Most people think of grammar as referring to the abstract rules that govern a language. But in practice grammar is far from the black and white tables, long-winded definitions and fiddly bits of word endings presented in a typical reference book. Rather, it is a set of norms that stretches and bends to accommodate different ways of expressing thoughts, observations and opinions. The dynamic nature of a language’s grammar is exactly why it is so hard to learn. You can study a grammar rule, recite its definition and point to examples, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you can produce it correctly in fluent conversation.
So should you bother memorising conjugation charts for foreign language verbs? How about learning the correct subject-object-verb order of phrases? Certainly studying adjective-noun agreement can be of some assistance. The answer is yes and no. While we don’t advise spending your weekend in with a grammar book, they can serve as a good tool for review and can be handy if you need to check your understanding of a particular rule.
At the same time, it is extensive exposure to authentic language paired with a focus on form that will probably be the most influential in helping you acquire the grammar of the language you are learning. The more you apply your knowledge in speaking and writing tasks, the more practiced you will become which can lead to greater control and more importantly, less mistakes.
Grammar is a combination of syntax and morphology. This sounds quite technical but really syntax just refers to the rules concerning language arrangement –where words come in a phrase or sentence to communicate a particular meaning. Morphology looks at the smallest bits of meaning that words are made up of and manipulates them to create more nuanced meaning. For example adding an ‘s’ makes something plural in English and the -ed morpheme comes at the end of a regular verb to put it in past tense.
How we learn grammar
As a toddler you didn’t study the grammar of your native tongue, so how did you learn it? Applied linguistics research has shown that human beings are particularly tuned into frequency of occurrence. It is through detection of repeat content, patterns of association and contextualized language that we bootstrap our way to fluency. That’s one of the reasons why language learning is so good for your brain — it can make you a more strategic thinker. Learn more about the impact of foreign language learning on the brain in this post.
A famous example used to illustrate connectionist models of grammar acquisition is the way in which English speaking children acquire the simple past tense. In the beginning, every verb a toddler learns is stored in its own place in the lexicon. Kids will most likely say played, made, sang and be correct in their past tense usage. However, at a certain stage parents begin to hear constructions such as I maked it or we singed it. These errors are not really errors, they are just the downward slope of a U-Shaped curve. What happened is the children noticed the -ed marker, they extracted a rule and they over-applied it. As they progress in their understanding, they begin to notice some words don’t fit the pattern and eventually they stop making mistakes. No grammar book teaches them this, it just happens naturally as they encounter more and more examples of correct usage.
This is a great way to think about learning grammar and why regular exposure to authentic language is so important. Having native speakers around, whether they be language tutors or an online language exchange partner, is even better. That’s because they provide language aimed directly at you which makes it easier to notice nuances in form and pick up on correct usage, particularly when you make a mistake and a native speaker replies by re-formulating your utterance. It’s also one of the reasons why immersion is such an effective way to learn a language!
Activities for learners
Sign up for a course. A language course like Language Infusion can introduce you to grammar at regular intervals. Learning everything at once is off-putting and counter-productive as you’ll be overwhelmed. Take in one rule at a time and benefit from the course author’s knowledge of the best order in which to approach your target language’s grammar.
Look for examples of a rule. Once you’re aware of a grammar rule, look for it whenever and wherever you can. The more you see something and pay attention to how it works in different examples, the faster it will sink in. If you have access to the Internet, scan foreign websites and copy and paste example sentences until you have a word document full of repeat text showing a particular rule in action. Bold and underline words– italicize moving parts. If you’re reading authentic materials at home, take out a highlighter or start annotating the page in front of you.
Rewrite the rules. If you meet a text-book explanation followed by a group of phrases that demonstrate the rule, skip over the definition. Instead, zero in on the examples and try to describe what is going on in your own words based on the patterns you observe. This extra bit of cognitive attention you spend on guessing at form-meaning associations will help you remember the rule better in the long-run.
Create your own examples. To check your understanding of a rule, it is essential that you try it out. Write a paragraph in present tense and then re-write it in past tense. Look around the room and test your understanding of the possessive by attributing objects to different owners. Use the same rule over and over again and then have a native speaker check your work. It is only through regular use that you’ll improve accuracy.
TOP TIP: Start off with written exercises which can help make problems in your understanding of a particular grammar construct more obvious. Next, start speaking as you’ll want to make sure you grammar is just as strong in conversation as on paper.
Research grammar online. Reading about a rule can sometimes help you understand it. Ask questions in online forums and see how other language learners have navigated complex concepts. Language specific bloggers often have excellent advice and practical tips for most hard-to-learn rules.
Consult a reference book. It can’t hurt to take your reference book and read through the rule definitions and charts. Don’t bother memorizing them but do follow up with a few practice exercises. A grammar workbook with gap sentences that allow you to check your answers is a great first step. Don’t stop there — create your own sentences next and demonstrate your understanding of grammar “in your own words.”
Taking a balanced approach
One issue with learning your second language is it is a fundamentally different process from learning your first. That’s because in some cases you have to override existing grammar rules and open up your mind to a new system. This can take time and be tricky in the beginning. Just remember the brain is a muscle and through repeat exposure and drilling new patterns it will eventually cotton on and accept them.
Give yourself a break if you can’t produce something correctly on day one. Receptive knowledge comes before productive ability. Focus on acquiring one thing at a time and know that as you reach more advanced proficiency levels you’ll begin un-packing the complex grammar all on your own. Language learning is a process but if you stick with it and give it your all, you’ll get to fluency in the end!
Do you have any tips to add on learning grammar? Join the discussion in the comments!