Key 204 – Grammar as an Afterthought

by Robbie Kunz

At this point, there is an interesting contrast between the traditional language learning method used widely in classrooms and your own study.

In traditional language learning, the teacher or textbook attempts to force the grammar down your throat first and then make you practice and use it before reaching real material. As you see in this method, you start to read real material before you get to the grammar explanations.

What is the significance of this difference? In traditional language learning, you are going to be partially blind when going into the grammar explanations.

Because you have never seen them used before, you don’t know how they will appear in the future or how common they actually are. Even if the textbook describes in text how they are used, it is not the same as actually seeing it in real life.

Remember that your brain is constantly deciding which information is necessary for the long term and which information it can immediately throw away. If you have never seen real life examples of the grammar and have never felt a need to know the grammar, chances are that you will not remember it very well. At that point in time, it simply isn’t of much use.

Additionally, you won’t have much context to help you remember the grammar points. It’s much easier and more natural to see examples in real usage than it is to learn abstract grammatical rules and attempt to apply them in a mathematical way. If you remember from the previous chapter, consciously applying syntactic rules like this is not how people speak foreign languages.

Lastly and perhaps most importantly, if you are going over the grammatical rules before ever seeing them in the language, you’re probably going to be a bit bored. Even when I wanted to learn a language very much, I had difficulty concentrating and remembering the grammatical rules simply because I didn’t see directly how they would impact my language ability.

Now, let’s look at the other way of learning grammar which this method employs.

When you see a sentence that you want to understand but lack the grammar knowledge to make sense of it, you’re going to be curious and will want to know what the sentence means exactly. When you have this sense of curiosity, the sentence and its related grammar are going to stick in your head better.

As you think about it for a while, you’ll probably begin to look in a textbook or grammar book to figure out what it means. When you do figure out its meaning, you will remember the sentence and the grammar point a lot better than if you had tried to read the grammar point beforehand.

The reason for this is that you have a real desire and curiosity to know the meaning and you have a real world context, both of which help you tremendously in learning the new point. When you have that “ah ha!” moment where you figure out the meaning of that particular grammar point, it is unlikely that you will forget it anytime soon.

On the other hand, reading the dry grammar explanation first will probably cause boredom and not provide enough context for your mind to really grasp it.

Even better is when you are trying to speak or communicate and you lack the necessary grammar to explain yourself. Later when you are back studying you will figure out how to say what you wanted to say so that you won’t be caught the next time. This insures much better learning than does being forced to do dry, emotionless exercises from the back of the textbook.

As you can see, it is not necessary to study grammar explanations in a textbook in a chronological order before going out and looking at the language as it is actually used.

In fact, not forcing yourself to go through these grammar explanations will aid you in remembering the grammar later when you actually have a need to look it up. Additionally, you won’t waste your time on the explanations and exercises too soon and you won’t become bored and disheartened in learning your new language.

The next step for any language learning is utilizing proper vocabulary memorization techniques.

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