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?

11 thoughts on “Learning Without Grammar”

  1. What you do is through your book away and get some good content from TV. From the visuals, you will understand a whole lot more.

    Anyway, it requires that you don’t try to understand everything. But it sounds like you would go crazy if you couldn’t understand everything, so maybe it’s not for you.

  2. I wouldn’t go crazy if I couldn’t understand everything; if I’m reading for content, I’ll take a guess at many words and not bother looking them up. I’m okay with not looking everything up the moment I come across it, but the idea of never looking any grammar points up at all, particularly with a heavily inflected language like Russian, would indeed probably drive me bonkers.

  3. Hi Josh,

    I’m currently learning Thai with a grammar-free approach, so I can offer you a brief description of my method. I won’t speak for all input-only-no-grammar proponents out there, since there are many different methods.

    Basically, I watch video clips, DVDs and TV, in particular educational programs for kids, documentaries, travel shows, cooking shows and do-it-yourself shows. Any program produced for native speakers that shows visually what is talked about is suitable, and there’s plenty of that available for Thai.

    I do not translate, memorize words, or analyze grammar. I don’t use a dictionary and I don’t do exercises. I’m still in the lower intermediate stages, so I still refrain from speaking, but this is about to change in the not too distant future.

    The only thing I do is watching and guessing what’s going on. That’s all. It took some getting used to, but now it seems to work like magic. After noticing the use of a word/expression/phrase for some time in a particular context, a meaning of it suddenly clicks in, and then gets more and more refined or expanded as I continue to hear it elsewhere. At no point in this process I need to translate or analyze anything.

    So, that’s my method. For me, it’s a fascinating experiment, especially given my history of language learning the traditional way, but I don’t intend to convince anybody, and I have limited interest in arguing. I keep a blog documenting what I’m up to and some reflections, and you’re invited to check it out 🙂

    I more or less follow the ideas of Marvin Brown, who came up with a language learning concept called Automatic Language Growth (ALG). There is a school in Bangkok teaching Thai with his concept, you’ll find the links on my blog.

    Specifically to your case study: with my approach, such a situation would never occur. I simply wouldn’t sit there and analyze a text I don’t understand. I would acquire the language by watching, guessing and listening to a level where I could understand most of the text anyway, and then I would just read, picking up words on the go and reinforcing grammatical structures (subconsciously).

    I have some experience doing the latter with French. After switching to the Thai method described above, I stopped my French language course, deleted Anki and gave away all my grammar books and dictionaries. I started to listen to podcasts, watch videocasts and read books. In all of these activities, I understand enough to comfortably follow the story, and I constantly pick up words and expressions. I also picked up a grammatical concept that I had not studied (but knew of its existence), the passé simple, just by observing when and how it’s being used. I wouldn’t be able to answer linguistic questions about it, but I probably would be able to use it correctly.

    Here’s one of my posts on a related topic.

    1. Specifically to your case study: with my approach, such a situation would never occur. I simply wouldn’t sit there and analyze a text I don’t understand.

      Fair enough. 🙂

      I do watch videos and listen to things in my target languages, and when doing that, I tend to not worry too much at all about words I don’t know. I’m not so obsessed with nailing things down when I first see or hear it that I would pause a video to look up vocabulary.

      Thanks for sharing your experiences.

  4. One option that some people do is to get three things: A book in your target language (“L2”), the matching audiobook in your target language (“L2”), and then a translation of the same book in English (or whatever your native language is: “L1”).

    You start by reading the L1 book while listening to the L2 audio. This lets you have complete understanding of what will be said, so then when you hear it you can try to make some sense of it. At the start, you know almost nothing, so you mostly try to match up the names and places, or any loan words that may exist, or words that come from a common linguistic ancestor.

    What happens after several hours of this “Listening / Reading” is that you start to figure out the common words of the language, because maybe you always hear the L2 word for “he” whenever you read the English “he” in the book. After several dozen hours of this exercise, you’ll actually understand a lot of words already.

    Once the listening gets a lot easier, then you switch the books. Now you read the L2 book while listening to the L2 audio. Everything is in the new language now, but you already understand a bunch of it, so you can figure out the rest of them from context. Reading the L2 words while listening to them also teaches you the spelling.

    Not everyone tries to do this purely without grammar. What most of the anti-grammar people usually recommend is that you just don’t need to try to memorize grammar. You don’t need to stare at big charts all day, you don’t need to do any textbook exercises, etc. You could look it up for personal interest, if you want…like maybe you’re always hearing a certain word ending, but you don’t quite get it. Fine, look it up. You just don’t have to do a bunch of boring exercises.

