Those who follow my blog know I’m not a fan of studying grammar, but that does not mean that I ignore the grammar completely, I just don’t make it my priority, especially at the beginning stage.
When I think about grammar, I remember my English classes at school. I remember hating the classes and not learning anything. Twelve years of English classes and I was not able to speak it. For me, the explanation of this phenomenon so common around the world is simple: teaching methods based on grammar. A person can know all the grammar rules of a language and still not speak it. Unfortunately, this is the experience of several students around the globe.
After I started studying languages, I understood that grammar is not the first thing a student should learn, but the last one. For me, the first things that a language student must do is learn vocabulary, pronunciation and begin to understand the language. Only after that, he should start studying grammar. Of course, if you like grammar you can begin to study it before. I prefer to give priority at the beginning of the understanding of words and phrases (understand the context). Therefore, I usually choose courses that do not explain grammar explicitly or do not give priority to grammar, such as Assimil and Pimsleur.
If the language has a similar structure to mine (as Spanish) or have a less complex grammar (as English), I prefer to leave to study grammar only when I’ve passed the intermediate level. The problem with this method is that some errors fossilize. Unfortunately, it happened to me and sometimes I make very basic errors of grammar in these languages.
This type of error is hard to fix, but not impossible. Fossilized errors are hard to be corrected because they not impede communication. These errors are as like small noises that most people overlook, especially in speech. Therefore, to “desfossilize” these errors the student must be highly motivated and be kind of a perfectionist. Personally, I just feel motivated to improve grammatical errors when I am already at a more advanced level in the language.
How to approach grammar at different levels
The first thing I do is follow the grammar of the course/method I am using. Most books and resources for language learning have a progressive grammar. Starting with simple topics such as gender and articles. Only at the end, one learns concepts like subjunctive and connective.
For me, this is the best way to learn grammar, slowly and progressively. Also, I do not usually care much about the mistakes I make. I just try to understand them. In case I really didn’t understand the concept I leave to study it at another time, when I’m at a more advanced level.
As said before, the most important in this point is to understand the language in context, try to retain vocabulary and learn pronunciation. The communication at this point is often difficult and have many mistakes, so usually, I give preference to understand what I hear and the context of a text.
At this level, it is possible to read simple texts and understand more complicated concepts. At this point, I usually get a book of basic grammar. As most of the time I study alone, it is difficult to know what aspect I should improve urgently or which my worst mistakes are. Typically, I follow the grammar book in order. I look specific chapters of the grammar book when I see the concept in the main book I’m using, to strengthen the understanding and retain it better. At this stage, if I don’t understand the grammatical concept in any of the books to study, I search the Internet for other explanations, but I don’t obsess about some difficult concept.
If I’m taking classes with a teacher, I try to understand the feedback on my mistakes. What are the mistakes that sound worse for a native speaker? What are the mistakes that I always repeat? In this case, there are various ways of trying to improve. The first option is to ask the teacher to focus on this error and give you more exercise, not only written, but also oral to improve. Another good way is to write sentences and ask the teacher to correct. With this, you can compare your sentence with a correct version. After comparing, it’s time to learn the correct version. For me, the best way is to put the correct sentences in Anki and practice with the application.
If the class is in a group and the teacher can’t give me his full attention, I ask for feedback on errors and I try to find a way to improve them outside the classroom. The easiest option is to search in the Internet explanations and examples on this difficulty. In this case, I also put correct sentences in the Anki app. Another option is to buy a more complex grammar book (with more explanations and exercises) or buy a book on the particular topic. I like the series Practice Makes Perfect because they have grammar books about specific topics such as Spanish Verb Tenses, Pronouns and Prepositions in German or Italian…
At the advanced level, we understand the language well, but we still make grammatical mistakes. At this stage, I do the same thing at the intermediate level, but I try harder to understand and I pay more attention to my errors, especially in writing. If before, I did not care too much about mistakes, now I really do try to pay more attention and I seek to understand the most complicated grammatical concepts.
I.e., I study using a grammar book, I search explanations in the internet and, if necessary, I stay in the same topic for days. At this level, the concepts are easy to understand; what is hard is to apply it correctly. In this moment it’s necessary to correct the fossilized errors, persistence and motivation are essential for this. Despite the extra effort on grammar at the advanced level, it is still in the background of my studies. I hardly prioritize grammar when learning a language.
Most people do not like to study grammar, including me. But, as an adult trying to speak a language fluently, it is an important aspect of learning and should not be completely or always ignored. For me, at the beginning there is no problem to ignore the grammatical aspects of the language, especially if it has a similar structure to my native language. The ideal is to study a little bit of grammar and focus on more important aspects of communication.
Another important factor is the goal of the student. If you just want to communicate with friends or while traveling, learning grammar rules is not important, on the contrary it is a waste of time. But, if you want to study at a university, work abroad, pass an advanced level test, it is important to speak and write correctly.
And, to speak and write fluently is necessary to understand certain grammatical structures of a language. Some aspects are often easier to master, such as gender articles and the conjugation of the most common verbs. Other aspects, such as sentence order and subjunctive are often more complicated.
The most important is that you study what you like and that should be comfortable to your level. That why it is important to learn the most complex aspects of the language only in the advanced level. However, if you like to study grammar, there is nothing wrong in studying it from the beginning and focus on grammar rules.
What is your opinion about grammar? Should one study grammar from the beginning? Or ignore it completely?