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 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.

2 thoughts on “Language Learning: Grammar or Not?”

  1. This article is pretty old, but I’ve just discovered your blog and I want to comment on this.

    I am a moderately fluent speaker of German and have recently begun studying Swedish. Initially, I tried the antimoon-style approach, because I’d always wanted to do it from scratch and see how things went. It’s not that it didn’t work per se… but without being consistently immersed (which is not something I could do), I don’t see how it can really replace grammar study. Even children learn grammar in their native language–or at least, they have it corrected. “You mean ‘Billy and I went to the store.'”

    When I consider what are now seemingly simple topics like two-way prepositions in German, it seems like it would have been incredibly difficult to figure out just from context. First, you have to see a given word enough times with each article to figure out that those articles all apply to the same gender. der Mann, dem Mann, den Mann, des Mannes. Otherwise, you might see ‘der Mann’ in one place and ‘dem Tisch’ in another and think that they’re two separate genders. Then, after you’ve figured out that ‘den Mann’ and ‘dem Mann’ are both valid, you have to see a given preposition used enough times to figure out exactly what context calls for which–a process that, without the level of input experienced by native speakers, may never be completed.

    Unless you’re paying VERY close attention, the difference between “Es steht auf dem Tisch” and “Ich lege es auf den Tisch” will likely be overlooked, as well. And yes, if you hear it ENOUGH, you may just be repeating those stock phrases. But if you try to modify them and say “Ich lege es auf das Bett,” you may be just as likely to say “den Bett.” After all, it’s “Es liegt auf dem Bett,” just like “auf dem Tisch.” See what I’m saying?

    I’ve concluded that grammar study is good and useful as an accessory, though not necessarily as the focus of your studies. My current approach to Swedish is to read read read, but occasionally consult a grammar text where things seem unclear or just to pick up tidbits here and there when the fancy strikes me, so to speak. I’ve come to believe that the most important thing of all is to just stay interested and excited no matter what–and the antimoon method left me frustrated and annoyed.

  2. Thom,

    Nicely said. I also tried the Antimoon approach for a while, and ultimately I hit the same problem: the method made me frustated and annoyed. Sure, I was learning – I was memorizing the sentences I’d put into my SRS app. And that was it. I didn’t see any real gains in my knowledge of the language outside of the sentences I entered.

    Perhaps I wasn’t patient enough with it, but I figure if I can make steady progress with my ways, I might as well stick to them. 🙂

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