Friday, February 13, 2009

Learning Without Grammar?

Ramses has a nice post on language learning without grammar. He makes a very important point:
It’s just a pity to see that many people in the pro-grammar and anti-grammar camp just focus on LEARN grammar or DON’T LEARN grammar, and don’t come up with alternatives.
Indeed, it sometimes seems like some people make a fetish of not learning or teaching grammar, as though how you learn a language is more important than whether you learn it.

I personally favor the use of grammar for decoding, but am more reluctant to use it for encoding. That is, it's good to find out what's going on with a language when you're getting frustrated trying to "just take it in." But the more I play with Assimil programs, phrasebooks and Pimsleur, the more convinced I am that the way you master grammatical patterns is to say a lot of sentences the right way and let your brain do the grammar processing based on habits formed rather than through deliberate conscious processing.

One of the hard parts with learning grammar without explicit study is getting enough exposure to those different sentences. It's easy to memorize a table with six endings. Maybe easier than finding time to do enough reading to be exposed to the same verb form in fifty contexts a hundred times. One of my suggestions would be to learn whole phrases (with Anki or flashcards) from phrase books, not just individual words, or even the kinds of sentences you find in beginning grammar books. Ramses has some other ideas, starting with letting go of the idea that, eg, sé and saben are two forms of the same word, and learning them individually since your brain is going to need them for different things in different circumstances. Check out his post for more, including a comment from Thomas of Babelhut about how letting go of grammar makes grammatically complex languages like Pali easier.


Blogger Ryan said...

I agree. To me paying no attention to grammar is like learning how to be a martial artist by only getting in bar fights and street brawls. You'll learn some valuable things about fighting, if you survive, but you'll only ever get so good. How would someone with only street experience fare against one of those guys from the Ultimate Fighting Championship competitions? They'd get hurt, badly.

Conversely, if all you ever do is train at the gym you'll never be much of a fighter either. Lift weights, do endurance training, punish the punching bag and spare with gloves and a helmet until you pass out. If you go into the same Mixed Martial Arts competition the guy with only street experience he might even end up doing better, though not much.

If you want to get really good you need both. Just like no martial arts training regimen is perfect for everyone, no balance of grammar and pure exposure to the language is perfect for everyone. The most advanced hyperpolyglots seem to be the ones who notice what works for them.

10:09 AM  
Blogger Carlie said...

I have to say I agree with what you are saying here, and think you expressed it better than I can! Still, I attempted to write down my thoughts and linked to you in my current article:

I really like your ideas of using grammar to decode rather than encode. Although at the begining everything is slower and you are more concious of what you are saying, as you get more confortable hopefully people are moving on an "just speaking" rather than thinking about it.

2:29 PM  
Blogger Chris said...

I think there will naturally be a spectrum of approaches, and yes those that are too fixed on one approach need to open up.

Unlike Ryan though I think there are plenty of people at each far end, the fighting analogy does not hold up, there are plenty of fighters with no formal training who would be very dangerous to anybody, a lot depends on where you hold the fight...

Conversely a language savant of a certain type my be quickly able to use a language well after only book study.

9:35 AM  
Anonymous Ramses said...

Geoff, first of all: thank you for the link :-).

Second of all: you plug an interesting idea here; that there's a line between grammar for decoding and grammar for encoding. No matter how I look to it, grammar for encoding is no option for me. But if I look to my own process, I do see that I use grammar for decoding. If you read the Antimoon website (I bet you already did that) and look closely, they do promote grammar for decoding (one of them used a technique called "read and think").

Personally, I believe that thinking about the structure of sentences in a grammatical way (not too grammatical, of course) can certainly help you.

6:41 AM  
Blogger gbarto said...

Thanks all for the comments. I think there really is quite a range of possibilities for learning, and we each have to find what works best for us. However, it makes sense to try what has worked for others if what you're doing isn't working, which is why I talk about all different kinds of approaches on Confessions.

You mention in your post that your opinion on grammar will change. I'm sure it will, and if you keep learning the new opinion will be equally valid. One of the hardest parts of giving advice about language learning is you have no idea how much automatic processing of things you've picked up in the past goes into that foolproof system you'd have started using long ago if only you'd known how easy it was.

I learned French very old-school, with lots of grammar. After 4 years of high school, I could only utter basic sentences but I could diagram most anything. When I got to France, after three weeks my speech took off. All that grammar training couldn't make me form sentences naturally, but it set me up well to soak up comprehensible input when the time came. With Uzbek, I learned a bunch of structures a year ago and got nothing. But when I ran across a DLI manual with nothing but phrases, all those structures popped out at me. So, yes, grammar can prepare you to use comprehensible input. But unless you think faster than me, it's input, not formulas, that you need to make the language take off for you.

1:13 PM  
Blogger Vincent said...

Here's my take: Don't ignore grammar, learn without grammar, or use it only for decoding

12:16 PM  

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