Who needs grammar? We all do.

This guy says don’t study grammar and I obviously disagree. 🙂

So you’re supposed to hear things until you can naturally tell what sounds right and what’s wrong and not study grammar at all. This is bad advice unless you live in Japan or speak/hear Japanese everyday with someone willing to correct everything you say. As with most things in real life, the correct solution is to use a balanced and practical approach.

The problem with anecdotes is that someone can always come up different ones to make an argument. Ok, you’ve met people who have studied grammar and still can’t speak the language, well, I have met people who haven’t studied grammar and still can’t speak the language. It proves nothing. For instance, my dad has lived in the United States for as long as I have and his English is still broken and a grammatical mess. He has listened to English naturally for over 30 years, day in and day out, and he can do anything he wants in English whether it’s conversation, filing taxes, or starting a small business. But he hasn’t studied a lick of grammar and his English still sucks.

Heck, I’ve lived in the US since elementary school and they still taught me grammar in school. I learned things like subject-verb agreement, double negatives, and how to avoid run-ons and sentence fragments. you needs to learn these stuffs; so we don’t sounds like no dummy.

The fact of the matter is, grammar is one tool of many in your arsenal that you would be foolish to ignore completely. You shouldn’t be thinking about grammar when you’re talking but it is a stepping stone or guideline you can use to reach the point where you don’t need it. If you only learn with phrases, you need to be exposed to every type of grammar, verb conjugation, and vocabulary usage to internalize it naturally. This is fine for learning your native language as a child but it will take far too long for adults seeking second+ language proficiency, especially in a non-immersive environment. Grammar can help you systematically organize the language such that you can learn entirely new words, phrases, and sentences and quickly incorporate them using the same rules that apply for all words without having to encounter them over and over again. The rules themselves are simply a means to an end, not the end result.

Grammar can also help you break down sentences you don’t understand and provide guidelines on how to structure your own sentences. I’ve often met people who know all the vocabulary they need to say something but still can’t figure out how to organize them into a sentence to express what they want to say.

Of course, you need to do lots of listening and speaking practice but I don’t see why that precludes you from learning grammar and applying it as needed. Eventually, with enough practice, you won’t need to think about the grammar anymore but until then, it can help you figure out how to say what you want. Sure, it may be slow, but it’s better than not being able to say anything at all. Japanese classes often spend TOO much time on grammar with very little actual conversation practice. That’s obviously a problem but it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t learn ANY grammar.

15 thoughts on “Who needs grammar? We all do.

  1. I’ve actually been thinking a lot lately that grammar has been holding me back. I’ve got quite a bit of vocab under my belt, but I still struggle with understanding a lot of “real” sentences because I don’t really get the grammar used.

    This was a timely post that will likely spur me into studying grammar for the first time in years. The last time, it was really just the basics. It’s time for more.

    Thanks!

  2. Haha, “don’t learn the grammar” 🙂 This sounds typically like someone who thinks it’s a chore and just don’t want to be bothered by it. And, of course, this has to come from an English speaker. Sure, you can probably learn English by ignoring the grammar aspect completely but you will then never know when to use present/past perfect or more complex sentence structures.

    Same goes for most of the languages: ignoring the grammar will maybe “help” you to speak more freely and without over-thinking but you will also acquire pretty bad habits along the way and you will make A TONS of mistake. I see this every day with colleagues here who don’t bother learning the German grammar (I’m a native French myself): they can technically speak but they make horrendous mistakes (most of them don’t know anything about when/how to use the different cases).

    Anyway, as a low intermediate at Japanese, my advice is this: Japanese is different from your “usual” languages (EN/DE/FR/ES/IT, etc.). It takes patience, (hard) work, patience, dedication and patience.

    TL;DR: learning Japanese is a long and “difficult” process, don’t lose heart, study and hang on!

    • * bleh, grammar mistakes and I can’t edit, I’ll play the “non-native” card, sorry! :[

  3. I don’t think “studying grammar” (in the layperson’s sense) is much useful for output, and certainly not for conversation. I’m an adept of the input-before-output approach (because that’s how I learned English).

