Learning a Language without Grammar

Disclaimer: Before I get into my own viewpoint on this, I need to make an important point. The objective of this blog is not to assert that there is necessarily only one right way to learn a language. Different people learn in different ways and suggesting that a one-size-fits-all approach would work for everyone would be arrogant and intellectually dishonest. I also must admit that as a translator I absolutely love grammar!

Recently there has been a lot of talk about learning a language without all the supposedly “unnecessary” complications of grammar or boring memorization. The idea is that you will learn naturally, just like a child, and that your brain will slowly piece together the grammar without any active effort on your part by continued exposure to simple sentence patterns. In fact, many new products are being extensively marketed right now based on this very idea (Pimsleur, Rosetta Stone, Michel Thomas). The concept is nothing new. It’s been touted for many years. I was even required to use it when I taught English as a Second Language classes a long time ago so I do have first-hand experience with the method and its results.

In the beginning stages of language learning, it makes sense to deemphasize (though not eliminate) grammar and focus more on pronunciation and vocabulary acquisition. This frees the learner to concentrate on memorizing essential vocabulary and commonly used phrases and learned responses. This honeymoon period can help the learner to get a feel for the language and gain a bit of confidence before tiptoeing into the finer points of grammar. The problem is that our brain does not work the same as adults as it did when we were young children. Certain changes, which are not yet completely understood, occur in the brain at puberty. Therefore, adults can only get so far with the approach. Though short-term gains can be impressive when used in combination with teachers or native speakers, ultimately without at least some grammar rules to fall back on, the student will become frustrated and unable to produce more complicated thoughts.

Even with languages with relatively easy grammar for English speakers, like Spanish, the learner will quickly be confronted with concepts that don’t exist in English, such as the gender of nouns. It will take a while to grasp just by reading and hearing the different forms in context that Spanish has four ways to say “the” (el, la, los, las) if the learner is not simply given this basic information in the beginning. This is a needlessly inefficient and frustrating approach to learning a language. In other languages, like Russian, where grammar can be extraordinarily complex for English speakers, I simply don’t see any realistic way that anyone can make any genuine progress in the language without grammar. Floundering to figure out grammatical features that don’t exist in your native language like noun declensions, verb aspects, etc. serves only to undermine the learner’s motivation and confidence.

Though it sounds trite, grammar is truly the foundation of any language and you can’t build upon it if you don’t understand it. Anyone who truly wants to have a deep knowledge of a language and the confidence to know that he or she is speaking correctly cannot avoid grammar. People who make grammatical mistakes in English do so because they don’t understand their own grammar, so why would someone be able to speak a foreign language any better who didn’t understand its grammar? While skipping grammar may sound like an efficient shortcut, it is best reserved for the casual language learner — someone who just wants a smattering of the language for vacation or social purposes. I admit that grammar can be a drudgery to some, but when you remove it altogether from the learning process you don’t simplify learning, you complicate it.

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Dying World Languages

More than half of the world’s approximately 6,000 languages are facing likely extinction within the next 50 years. In fact, it is estimated that a language dies every two weeks. Many of these languages still have thousands of living speakers, yet the languages are not being passed down to the next generation. Such languages are considered to be “dying” since eventually their last native speaker will die leaving no one left to carry on the language. National Geographic’s Enduring Voices Project studied this phenomenon and named Northern Australia, Central South America, Canada’s Northwest Pacific Plateau, Eastern Siberia and the Southwest United States as areas where indigenous languages face the greatest peril. Even here in the US there are some 40 Native American languages still are spoken today in Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico.

There are many reasons why a language does not get passed down from one generation to another. However, in most cases it is the dominant language of the area that gradually overtakes the minor language in school, work and at home to a point where the speakers of that language no longer bother or find it necessary to pass along the language to their children. In other cases, language policies of the region speed the language’s demise in favor of the dominant language. Once a language is dead, it’s unlikely to ever be revived. Hebrew is the only language to be successfully revitalized as a national language once it had lost its native speakers.

The question is why should anyone care? The truth is that when a minor language dies and is replaced by a more dominant language, the world loses a piece of its cultural history, not that different from the extinction of an animal species. The culture of an entire people is tied to its language so more than just the language is being lost. Since the majority of the dying languages are not written down the oral traditions of thousands of years may be lost forever once the last speaker is gone. For this reason, linguists and cultural anthropologists are in a struggle to record the sounds, grammar and oral histories of as many of these languages as possible. No matter how widely spoken a language is, it is still vulnerable. A perfect example is Latin, which was a dominant language spoken throughout the Roman Empire, yet as the language spread throughout the region, over time it splintered into several different languages (Spanish, Portuguese, French, Romanian, Italian, etc.) and the mother language itself fell into disuse. Even though it is still learned by millions of students and used to a limited degree within the Catholic Church, there are no living native speakers of it. The lesson for us all is to be sure to pass along our native languages and cultures to our children.