Grammar Works

Many language enthusiasts around the planet are quite familiar with the advertisements for programs that offer multilingual success in just thirty days.  All with a free trial and no hassle money-back guarantee!  As seen on T.V., in magazines, on Yahoo pages, the sponsors swear amazing results without any heavy lifting:  No boring grammar rules to worry about!

Wikimedia Commons Credit: Girdi

Of course not all programs promising the moon can actually deliver the too good to be true results.  However, there are some very legitimate schools of thought among language researchers, which assert that learners pick up languages naturally by simply being exposed to it.  Basically, learners acquire languages through contact with speakers of the targeted language.  No formal training is needed and some linguists argue that grammar instruction could actually hinder progress in language learning.

In essence, learning a language naturally through immersion is virtually possible today without ever having to pick up a grammar book.  Skype, social networking and online exchange programs put language learners in touch with native language speakers around the globe.  There are also online news shows, television programs and movies in dozens of languages that can be viewed round the clock via the internet.

Along with natural language immersion, learners who don’t have a lot of time for grammar can turn to the good old-fashioned phrase book. It allows them to start peddling in their new language without the fuss of conjugation.  New language speakers can turn to it in a sort of à la carte fashion, choosing and memorizing useful phrases on the go, no grammar assembly required.

Pourquoi?  Why?  

Wikimedia Commons Credit: Maierstrahl

So if it’s possible to pick up a language without the drag of grammar instruction, why bother with it at all?

Acquiring a language naturally, free of grammar instruction does work for some learners.   But many learners appreciate an operator’s manual rather than having to figure it all out on their own.

Also at some point, most language learners find that a phrase book’s usefulness becomes limited.   Memorizing, retaining and retrieving enough stock phrases becomes impossible as learners advance to higher competency levels.

This is where learners need a little help.

Just like IKEA provides customers with  instructions on how to assemble bits and pieces to make functional furniture, language provides learners with grammar:  Instructions on how to construct clear functional sentences.

Wikimedia Commons Credit: Foto Daniel S.

Essentially, grammar is the language’s base. Like a Scrabble board, grammar provides a place to organize and form patterns of words based on a set of rules.

Wikimedia Commons: Taro Taylor

Without a set of instructions, the result may get lost somewhere in production.  Grammar provides learners with the structure to generate meaningful sentences to achieve the goal of communication.

Comparing learners who pick up the rules as they go along to those who receive instruction.

Instructions speed up learning.    If you’re invited to participate in playing a new board game without any explanation of the rules, it’ll probably take you a while before you catch on.  However, if someone gives you the instructions to read and you then observe the game being played, you’ll probably feel much more confident in picking up a game piece and begin playing straightaway.

Recent research suggests that second language learners who receive instruction in grammar advance much faster to the next stage than those who receive no grammar tutoring.  By introducing grammar structures in formal instruction, second-language learners have a sense of what they’re listening for and formerly introduced grammatical items pop out in natural interactions with native speakers.

Grammar lessons come in a variety of forms.  My personal favorite method is to brew a cup of tea, grab my pencil and comprehensive French grammar book and do a few pages of exercises like someone would do Sudoku or crossword puzzles.

Wikimedia Commons: Petr Kratochvil

Because language learning and ESL teaching are so much a part of my life, I’m always on the look out for good grammar guides.  Here are a few pointers in finding that perfect grammar manual to enjoy with a nice cup of tea.

How to choose the perfect grammar book:

  • Look at how the guide is organized:  How are grammar lessons introduced?   Does it include a how to use section for each grammar structure?    What is its purpose?   When is the structure used?  Is it used more frequently in oral or written form?   Is it used in formal/informal situations?
  • Look for lots of examples:  Do you see well laid out illustrations, images, graphs, charts and comparisons?  Are the explanations clear?   Can they be understood with minimal effort?
  • Take a look at the practice section:   Are the exercises presented in a format that reflects authentic, everyday language usage?   Is there a review at the end of each chapter?  Does the guide include oral activities?  Do the exercises build vocabulary within grammar exercises?
  • Look for answer keys:  Does the guide have an answer key for self-taught language learners?

Do you have a preferred method of learning grammar?   Do you have a favorite grammar guide?   Share your thoughts.  No comments will be graded on grammatical accuracy, I promise!

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