Learning a foreign language to a fluent level – the truth about grammar

Posted on Dec 21, 2012

Learning a foreign language to a fluent level – the truth about grammar

It is a common assumption that grammar is boring,  incomprehensible and difficult. Even worse – some language schools and private language tuition providers claim grammar is unnecessary and we can avoid it all together when learning a foreign language!

Well, the truth about grammar is that it is important, we can’t avoid it and it is not boring. That’s right. It is not boring at all, on the contrary, I dare to say it is fascinating, or, to be more precise, can be fascinating if it is taught in a comprehensible and engaging manner. To teach vocabulary and conversation is a skill, but to teach grammar is an art for a tutor.

In recent years, many alternative teaching methods have been implemented, with the common aim to engage more learners, sell  languages, and attempt to make learning a foreign language easier. This is mostly done by drawing the students attention away from grammar, or to be precise, drawing grammar away from the lesson. This trend is particularly strong in the UK, where grammar seems to be a synonym for “boredom”.

Of course, there are many benefits of these communicative methods and some provide excellent support materials of good quality and high value.  Complementing your learning with these can no doubt boost your learning experience and hasten your progress. However, these methods should be though of as additional, rather than complete or sufficient. Your learning of a language should be based on solid grounds, which is a good understanding and familiarity with the basic, universal language structure. And we won’t find anything like that included in the big pack from Rosetta Stone.

And this might be the uncomfortable truth about grammar: without this important grounding, the intuitive or communicative methods cannot work.  The result of learning this way is most certainly a speaker who might be feeling confident and fluent and has an armory of vocabulary to hand but since he has learned the language in a similar way to how toddlers learn their mother tongue (repeating single words to convey a whole sentence and using verbs incorrectly with no understanding of cultural context) his speech will be fast, erratic and in a more complicated social contexts rather incomprehensible. He will never be able to master the foreign language to the level he can use his mother tongue, and will be unable to progress, develop or improve his knowledge by himself, without the help of a professional.

Unfortunately most people are not aware of the impact lack of grammar will have on their learning, and often waste their valuable time trying to learn a language this “easy” way (as an example of these “fast-track methods” we could again mention the well known Rosetta Stone programme). Adult students choose these method because it gives immediate results (feedback on how well you can say one particular word) and gives the feeling that you’re on the road to full bilingual communication. But this is false, and the end result is likely to be a disappointment.

So, my recommendation is,  don’t fear grammar, don’t avoid it. You can’t afford to waste your time.  Find a good tutor, embrace  it and let it help you to become fluent in your chosen language!


PS: I have tried to use Rosetta Stone to get myself started with Hindi and I am sorry to admit it was not helpful at all, and I did not get beyond lesson one. I spent 10 minutes having pictures flashed at me with their Hindi sound equivalent, I had no information about the gender, tense, number, or social context in which I should use these words. Being an experienced language learner I have taught myself several languages to a fluent level, using a variety of methods and approaches; I felt very frustrated seeing that I would be able to learn more from street signs in India (which eventually I did, as there at least I had the context to work with) than this highly advertised and rather costly product. How can a businessman, accountant, lawyer or a builder learn through such an “easy method” if a professional linguist is unable to draw any meaningful structure out of it?