    However, I do find “grammar instruction” useful for one thing: reading (i.e. written input). I might define “studying grammar” as, roughly, what you need to understand an L2 text other than a dictionary.

  4. The don’t learner grammar point is 100% AJATT created. I’m not bad mouthing what he has done. He has helped a lot of people, including myself, acquire a second language and learn about the tools that make it possible. However, this no grammar thing is a trademark AJATT saying. A lot of things on there are great but I think a grain of salt should be taken. Certain things are misguided and just don’t work for some people. And I know he always says emphasizes do what works for you and change it to your tastes. But as in most nonfiction books on “how to” do anything, they always put in back door clauses so they can squeeze out of being wrong/blamed for ineffective results. And to some degree anecdotes are used to reinforce that.

  5. I guess “do whatever works” is too simplistic?

    Knowing formal grammatical rules has no bearing whatsoever on how well one can speak a language.

    The example you gave about your dad, I’d have to say knowing formal grammar rules wouldn’t help him a lot. He speaks that way because people speak that way. It is grammatical. Might not be grammatical in relation to prescriptive grammar, but it is grammatical. Barring a few exceptions (such as developmental difficulties), a native speaker’s speech is by definition grammatical.

    So we get to a matter of scope: is knowing formal grammar necessary? For most people, yes, because it gives off an aura of “education” and “sophistication” and all social class privileges that come with it. Double negatives are grammatical, because they are used by native speakers. It’s not educated, it’s not sophisticated, it goes against what scholars decided the language should be like, but it is grammatical because the language evolved to incorporate it.

    People didn’t need grammar to learn their native tongues. I certainly didn’t need grammar to learn English (I’m not a native speaker). Grammar is useful, sure, but most people learn grammar rules only after having internalized grammar itself organically.

    So I guess my point is: if grammar is boring, there’s absolutely no need to study it. You didn’t need to study it for you native language(s). Most fluent people can’t even remember what they learnt in class, and they still speak fluently in varying degrees of adherence to formal grammar rules.

    Knowing grammar beforehand MIGHT be faster. Getting a quick overview of grammar but not worrying too much about it MIGHT be faster. Never once opening a grammar book MIGHT be faster. But any of those WILL work, and will get you fluent as long as you get enough input.

    I’m an avid reader and as such I’ve know how to use all six tenses and the three moods in my native language long before ever learning about them in class. Some of those conjugations are very rarely used in everyday life and a lot of people (even educated, university degree bearers) don’t know how to use them.

    I didn’t need to learn that my native language has three different conjugation styles plus irregular verbs to speak it. In fact, I didn’t even remember that until a few minutes ago when I checked Wikipedia. I can still use them all perfectly.

    As long as you have massive input, you don’t need formal grammar study. But the caveat is: even if you learn grammar, you still need massive input if you want to be fluent. Might need a little less of it, or maybe with grammar you can begin output faster, or maybe understand things faster at the very beginning, but it’s still not necessary if one doesn’t want to do it.

    Personally I find too much grammar to be a hindrance. It leads people into saying sentences like “I remembered that” when the English equivalent should be “I remember that” (one could say it’s a similar situation to “I understand”/「分かった」. The exact kind of non-fluent mistake that would easily be corrected by immersion instead of active grammar study.

    If someone doesn’t encounter specific grammar in the wild enough to learn it organically, most likely they simply don’t need it. Unless they want to learn it (as I wanted to learn Early Modern English), then by all means crack that textbook open.

    (Fun fact: I could understand Shakespeare and the like way before ever studying Early Modern grammar. I can still understand it today, even though I don’t remember anything about the grammar rules. Same way, I know what “fizéreis” means and how to use it even though I had no idea it is the indicative mood of the second person plural pluperfect form of the verb “fazer”)

    • People who speak broken English like my dad are foreigners who never bothered to learn the correct rules of grammar. I think learning a few grammar rules and practicing them would help my dad’s English enormously. But he really couldn’t care less so he’ll probably continue to say things like, “I call you tomorrow OK?” for another 30 years.

