Taking the world less travelled

To Grammar Or Not To Grammar, That Is The Question

Posted by on Feb 15, 2009 in Language | 12 comments

eep I’ve been reading a few articles lately about learning grammar vs. not learning grammar.

Most of these articles are in the Not To Grammar group, which is interesting as I am in the “at least at first, if you want to, and I do, To Grammar” group. Yes, perhaps I’m in the minority with the latest crazes running through the language learning community… I don’t believe in “memorizing” grammar, but I do think, at least in the beginning, grammar learning IS a help and I can’t imagine learning Japanese as quickly as I have without initially learning how sentences are put together compared to English.

This being said, I am open to all forms of learning, and thus I have read these articles with much interest. Here is one interesting point that is made.

From Keith’s Voice On Extreme Language Learning:

I’m trying not to, but when there is a pause, I can hear my mind translating. I wish I hadn’t studied Chinese. Not even a little bit. For words I have never looked up, I don’t automatically translate them. Translations are like an anchor. They slow you down.

This is in regards to watching Chinese TV.

I sort of think of this like learning Kanji via first Remembering the Kanji. First you are learning things via an English keyword. However, as your Japanese advances, you forget the keyword and just see/read the Kanji in Japanese with the Japanese word/reading in your head.

The point in the above quote is that learning grammar makes you translate things in your head. And translation = bad. Yes, you will get to the stage when translation is harder than just understanding… But in the beginning, I just can’t picture what it would be like not to translate.

Maybe I’m not advanced enough in Japanese to have a qualified opinion (and well, it will be interesting to see if my opinion changes over time, which is one reason I’m writing on this site!) but I have a hard time imagining how a beginner can learn a language, especially one so different from English as Japanese, without some how translating at least in the beginning.

Yes, for words like “よろしく” there is no direct translation. For most words and concepts there will be different nuances and way of expressing… If you understand that the translation isn’t going to be direct but just a suggestion, then you will be fine. With greater exposure you will gradually become aware of the different nuances of the word/concept and forget about the translation. I would perhaps argue if you are still translating something it is just because you haven’t had enough exposure to it yet…

That being said, I am what I think of as a “nuts and bolts” person. I like to know how stuff gets put together. I find that I understand things better when I know where they have come from/how they are made. I am not one of those people that can just go to the movies and not analyse aspects of it. I still enjoy my movies, in fact I gain a deeper appreciation of movies when I do analyse… This being said, I readily accept that other people are not like this.

THUS… I get to my point…

Grammar is good for some people, Grammar is not good for others

Don’t rule something out because other people tell you to! Grammar may be the devil incarnate to some people, but for me it is a useful tool in my quest to learn Japanese.

However, this was said on Confessions of a Language Addict:

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.

Yes, this! I have to say, I agree with the whole article. I don’t think I could have said it better myself. Grammar (to me) is important in decoding language, but when I am speaking in Japanese, I’m not worried about what particle to say when, I just speak. Yes, I know I’m rubbish, but I’ll get better. :)

The thing is, don’t worry about it too much. I don’t memorize it, I don’t know grammar terms so I’m not into really analyzing it… It just helps me understand things which were once abstract into becoming something comprehensible…





Join the conversation and post a comment.

  1. Deas

    I totally understand where you’re coming from on this. The only reason I study grammar at this point is because lots of obscure grammar that isn’t used in everyday casual language is going to be on the JLPT that I want so desperately to pass. It’s all archaic, literary grammar that I’ve got no cause to practice on a normal day. So I’ve begun force feeding myself bits of it to try and gain some understanding. For me, actual conversations, listening to other people construct sentences (and mimicking them), and making honest mistakes (and being kindly corrected) are the best teachers. Having said that, I sort of agree with you – I couldn’t be where I am today without having studied basic grammar… In the end, I guess you’ve just got to go with what works for you, huh?

  2. James Bruce

    I think it all comes down to multiple intelligences and learning styles. I cant stand it when people preach some new extremist view of teaching via only reading, only speaking, only studying grammar. It’s all tosh…

    Personally, I know learning grammar is essential FOR ME. That is the way my brain works. I can’t just learn a sentence and say “fine, that’s how this to say xxxx”. I need to break it up, understand why that bit goes in there and what else I could change it for instead. Others learn better by singing the sentences to themselves. Others find rote memorization to quite agreeable.

    Perhaps that’s what is wrong with our current schooling system that seems to think everyone should learn in the same way. In Japan, it is expected that the teacher will stand at the front of the class and lecture; the students will listen intently and let the knowledge flow into their minds. That’s not a cultural difference, its just plain bad teaching.

    I’d much rather teach my students the skills and discipline they need to learn something (English, in my case) and then just let them have at it.

    • GoddessCarlie

      Schools are hard because you some how have to teach a whole group of people the same stuff yet there are different learning styles. We did a lot of “motivational/study methods” classes in grade 12 at my highschool (to prepare for both those who were going out to get a job and those who were going to uni next) and I remember some basic tips such as engage all your senses. Some are stronger than others, so it is easier to learn with those methods, but others are obviously weaker and thus need more work.

