Do You Actually Need to Learn Grammar?

Modern Swedish Grammar by Karen Horton

Books like these can be helpful eventually, but you shouldn’t obsess over it.

There are two general schools of thought when it comes to language learning and grammar. The first follows a strongly analytic model focused on explicit grammar learning. People in this group emphasize the primary importance of learning grammar before and above anything else. For them, grammar tends to take the central role as the most important aspect of learning a new language.

The second group holds the opposite views. That school of thought follows a strongly deductive model focused on implicit grammar learning. People in this group think the study of grammar essentially impedes language learning and that it should be ignored – as long as you can communicate you’ll pick it up eventually.

So which way is actually more effective for language learners?

Implicit Vs. Explicit

The truth is the best way to go is somewhere a little in the middle, but closer to the implicit side.

To say that grammar is unimportant would be completely wrong. If vocabulary is the material you’re constructing things with then grammar is the foundation those things are built upon. It’s absolutely important to have an understanding of grammar to communicate effectively.

The catch is, it’s not necessary to have an explicit knowledge of grammar, only an implicit one.

What’s the difference?

If you ask a PhD. linguist what the difference between the simple past and past perfect tenses are, or how to properly use a past participle, you could probably get a very long, detailed in-depth explanation of the specifics of how those things work. The linguist has an explicit knowledge of how the grammar works because he knows all the behind the scenes mechanics of it.

If you ask a 7 year old the same questions, you’ll probably get a shrug and be asked what those words even mean.

Even so, both the linguist and the 7 year old can use sentences like ‘I went to the store’ and ‘I’ve been to the store’ correctly. The 7 year old can probably even tell you the sentence ‘I’ve been to the store last week’ sounds off to a Standard American English dialect listener.

The 7 year old has an implicit knowledge of the grammar in that even if he can’t tell you why something is wrong, he knows instinctively that it sounds wrong.

This is an important distinction, because the linguist has spent countless years of study and research into grammar and language while the kid has just hung around English speakers and talked to them for 7 years or so and they both have essentially the same ability to communicate.

Sure the linguist will be able to communicate better or sound more intelligent by virtue of having a larger vocabulary, but vocab and grammar are separate things – if you restricted both to the first thousand most common words or so they should be equally able to express themselves.

If our goal of learning a new language is to be able to communicate in it (which is the case for most people) why worry about all the extra study and effort of explicit grammar knowledge if implicit knowledge will yield the same end result?

Everything In Its Time

You can speak a language fluently without any explicit knowledge of its grammar.

But, honestly, I think you should reach some level of explicit knowledge of the grammar at some point, even if technically you don’t have to.

In the beginning, grammar study will likely just get in your way beyond the very basics. You’re a lot better off spending a small amount of time to learn the essentials like how to make a basic sentence or ask a question and then trying to get as much exposure to the language as possible. Focus on learning as much important vocab as possible as quickly as possible and immerse yourself in speaking partners and content that interests you.

The more you’re exposed to and, possibly more importantly, the more you make mistakes and get corrected by others the more quickly you’ll find you just know how to structure a sentence without thinking about it. Once you’re comfortable having basic conversations without thinking about grammar too much, then you can worry about actually studying some of it.

See the learning method of the kid is great – barring some external factors or developmental problems everyone learns their native language that way just fine – the thing is it’s really slow.

Avoiding painful grammar study at first will let you focus on the things that really matter starting out, but you’re an adult and there are benefits to that a child doesn’t have. You can selectively choose what grammar areas to study in order to learn them more quickly where a child would have to just keep trying and being corrected until they get it.

The key thing to remember with grammar study is that you should only study the grammar you absolutely feel you need or genuinely want to.

Don’t get hung up on the grammar.

If you really like studying it, go for it. Most people don’t seem to though, so don’t unnecessarily punish yourself thinking you absolutely have to slam your head into verb conjugation charts and noun declension exception rules until you’re ready to hurl yourself out a window.

Do you hate learning grammar? Do you love it? If you’ve learned or are learning another language how much time do you devote to grammar study? Share it with us in the comments!

Photo Credit: Karen Horton

Adam is a former English teacher turned personal trainer and writer. He’s addicted to learning, parkour and martial arts. In addition to being a voracious bibliophile Adam’s fascinated by anything related to health, fitness and language. When not studying or training he can usually be found curled up with a good piece of fiction. You can e-mail Adam at Adam@RoadtoEpic.com

  • Skeptical

    If you are learning a language that it is close to your mother tongue or to a language you
    studied thoroughly, you won’t need to study much grammar. Speaking with other people you will eventually absorb most of the grammar by immersion. But if a western language speaker wants to learn Korean for example, I do not think it is possible. The grammar is just too different and you will only be able, at the most, to understand or produce very simple sentences. I think it is a myth
    that children learn languages easily. They spend thousands and thousands of hours learning their mother tongue (and they are getting immediate feedback from their parents, teachers etc….) They do not have full time jobs, they are practising their language skills all the time and they spend years learning how to speak properly. If you think about it, they are relatively inefficient as far as language learning is concerned. They do have trouble making complex sentences. The only advantage they have over adults is they are not afraid of making mistakes. It is just that we forgot how painful was learning our mother tongue. I am convinced that we the right method we can learn a lot faster,

    When I started learning Korean, I did not worry too much about grammar at first, but I quickly realized that I needed to learn it just to make simple phrases like for example “I hope we can be good friends”. I do know how I could find out by myself that the correct answer is ” 우리 좋은 친구가 되었으면 좋겠어요”. The structure is just too different from my native tongues.

    On the other hand, I never bothered learning English grammar (surely you already noticed it…) But the structure of Spanish and English are close enough that I could figure out how to say ” I hope we can be good friends” from the Spanish sentence “Espero que podamos ser buenos amigos”

    • I agree it’s a myth that kids learn languages more easily – at least in the usual sense of the word – it requires less direct effort on their part but like I note in the article it’s really, really, really slow. I would never suggest trying to learn a language while avoiding grammar completely, one of the huge advantages adult learners have over kids is that they can go study the grammar intentionally if they want.

      The big problem I see though is people focusing on grammar too much from the start. They put the cart before the horse and then get stuck. I remember kids in my German class in high school who would memorize verb conjugation charts and noun gender lists but would have to think for ten minutes to say “Where’s the bathroom?” in German.

      “I hope we can be good friends” is actually a fairly complicated sentence grammatically in my opinion, and by the time you’re getting to modals and subjunctives it’s perfectly reasonable to go study the grammar. The key is to use grammar study as a tool and find the smallest necessary dosage of it to get you to your goal rather than make it a goal in and of itself like I often see people do.