Friday, March 27, 2009

Grammar and Language Learning

Vincent is looking for a middle position in the question of learning with or without grammar. It goes like this:
Get the grammar rules in front of you. Read them. Organize them into a way that makes sense for you, whether in your head or otherwise. Understand them. This allows you to know what's out there and what to expect.


Once you've got the rules in your head, even if only lightly so, jump into exposure. By seeing the rules in action rather than starting from a rule and going through abstract and inane drills, you'll learn how native speakers use the rules in practice and end up sounding more natural than grammar-centric learning would leave you.
I think there's a lot to be said for this approach, and I think it's what people like Josh and I are undertaking, piecemeal. I think, though, that it's something that has to be done piecemeal. There are three reasons for this, one relating to materials and two relating to the learner.

1) When I was in grad school, we talked about the spiral syllabus. Imagine a spiral staircase going up multiple floors: You keep coming back to the same points, but at a higher level each time. Unfortunately, conventional grammars don't do this. They typically are divided into, eg, phonology, morphology, syntax with morphology broken down into nouns, adjectives, adverbs, verbs. The treatments can get pretty exhaustive and the learner has to figure out how deep to dive in.

2) A beginning learner will not understand the significance of what's covered in a traditionally structured grammar because of a tendency to think that what's important in the new language is what's important in his own. As a result, he will master the wrong points. For example, in learning Uzbek, the possessive endings are tremendously important because you use them with "bor" (to exist) to indicate ownership: Mashinam bor = My car is = I have a car. In French, on the other hand, possessives disappear in places we'd expect them with the indirect object in its place: Je me lave les mains = I wash myself the hands = I wash my hands.

3) A beginning learner figures out what's important by meeting up with things that make no sense and making sense of them. The two examples at the end of part two are the sort of thing that you can read about at length. But until you've actually faced them, the point about how they work is likely not to stick - it's too foreign.

I think Vincent is right that you should have a grammar handy (if you can find a good one) and that you should use it to get a preliminary idea of what you're getting into. But there's a danger in overestimating how far you'll get with the grammar before you get the exposure to understand the reality of the things that differ from your own language.

My secondary concern is with the question of production vs. comprehension. I still believe it's best to use grammar for decoding content and what you're comfortable with (or model sentences that you understand really well) for encoding. That's my hunch from years of speaking grammatically correct but unnatural French because I had more French grammar than French exposure.

One side note that will seem to slide me firmly back into the no grammar camp: I recently ran across book2. They publish books with 100 lessons consisting of simple text in your native language and simple text in the language you're learning. The sentences are designed to model grammar, but there are, ahem, no explicit grammar explanations. They suggest they are best used as supplements, and I'm inclined to agree. However, for figuring out some of the quirks of Turkish (like using "var" the same way Uzbek uses "bor") I suspect their string of examples will take you as far as many grammar explanations. In any case, after you get your grammar, you should have a look at their books if you're looking for some basic comprehensible input.


OpenID languagefixation said...

wow! that book2 link is sooo gooood. so much material available, i could just lose myself in there. thanks for the tip!!

8:35 PM  
Blogger Keith said...

I would like to respond to a portion of what is written in the quoted text.

It says: you'll learn how native speakers use the rules in practice

In reality, native speakers don't use grammar rules. They just speak.

12:57 AM  
Blogger Vincent said...

Some thoughts on your first point above, regarding materials, at Getting to Grammar: Somewhere over the rainbow, frequency grammars.

11:50 PM  
Blogger gbarto said...

Note: I accidentally lost a second comment from Vincent that responded to Keith.

The substance of the comment was that people don't use grammar in speaking the same way they don't say to themselves "now brake pedal, now accelerator, now move steering wheel 30 degrees..." while driving their cars. Rules are constantly being applied; it's just that they're so internalized you don't notice.

I'd add that the same thing goes with our basic motor functioning. There's a tremendous amount of processing that goes on if you ask someone to turn on the hot water and he does it: Going to the sink, identifying the faucet handles, visually identifying the "H" for hot, bringing your hand to it, turning it the right direction, etc. Yet if you asked someone to turn on the hot water, then said "What were you just thinking about?" the answer would be along the lines of "What I'm going to have for dinner" - totally unrelated to the process of turning on the water.

The killer for the language learner is achieving this degree of automaticity.

1:48 PM  

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