Theory 101 – Language is Not Grammar or Vocabulary

by Robbie Kunz

Often when people begin learning a foreign language, they think that all they need is a dictionary and a grammar book. That is, if you memorize a bunch of vocabulary lists and memorize a bunch of grammar rules, you should be able to speak and understand the language, right? Unfortunately, this is not the case.

Humans are not computers meant to parse language using learned grammatical rules and vast storage of word-to-word definitions gained from vocabulary lists. In fact, if you have ever tried to use one of those online translators for a language, you will see that even computers cannot understand or translate language this way either!

Learning a language by going over grammar rules and studying vocabulary lists is probably the most ineffective and painful way to learn a language. Interestingly enough, this is one of the most commonly used methods in school classes. No wonder that most students are unable even to order a pizza in the language they are studying after they get out of class.

So, if this method is so ineffective, then why is it still being used?

If you don’t really know much about learning languages, it probably makes sense. When you are listening or reading something in a foreign language and come across a word that you do not understand, it makes sense to look up the word, right? So, it might naturally make sense that by studying a whole vocabulary list, you will be able to conquer any sentence that comes your way.

Likewise, to understand what is being said in a sentence, you need to know the grammatical endings, particles, etc. that are being used. So, it might naturally make sense to learn these grammatical rules so that you will be able to conquer any sentence that comes your way.

If only it were this easy. Truthfully, memorizing vocabulary and grammar rules this way is quite painful and difficult. But, even if one were to learn everything this way, one still would not be able to produce natural-sounding sentences. The reason is that if you have ever studied a language this way or heard someone who has learned a language this way speak, you will notice that they continually stop and make unnatural pauses.

The reason for this is that in their heads, they are spending a tremendous amount of effort trying to recall grammatical rules for what they are saying or spending time trying to translate from their native language to the foreign language. As a result, they are not able to speak quickly or naturally and they often end up making many mistakes regardless of the amount of time they spend thinking.

This is by no means speaking a language fluently or naturally. When you speak English, you spend no time whatsoever thinking of grammatical rules for the things you want to say next. You don’t think “Okay, I just used the word ‘wish’ so that means in the next clause I’m going to have to change the verb into the subjunctive mood…” No, you just speak naturally without giving it a second thought. Because of this, you can speak natural sounding English without having to pause at all.

Having to think about these rules actually creates a barrier to speaking fluidly. Additionally, it’s simply not how a language is spoken. Native speakers do not know what the “subjunctive mood” means unless they have learned it later in a grammar class. And even if a native speaker learns these terms or structures in a grammar class, that doesn’t mean that he or she will begin to pause and think about them before each utterance he or she makes.

Native speakers do not know any grammatical rules but somehow are able to speak a language naturally without error. Even small children know to say “he plays” and never “he play”.

You might say this is because native speakers learned their native language when they were children and that as a second language, foreign language learning is different. You are right that they are different. However, the fact still stands that in order to speak natural-sounding language at a fluent rate, you need to speak the language like a native, that is, you need to have a sense of what sounds “natural” and what doesn’t.

You need to be able to speak the language without having to think about grammatical rules or translating from one language to another. You need to be able to just speak without relying on any of these things.

For this reason, focusing all of your attention on learning grammatical rule after grammatical rule and learning vocabulary lists is highly ineffective towards attaining the ultimate goal of speaking and understanding a foreign language correctly and fluidly.

So if we don’t focus on either grammar or vocabulary, what should we focus on? Full, natural sentences.

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