      How do you propose to go through massive input if you don’t understand the grammar? Just get more input? How is it more effective or interesting to read or hear things you don’t understand? Or constantly run into stuff you can’t find in a dictionary because you don’t know the grammar that is being applied?

      You seem to present “formal” grammar study as learning all sorts of obscure rules and specialized grammatical terms. Perhaps you’re thinking of things like subjunctives, past participle, or perfect present tense. Honestly, I don’t know what that stuff is nor do I care. All I’m talking about is learning very simple rules so that you can take any noun, verb, or adjective and conjugate it to the past, negative, potential, etc. I think that’s a powerful skill to have. With just a few simple rules (Japanese only has TWO irregular verbs), you can, for example, conjugate any verb to the potential. 会う (to meet) → 会える (can meet).

      Oh no, I’d rather not learn the rule and instead get massive input on stuff I don’t understand until I can deduce and figure out what 会える is on my own. Or 会わない、会った、会わなかった、会えない、会えた、会えなかった、会いたい、会いたくない、会ったら、会えば、会わなければ、会えなかったら、会いたくなければ, 会いたくなくても, etc, etc. Eventually, with massive input, I can learn that 会えなかったら means “if (we) can’t meet” while 会いたくなければ means “if (you) don’t want to meet. And I can learn to say it myself if I read/hear that exact same phrase for just that one verb enough times to understand it. That does not sound very effective to me.

      It’s just like that guy’s example in the video. He says we don’t think to ourselves “an apple” because “apple” starts with a vowel. That’s rubbish because we already speak English. If you’re teaching English to someone who is confused about whether to use “a” or “an” (and believe me, it’s not easy for foreigners), what are you just going to give them example after example until they “hear” what’s correct? No, you just teach them the simple rule and be done with it so that when they’re not sure, they can fall back to it and avoid bad habits.

      • True. That’s actually the way I’m doing it for Japanese, just learning the basics of grammar, but letting input fill the holes.

        I think the problem is that most people have that “classroom” mindset and get too caught up in grammar, when they should be focusing on input.

        IMO, the heuristics are simple: if you focus exclusively on input, you will learn and eventually be fluent (we all already did it once, after all). If you only focus on grammar rules, you most likely won’t¹. Finding the sweet spot between the two for the fastest and most effective learning depends on the individual, but I’d always err on the side of caution: input, which will invariably get the job done.

        Although I must say that the way I see it, the advice on the video, while not technically correct, is still a very good one. If one is burnt out because of too much grammar or finds it a pain or too hard, taking that advice could be the difference between getting fluent (even if at a slower pace) or dropping Japanese entirely. If someone who likes to study grammar and/or finds that learning grammar helps sees the video, they most likely won’t stop studying grammar because of it. The net result is still more people getting fluent at their target language.

        [1] I’ve seen this so many times with English in my country. Our whole school system focuses on grammar and vocab and very little exposition to real English. Most people (even some teachers, unfortunately) can recite all grammar rules and exceptions and what’s the difference between should/would/may/might/could and how to correctly use the past participle and yet they have awful English. Probably grammatically correct English, but still awful and wrong and at some of the worst cases, unintelligible.

        • Yes, you don’t want to over-emphasize grammar, which is why, like many things in life, a balanced and practical approach is best. I think saying take a break from grammar and practicing more Japanese in the real-world is great advice not, “Just don’t learn grammar”.

      • Actually, your dad continues to have bad grammar because he has no interest in sounding any better.
        You don’t need to learn grammar to know your father’s speech is incorrect. Simply having an interest in sounding native will cause you to adapt common and proper patterns.

        Of course, knowing grammar allows you to predict certain patterns that could help speed up comprehension.
        I doubt that it’s absolutely necessary unless you’re one of those people who can’t function without rules.

  6. Completely agree with your points here. VV made a surprisingly strong case against grammar, mostly because his English is obviously outstanding, and he claims he didn’t need any grammar to learn English.

