive a car and asked me to be your driving instructor. I might tell you, “When you drive you need to hold on to the steering wheel with both hands, except when you change gears. To change gears, you have to step on the clutch with your left foot, then shift into the desired gear by using the gear selector. Before releasing the clutch, you have to push down the accelerator a little bit. Only then, slowly release the clutch. And don’t forget to put your hand back on the wheel”.
Language learning is just like learning how to drive a car. The mere description of how you should drive a car doesn’t help you to actually drive a car. Likewise, when you study grammar you learn about a language but not the language. Grammar contributes neither to your comprehension ability nor to your speaking ability.
2. Either grammar or content
You can only focus on one thing at a time. People who meditate use this principle: they focus on a mantra, and for that moment in time, this is the only thing they focus on. They leave no room for other [unpleasant] thoughts.
As a short exercise, please remember your last vacation. Visualize it in all detail, recall the sounds that you heard, feel the atmosphere that you felt when you were there.
Now come back to where you are, look around you, hear the sounds around you, feel the temperature, maybe you can even smell or taste something nearby.
Did you notice how the picture, sound, and feeling of your last vacation disappeared the second you started focusing on the present? It’s the same with language and grammar: either you focus on the grammar while you listen and speak or you listen to what is actually being said and say whatever you intuitively come up with.
If you want to speak in a more grammatically correct context, then by all means keep on studying grammar. If you want to fluently speak your target language, listen to and imitate it.
*Hint: Listening and imitating becomes really exciting and fun when you receive interesting (highly subjective!) feedback in your target language from someone.
3. Grammar does not convey meaning
- Can you me say where I the central railway station find can?
This sentence sounds very awkward to anyone who knows English. I have chosen it because it is the literal translation of the equivalent German question (Können Sie mir sagen, wo ich den Hauptbahnhof finden kann?). This means that someone whose native language is German and who has only little knowledge of English might actually ask this question abroad. Why can we still understand what is being asked here though? Because everything we need is stated in the words “where” and “central railway station”.
Let’s assume that our German visitor actually knows English very well and asks, “Can you tell me where I can find the central railway station?”. What difference would this make to how you replied to the initial question? Perhaps it’s only that you now don’t have to use simple English to explain to him/her how to get to the main station.
My point is, having knowledge of grammar doesn’t necessarily help you to be significantly better understood compared to not having it.
4. Grammar develops automatically
Growing up, we learn our mother-tongue without initially studying grammar, and, usually, we can speak our native language rather well. By extension, this can be proof that all of us can learn any language without having to intentionally study grammar through textbooks.
But how is this possible? The mechanism in our brain that allows us to learn every language without consulting its grammar is called abstraction. It allows us to recognize new patterns without someone else having to point them out to us.
For example, let’s assume you are tasting chocolate for the very first time. On the packaging of your chocolate bar you read “milk chocolate”, albeit you don’t know what this has to do with the taste. After eating this chocolate bar you will think that every chocolate bar tastes sweet. One week later, you buy a dark chocolate bar without knowing that it contains dark chocolate. Of course, you are surprised by the bitter taste and you check what is written on the packaging. The moment you read “dark chocolate”, you realize that “milk” and “dark” are attributes of the taste of chocolate. You have discovered a pattern.
I could have explained all of this to you beforehand, but then you still wouldn’t know how these two types of chocolate taste like -- until you actually tasted them for yourself.
Thus, studying grammar is not necessary to learn a (native) language. From this, it follows that by curiously exploring a language like an infant would, you will make a lot of mistakes in the beginning. But in the end, you will speak as flawlessly and creatively as a native speaker would, while someone who’s more fixated to studying grammar will be bound to the rules of grammar. What makes the difference then? The possibility of freedom. Exploring a language on your own gives you the freedom to choose how you use the language.
5. Language is playful
He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sun rise.
- Eternity by William Blake
Grammar doesn’t change for the most part. But we humans do change. And as the third reason has portrayed, it’s about the idea you want to get across, not about the correct grammatical structure. Play around with words like sand at the beach!
As the second line of this short poem elucidates, native speakers will toy around the word play for example in their native language so far as to stretch the grammatical rules. So why shouldn’t you?
6. Grammar doesn’t feed your motivation
You have a reason why you learn a foreign language. Whatever your reason is, you want the learning process to be fun and interesting. However, studying grammar (and vocabulary) turns the whole process into a boring routine. Wasn’t your initial motive of picking up a target language is to learn new things instead of grinding through predetermined rules?
The problem with studying grammar is that it does not activate your mental reward system. Because what is there to be rewarded other than the rules that somebody else found out before you? Studying grammar prevents you from becoming enthusiastic about learning and exploring a foreign language, which means that it is not brain-friendly (read more about brain-friendly learning here).
What actually feeds your motivation are connections between words and meanings that you yourself discover. For instance, you can learn that “to grin like a Cheshire cat” means strahlen wie ein Honigkuchenpferd in German, and just accept it as a rule. Or you can discover that the German expression literally means “to beam like a honey cake (gingerbread) horse”.
Can learning be wicked and fascinating? YES!
If you’re feeling like you’ve been stuck in progressing in your language learning, then pause your grammar studies and focus on what interests you in your target language. Look for your favourite songs, books, movies etc. and make them your personal learning material. More often than not, they contain everything you need (to start) to become an expert in and a fluent speaker of your target language. At the same time, you get to enjoy such learning materials to the fullest.