In Defense of Grammar

Here are some other language blogs worth checking out:

Steve Kaufmann at The Linguist
Benny at Fluent in 3 months (not sure about Benny's last name, although I have a theory that "Benny" is his last name and "Irrepressible" his first).

If you read both of these regularly (as I do) you will find some fundamental disagreements between them on the best ways to learn languages; on the other hand, they seem to agree on other points, specifically:

(1) Traditional language classes are a waste of time; and
(2) Studying grammar is a waste of time.

Today I'm out to refute hypothesis (2). I'll leave hypothesis (1) for the future.

As I understand it, the main arguments against grammar study run as follow:

1. Grammar is scary and frustrating. The terminology is unfamiliar and confusing.
2. Real fluency in a language demands speaking intuitively, without stopping to analyze what one is saying.
3. Listening and repeating (the way babies learn) is more "natural" and preferable to the "artifical" approach of learning rules and memorizing vocabulary.

Overall, I think the attitude of wanting to study a language but not wanting the study the grammar is misguided. It's like wanting to learn ones way around a foreign city but not wanting to use a map, because maps are covered with intimidating symbols, and someone who really knows the city wouldn't need a map, and babies don't use maps anyway. However, to address these arguments point-by-point:

1. Grammar is scary and frustrating. This sounds to me like the real issue is grammar doesn't yield immediate gratification. Someone looking to learn a new language ought to be the last to object to having to learn new words. And of course the terminology is unfamiliar, because the concepts are unfamiliar. This is an important part of what you get with a new language anyway--a new way of looking at the world. And this particular new way of thinking ultimately streamlines language learning.

I experienced this myself just recently, in Arabic class, when it comes to understanding why nouns end with the vowel a in some situations, u in others, and i in yet others. Having previously encountered noun cases in Russian and Sanskrit, or even Latin (after which Arabic noun cases are a day at the beach), the explanation made immediate sense. My younger, nimbler, but naive classmates, unfamiliar with the concepts of "nominative", "accusative", "genitive", had a vastly more difficult time understanding what's going on.

2. Real fluency demands speaking intuitively. It's true that a fluent speaker can't be stopping to think about "rules" in the course of formulating a sentence. But the ability to step back occasionally and consciously analyze a sentence is also exceedingly useful, and makes one a better communicator. Drivers instinctively keep to the right side of the road and stop at red lights, but when asked, all drivers can explain the rules underlying their behavior. This makes them better drivers, not worse.

For Sanskrit or Arabic, for example, the development of a formal grammar was an important cultural milestone, and indeed a major achievement of civilization--the realization that this "thing" (language) that everyone uses instinctively could be analyzed and codified. In the age of computers and software, the idea of "grammar" has become an essential ingredient of our technological civilization. Why take pride in one's ignorance of it?

3. Grammar study is "artificial." As pointed out by Khatzumoto (although perhaps in gentler terms) babies are actually lousy language learners. Who else can spend an entire year in a completely immersive environment and acquire only a handful of words and be unable to form even a simple sentence? Children do have a talent for mimickry and the ability to soak up large amounts of vocabulary, but adults can more than make up the difference with rational, analytical thinking.

What's more, what you hear in any language is only the surface layer of something that runs far deeper. Consider the English word "resign". The "g" is silent, so why not write the word as "resin"? Because the "g" still exists below the surface, as you see when you pronounce "resignation."

When I first started Romanian, I used the "child" method--just listening and repeating phrases. Meanwhile I tried to analyze what I was hearing (probably part of my personality, but it's a good idea for anyone). I noticed early on that nouns came in masculine and feminine, but a particular puzzle was that a particular thing could be masculine in one sentence and feminine in another. It was cleared up only when I started reading about grammar and learned that Romanian nouns also have a third gender, which is masculine in the singular and feminine in the plural. Instant clarity.

Could I have figured this out on my own? Maybe, but only by piecing together clues from many different sentences and gradually figuring out the pattern of masculine versus feminine. Why not take advantage of the pioneers who did the analysis before you got there?

A final argument, which may not apply to everyone: I like grammar. It's the same pleasure I get from watching a seagull soar or a dolphin swim--a naturally designed structure, beautifully adapted for the task at hand. The only difference is that seagulls and dolphins exist in physical reality, whereas grammar exists in abstract ideas. But then I'm a mathematician--I like abstract ideas.

(Image above from Gardiner's Egyptian Grammar.)

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