    But as the comments show, I don’t think your two points are really that different in the end. I think what VV is making his case against is really TOO MUCH grammar, which we can all agree can be a disaster (take English instruction in Japan), not any grammar at all ever.

    Of course, different people learn differently, and there might be something to his idea of grammar vs input and how much you need of each to learn as fast as possible. That will be different for each person, but I’d say even if you go to extremes, it’s probably never faster for an adult to have 0% grammar and 100% input, and your example of “a” vs “an” is a really good one. How many examples would it take for a non-native adult learner to be really confident in using those words correctly? Probably as many as it would take for them to say to themselves “Oh I see, if it starts with a vowel sound, it’s ‘an,’ otherwise it’s ‘a.'”

  7. Although English is my second language, I learned it when I was very, very young. Mainly, I learned by reading books, and my mom would break down the sentences into smaller parts, giving me the meaning of each phrase in my native language. Somehow, it was easier then. (Of course, I was younger!) Although grammar wasn’t taught explicitly, grammar was definitely part of that method of instruction. I definitely knew which tense meant past, present, or future.

    I started studying Japanese in a non-immersive environment when I was around 10 years old. It all started with my obsession with Japanese anime songs. I would look for translations and found that every time “namida” appears in the Japanese text, “tears” would also be found in the English translation. And then I realized — I could learn this, if I put in the necessary effort.

    Fast forward 11 years. I have been studying Japanese sporadically. Grammar has always been my favorite, with kanji being my least favorite. If you give me a Japanese transcript online, even with kanji, I can translate it if I have rikai-kun (the mouse roll-over dictionary in Chrome). All I need to know are the meaning of the words — the grammar, I can understand.

    What I found, however, was that my speaking and listening skills were not up to par with my translating skills. I know that I have difficulty with listening because I don’t have enough vocabulary. However, I find speaking difficult because, being in a non-immersive environment, I am unable to apply the nuances of the language real-time. If you give me time to write what I want to say, I will probably be able to do it.

    That being said, if I were to choose between being good at grammar and bad at vocabulary, or being good at vocabulary and bad at grammar, I would sacrifice the vocabulary for the grammar. I can live with always needing a dictionary, but what can help you if you don’t know grammar? How do you arrange the words to convey what you want to say?

    Still, I am working hard on improving my vocabulary and kanji by translating more Japanese videos, mostly documentaries and interviews (this is actually where I found kanji very useful – most Japanese interviews have Japanese subtitles and they help me with the homonyms). I hope that by knowing more words, I can distinguish spoken words more easily and enhance my listening skills.

  8. I watched the video, and I get his point – that people spend too much time on the grammar and not enough time speaking.

    However, I think you’re correct here. A balanced approach is what’s best. For example, if I’m having a conversation in Japanese, I of course still make loads of mistakes and so if I start a sentence with 昨日、and end with a present tense verb, and the person I’m talking to corrects me with blah blah た,I immediately understand WHY they corrected me. And I can repeat the sentence very quickly with the correct form and hopefully make that mistake a bit less in the future.

  9. Actually, I really don’t think grammar of major languages is that hard to get hang of. I mean, it’s not like there are that much rules to start with. And with the exception of a couple of esoteric rules almost every language has (I suppose were Subjunctive Past well known to the majority of English-speakers I’d hear it more often) they are usually logical and intuitively understandable, so having learned it once and got a bit of practice you probably won’t mess it. Compared to rules of orthography and punctuation of my native language, that are not only relying sometimes on pretty obscure criteria, but may sometimes directly contradict each other, grammar of either of languages I’ve studied even a bit is a walk in a park. Especially of Indo-European ones, of course, but even Japanese is surprisingly similar on many points.
    Anyway, my point is, rules — be it grammar or punctuation — are few, while words and phrases are limitless. To chip a splinter of time from grammar and learn dozen more words would never be worth it (unless your vocabulary consists of less than a hundred words, of course).

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