    I used this method quite successfully with German and I’m still in-progress with Swedish. In German I got the full series of Harry Potter in German with the German audiobooks, and read them all. For the first book, I barely understood anything, but by the end I understood 99%. I then started a similar thing with Swedish, although I haven’t done as much work on it yet. So far I know up to maybe a “B1” level of vocabulary in Swedish, and I can understand a lot of what is said, and I can read Swedish websites with very few problems.

    When I started Swedish (totally from scratch with no prior knowledge), I actually did just skim through a Swedish grammar book. I read a bunch of example sentences just to get a feel for how things worked, and then I never looked at the book again. I just kept reading novels while listening.

    1. Hey doviende; yeah, I’ve read about L-R at the HTLAL forums (and have followed your logs about using it, too!). I considered having a go at it a long time ago, but at the time, I was more or less broke all the time, so I wasn’t crazy about dropping a bunch of money on books from overseas. I’m not going to do it now, but I have some interest in trying it, and now that I think about it, Spanish might be a good language to try it out on sometime in the future. There are plenty of Spanish books available on amazon.com, Harry Potter included, which I’ve already read.

  5. I have been compiling a book written entirely by YouTube Polyglots and language learners. Many of them have adopted this “no grammar” approach and do a good job of explaining it. Have a look at the link in my latest video which contains the last published draft version of the book:

  6. I think this is really just evidence that certain methods of language learning work best for certain people. I hate the grammar-lite approach used with Golosa and loved my year of college Latin with Wheelock. I also enjoyed the term of Old Church Slavonic I took concurrently with Russian 203, where the former sat us down with an exhaustive grammar of the language and gave us reproductions of various biblical stories and minimal training on the declensional/conjugational systems and relevant consonant mutations. We had to hack our way through about 30 verses a week, and while it was certainly not easy at first, it was really rewarding.

    I also differ from Doviende in that I think it’s absolutely crucial (especially in every Slavic language sans maybe Bulgarian and Macedonian) to drill yourself on word endings. Not like textbooks do them, necessarily, where you’re trained on so few words that generalization comes awkwardly, but it is extraordinarily valuable to know grammatical morphology cold for Russian. You won’t get that mastery by looking at giant charts all day, but it’s a mastery you really need.

    1. Yeah, I think personality plays a large role in it. Some people, such as Bakunin above, are quite satisfied with going along and guessing at things, slowly getting more and more comfortable with the language. Others prefer a heavy emphasis on grammar, and others prefer a mixture.

      As for drilling word endings, I agree; I’m personally not very good at getting a solid grasp of word endings just through passive learning such as reading and listening. For example, I found that when finishing the passive wave of Assimil’s New French with Ease course, I could read some French material at a so-so level, but I was still stumbling over the verb conjugations, and if you asked me to actually produce anything, I was at a total loss. Perhaps if I just stuck to reading and listening to French material for a long period of time, I would come to grasp the endings, but frankly, I would rather plow through some grammar exercises and move on.

  7. In my opinion learners can learn grammar and practice it in communicative grammar exercises with real life content (with sentences that most likely can be used in real life situations).
    Correct oral communication in English is based on knowledge of English phonetics, grammar, vocabulary, and on practice and experience in communicating with native English speakers in real life. In the process of learning English grammar learners can devote a portion of time at each lesson for learning first fixed thematic conversational phrases that don’t require grammar knowledge. Later based on known grammar learners can concentrate more productively on listening, speaking, reading and writing practice on each daily life topic and on thematic vocabulary expansion. I think grammar learning ought to be combined with conversational practice and vocabulary learning (first fixed thematic conversational phrases, and then free conversational practice on each topic with sentences based on known grammar (to reduce grammar mistakes) while still learning grammar). Grammar exercises that contain dialogues, interrogative and statement (or narrative) sentences on everyday topics, thematic texts and narrative stories are especially effective for mastering grammatical structures. Grammar practice should include exercises in listening comprehension, speaking, reading and writing. I think it ought to be effective to combine input (listening, reading) with output (speaking and writing). Knowledge of grammar rules reduces making grammatical mistakes by learners. Without adequate knowledge of English grammar rules learners often cannot create their own grammatically correct sentences and often cannot understand what they read or hear in English exactly. I believe what especially matters in effective teaching and learning of English grammar is how clearly and easily understandable all grammar rules are explained and whether adequate supportive exercises with real life content are practised to master that material. It would take foreign learners much less time to learn grammar rules that are explained to learners than to figure out grammar rules on their own intuitively from texts because grammar rules may have exceptions and other peculiarities.
    Grammar books with explanations and exercises have been published by knowledgeable language specialists to make learning grammar easier so that learners don’t have to discover grammar rules anew the hard long way.

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