Learning Without Grammar

I would like to know how this actually works. I know some people swear off grammar, saying that they prefer to focus solely on input. But how does this work in practice?

Let’s say you sit down with an article in Russian that you want to read. You look at the first sentence, and only know a few of the words. Do you look up the words you don’t know? If you do look them up, assuming that you’re totally ignoring grammar, how do you deal with the fact that quite a few of the words actually won’t be in your dictionary – at least, not in the form you see them in the sentence? And, assuming you figure out what the base forms of the words are and find their translations, what do you do regarding the word endings? Do you just outright ignore them? Declensions are, after all, a part of grammar.

What about aspect in Russian? You look up the verb of the sentence, and see in the dictionary entry that it’s “perfective.” But that’s a part of grammar, too – so do you ignore it? Do you just run with the base meaning and ignore the fact that if it’s perfective, the meaning of the whole sentence has changed?

At the end of all of this, you’ll have the meanings of various words but possibly be unsure as to why they have different endings than those listed in your dictionary. If it’s a relatively simple sentence, you might be able to get a fuzzy idea as to what it means; if it’s not so simple, you may very well be at a total loss. And then, I assume, you move on to the next sentence and do it again?

Perhaps I just can’t fathom learning like this because I like to have answers to questions I have – and if those answers are readily at hand, I’m all for grabbing them sooner rather than later. That’s not to say I read one word of a sentence and then delve into a massive grammar book. But I don’t much see the point in scratching my head at different word endings for weeks or months on end when I can at least familiarize myself with the basics in an afternoon or two with some grammar explanations.

Am I missing something about the methodology of “input only, no grammar”? If so, could someone explain, please?

Grimm Grammar for German

The Texas Language Technology Center of the University of Texas has a very nice online grammar of German, Grimm Grammar.

A snippet from their about page:

Welcome to Grimm Grammar, an irreverent revival and shameless exploitation of 19th-century Grimm Fairy Tales for honorable pedagogical purposes.  Fortunately for you, Dear Reader, thirty-six characters from these fairy tales have returned to 21st century Germany (their precise location cannot be revealed for privacy reasons) to model all things grammatical … anything the most eager language learner may wish to know about the German language.

This online grammar reference was created for lower-division language courses at the University of Texas, but any beginning or intermediate learner of German may use it completely free of charge, as long as he or she is willing to take a trip to the imaginary world of Grimm Grammar … the characters of which are grumpy and gorgeous, scary and smarmy, witty and wicked!

If you’re getting started in German, check it out; you could probably skip the introductory German grammar book, and instead just wait until you need a copy Hammer’s.

Grammar For Decoding

Geoff wrote a post a few weeks ago about the idea of learning a language without grammar, and I quite liked this bit:

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.

In learning Russian, I’m experiencing something like this. I’m using Assimil’s Russisch ohne Mühe along with the New Penguin Russian Course; Assimil is more packed with sentences, whereas the Penguin course is rather grammar heavy.

I’m finding it to this to be a nice blend. If I were just using the Assimil course, I really do think that I’d be frustrated due to not fully understanding all of the declensions. On the other hand, if I were just using the Penguin course (which I at first attempted to do, many moons ago), I’d be suffering from grammar overload and not enough real Russian content.

I’m finding that I grasp grammar more fully after learning the grammar points via the Penguin course, and then seeing the grammar in use repeatedly in the Assimil course. The courses are playing off of each other very nicely, and I’m not getting tired of either.

A grammar quote from Rivarol

I was rereading through the introduction to New French with Ease earlier this evening, and came across this gem of a quote from Rivarol:

Grammar is the art of lifting the difficulties out of a language; the lever must not be heavier than the burden.

Something to definitely keep in mind when studying a language; I know from experience how easy it is to get bogged down in the grammar, losing sight of what you’re really after: understanding, and the ability to communicate. Grammar is needed, but it’s a piece of the pie, not the whole thing.

By the way, if you’re curious, here’s the original French quote:

La grammaire est l’art de lever les difficultés d’une langue; mais il ne faut pas que le levier soit plus lourd que le fardeau.

Learn the basics of Russian through videos

While exploring the forums at MasterRussian.com, I came across a post pointing to a set of Russian language learning videos on YouTube.

To make it a bit easier on Language Geek readers, here’s all of the links to the individual videos, along with what they go over:

RL101 – 1 :Some Enchanted Evening to learn Russian!

RL101 – 2 : The Six Letters That Are The Same

RL101 – 3: Six Letters that look the same but are different!

RL101 – 4 The next five letters

RL101 – 5 Revision of the first 17 letters

RL101 – 6 The Next Five – 2/3 of the way.

RL101 – 7 The Sibilants

RL101 – 8: The Missing Vowels – part one

RL101 – 8: The Missing Vowels – part two

RL101 – 9 Soft sign, hard sign

RL101 – 10 Russkaya Azbuka

RL102 – 1 Basic Russian grammar lesson 1

RL102 – 2 Basic Russian grammar lesson 2 part 1

RL102 – 2 Basic Russian grammar lesson 2 part 2

RL102 – 3 Basic Russian grammar lesson 3

RL102 – 4/1 Basic Russian grammar lesson 4 part one

RL102 – 4/2 Basic Russian grammar lesson 4 part two

Roll your “r”s now, baybee!