      I think if schools too used a similar approach.. i.e. teach things in all different kinds of ways and everyone should be able to get something out of it. Unfortunatly, perhaps that is too much time/effort, or something, but it is not the way things usually happen.

      I was lucky going through school in that I learn well from reading something teachers have written on the board and then writing my own notes down.

  3. Blair Williams

    Hey there! I came across your blog, and I hope you don’t mind me posting a comment.

    I’ve happened to be on a grammar kick myself, and after reading this, I wrote an opinion article myself on my website:


    I understand where you and the above commenters are coming from, but I can’t help but be affected by my own experience, where “feeling” my way through the language led to an almost complete breakdown of skills. What I had developed through audio lessons and repetitive phrases fell completely apart when I encountered actual Japanese. Trying to create new sentences along the lines of the ones I had learned from audio tapes only lead to stuttered, incorrect Japanese, and I broke down to one word sentences and muttering a lot. I’m trying to rebuild that confidence now, and studying actual grammar rules has done the trick.

    So, I must throw my hat into the pro-grammar study ring.

    Thanks for the post!

    • GoddessCarlie

      Thanks for the awesome comment and the follow up post! :) I really like your site.

      I think, to an extent, what we are learning in books/formulated courses is always going to sound a bit unnatural. People are always throwing things into speech that aren’t going to be in text books, from “um” to pronouncing things “wrong” such as “knife” as “ker-ni-fie”. I think of text books etc as a foundation, then watch tv shows etc to see how in real life words are applied. Often I need some subs to actually put two and two together as well, as people mumble and speak faster than the text book counter parts. But slowly I will watch something, and suddenly get jolted back to relatity because I didn’t understand something – and realise I had been watching and actually understanding for a couple of minutes. Now that is a satisfying feeling!

      I look forward to living in Japan where I will have more oportunity to apply what I am learning, but for now I make due with what I have.

      Thanks for your reply!

  4. GeoffB

    Looking at the debates about Pimsleur vs. Rosetta Stone vs. Michel Thomas, it’s important to remember that there’s a lot of money at stake based on what emerges as the “best” product. I think there’s a similar ego investment for a lot of the self-taught. It’s hard, when you’ve spent years figuring out what works for you, to have people tell you it’s nonsense. More than that, it’s silly. There are quite obviously people who have learned well using one method and other people who have learned well using a completely different method. So while some methods may be pretty bad for a lot of people, that doesn’t mean that there’s one best method. So if your learning is progressing, that’s great. Don’t change a thing! But if your learning slows down, you should start looking at other programs and at what people are talking about on the blogs and forums, not so you can find the right way, but so that you can find something that will be right for you.

  5. Ramses

    Oh yes, I studied grammar in the past but quit as soon as I began thinking about how we learn language as kids. Now, one could argue that we change as we grow older, but would we learn our first language with immersion if that wouldn’t be one of the best ways to learn a language?

    I firmly believe that studying too much grammar will leave you with anything but fluency, as you’ll think too much before you start producing.

    • Jamie

      Immersion isnt really a language learning method, its simply a method of language absorption. You cant “immerse” yourself if a language without actually being in that particular country, so it doesnt really count in a discussion about language learning methods.

      Doing too much of anything is bad, but you need some grammar to give you a solid foundation, especially as an adult learner. You are not a baby anymore, and you cannot expect to absorp a language like a baby does.

    • GoddessCarlie

      As a child it took you probably two years to start saying anything, and perhaps five years before you were sort of speaking OK. Seven or eight to have some reading, and probably not til you were around 10 where you could read thick books. I don’t want to wait that long! That knowledge you were building on nothing. Now as adults we have a solid foundation of language knowledge we can build upon.

      I don’t think you think too much with Grammar, in my case. It allows me to quickly make connections between things where as, for me, without grammar, it would take me much longer to start producing.

  6. M-Kat

    simply put grammer are for some while others get by without it. More power to them I know I need some basics in grammar though or i will just be lost! And I guess with new vocab I learn it’s good to know some form of grammar to go with it but I do agree not to spend ALL your time with it. Listening is key.. it helps you to speak more!

  7. Discovering Mandarin

    I am in two minds about this.

    Instinctivley I think learning basic grammar is correct, but then again immersion is true learning, because otherwise as said above you end up translating which is wrong.

    I like Rosetta stones basic vocab because it is purely pictorial and introduces new things at a refreshing pace. However, I realise that it won’t take me close to being fluent.

    I think for me using a variety of methods is going to be best so
    a) I don’t get bored
    b) I stimulate memory of all aspects of the language
    c) I keep on reaffriming things I know in other areas through learing something new.

    I think I will learn some grammar, but not let it hold me back from learning new characters, or just litening to the language being spoken.

    I am looking to start using Anki this week, with Rosetta stone and some audio books.


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