RL102 – 5/1 Basic Russian grammar lesson 5 part one

RL102 – 5/2 Basic Russian grammar lesson 5 part two

RL102 – 6/1 Basic Russian grammar lesson 6 part one

RL102 – 6/2 Basic Russian grammar lesson 6 part two (corr)

Gold List Method for learning to L/T memory part one

Gold List Method for learning to L/T memory part two

RL102 – 7 Basic Russian grammar lesson 7

By the way, despite him speaking English with a thick Russian accent, he’s not actually Russian; it’s just part of his skit. He’s actually English.

Language Learning: Grammar or Not?

There are many different ways to go about learning a language, and many of those ways are diametrically opposed. One argument in particular revolves around the studying of grammar – or lack thereof.

Some people think that to learn a foreign language, you need to study the grammar of it specifically. For example, in regards to German, you would learn that the dative version of the masculine “der” definite article is “dem”, the dative version of the feminine “die” definite article is der, so on and so forth. You would learn the circumstances in which the preposition “auf” requires the dative case, and when it requires the accusative. In other words, you would learn the language sort of like a machine: you would learn what this piece does, then that, then something else, and then try to put it all together.

The opposite of this learning approach is one in which you don’t study grammar at all. Instead, you simply consume, for lack of a better word, huge amounts of your target language. You listen to audio and take notes; you read books and write down words, structures, etc. that seem important or that you’d like to use at a later time; you study example sentences that display the usage of a certain word, construction, or expression. You essentially take in large amounts of the language until you simply “know” what’s right or wrong, without necessarily knowing the grammar rules that make it that way. The fellows at Antimoon.com: How to learn English effectively use this method of learning almost exclusively, and it would appear to work fairly well, because I’ve yet to find any English mistakes on their site.

I personally use a mixture of the methods. I try to take in a lot of my target language, to get lots of exposure to it, but I also study grammar. While I can see how their method could be effective (and like I said, it appears that it is), the problem I have with it is that to me, not studying grammar is not harnessing my knowledge of my own language, it’s not making use of what I already know about the world and language.

As an example, consider the preposition “auf” in German. It can mean a variety of things: on, in, at, to. Sometimes “auf” needs to be coupled with the accusative case; other times, it requires a dative case. Generally, when what is happening in a sentence involves motion of some sort, “auf” takes the accusative; when motion isn’t involved, the dative is taken. Two short example sentences will show what I mean.

Example 1.
Er legt das Buch auf den [accusative form of “der”, the masculine definite article] Tisch.
He puts the book on the table.

Example 2.
Das Buch ist auf dem [dative form of “der”, the masculine definite article] Tisch.

For me, I’d rather know the rule for when “auf” takes the accusative, and when it takes the dative. It would take me just a few minutes to learn the rule, and then be done with it. Sure, I’ll have to think about it briefly, at least for a while, when I go to write something with “auf” in it. But I’ll still know the rule, and with a little bit of effort, I should be able to work it out.

How long would it take me to “know” that, if I didn’t study the grammar, and instead just read German content? I don’t know. Perhaps I’d pick it up quickly; perhaps I’d continue to use the wrong case for months.

Certainly just studying grammar and word lists is not a good way to learn a language; you have to listen to and read content in your target language as well. Exposure to the language is extremely important in advancing in your studies. But I’m still not convinced that ignoring grammar completely is the best way to go about things.

Russian grammar overview and dictionary from Cornell

Earlier today I was looking around online for some Russian material, namely a grammar overview. I ended up finding that, and quite a lot more!

For grammar, Cornell has the Beginning Russian Grammar page. While all of the essentials of Russian grammar seem to be covered there, the explanations might seem a bit short for beginners. However, it’s a good reference page if you’re already well along the Russian language road.

What I found far more interesting, however, is their Russian Dictionary Tree. It’s an expanded version of this book, 5000 Russian Words: With All Their Inflected Forms and Other Grammatical Information. The authors of the book, who apparently work at Cornell, have made the expanded online version available for anyone to use. Considering the stand-alone CD version offered by Lexicon Bridge Publishers costs $54.50, this is quite a deal, to have it online for free!

Here’s the description of the Russian Dictionary Tree from Lexicon Bridge Publishers:

This 12,000-entry dictionary allows you to search for a Russian or English word, and gives you all the forms and all the endings for every word. Unlike many electronic dictionaries, it is not an abridged version of a printed dictionary. On the contrary, definitions are far more detailed, and many entries contain examples and extensive notes on style and usage.

I’ve looked up a few words thus far, and they aren’t kidding – it’s quite thorough! All of the words I’ve looked up have had a complete declension table, but most of them also had example sentences showing how the word was used.

To use the dictionary, there’s only one thing you have to do: install one of Cornell’s Russian fonts. This is because they use a special font that allows them to place accent marks over letters. It’s not hard to install, though, if you follow their short instructions.