When learning a foreign language, there are different aspects that we run into that sometimes give us headaches. One of them that many learners find challenging is grammar.
Did you know that there is a way to learn grammar without studying it?
We are often asked how and when we tackle grammar in our language learning. As usual, there is more than one answer. The short answer is: I don’t study grammar.
However, the reality is more nuanced and requires a longer explanation.
Should you study grammar?
When I say that I don’t study the grammar I mean that I don’t deliberately study grammar. I don’t go to a bookstore, buy a grammar book, sit down, and start memorizing random rules.
I’ve tried this method before and it is extremely inefficient.
Memorizing vague facts and then applying that knowledge in real-world situations is something that we’re just not good at. For information to be useful, it needs to be meaningful.
It’s useless to teach something to someone if the person:
a) is not genuinely curious about it, and
b) doesn’t have a concrete question in mind.
In fact, I believe this philosophy extends to learning just about anything but in this article, I’m going to teach you how to apply it to language learning.
How to “study” grammar?
Let’s look at the two different approaches to learning grammar. Say you’ve just decided to learn a new language, Turkish.
With the first approach, you would open a grammar book and encounter something like:
“Turkish, unlike English, is an SOV language.”
If you are an experienced language learner you might recognize that this refers to word order. The standard word order in Turkish is Subject – Object – Verb.
However, if you are new to learning languages, there’s a good chance that this won’t ring any bells.
Now let’s look at the second approach.
I give you a sentence in Turkish.
“Ben su içerim.”
If you ask me what this sentence means, I’ll give you the translation, “I drink water.”
You might ask me the meaning of the individual words, or you might simply accept that “Ben su içerim.” in Turkish is equivalent to “I drink water.”
If you don’t ask anything I will just move on and give you another sentence.
“Ben bira içerim.”
This time you recognize that the only new word is ‘bira’, which is similar to ‘beer’ and you guess that the sentence means “I drink beer.”
Maybe you realize that you’ve already heard ‘ben’ and ‘içerim’ before. So you ask what they mean and I tell you that ‘ben’ means ‘I’ and ‘içerim’ means ‘I drink’.
As your brain starts to process this information, you notice that in Turkish, the sentence is ‘I water drink.’ This sentence structure is curious. Why do they say ‘I water drink’ instead of ‘I drink water’?
I can see the wheels turning in your head but I don’t jump in with an explanation. Instead, I wait for the question.
You look at the two sentences again and ask, ‘Why is the word drink at the end of the sentence?’
And there you have it, you have just assimilated (but not studied) your first grammar rule in Turkish.
The standard sequence of words in a simple Turkish sentence is:
- Subject (the person performing the action);
- Object (in this case ‘beer’ or ‘water’); and
- Verb (the action).
The second approach is not only more natural but it’s also more meaningful.
First, I give you a little bit of information. Then, I present you with an obstacle. The obstacle should make you curious and this should lead you to ask a question.
Use the power of discovery learning
Only when we ask questions are we ready to learn.
If it’s easier to remember it another way:
We are ready to learn only when we ask questions.
This is the entire philosophy behind discovery learning and this is how I tackle grammar.
I never study grammar deliberately. However, I do pay attention to and recognize patterns, as early as possible.
Sometimes grammar patterns are more complex and we need more information, in other words, more examples. From this, we can ask better questions and understand how the language works.
So now that you know how it works, let me give you an example in Russian:
You know that the word ‘sister‘ in Russian is sestra.
You hear a native speaker say, ‘I saw my sestru this morning.’ You assume that the speaker mispronounced sestra and ignore it.
But then you hear a native speaker say, ‘I love my mamu.’ You know the word ‘mom’ in Russian is ‘mama’. So maybe there is more to this than a simple mistake.
Now you are genuinely curious and have a concrete question, ‘When do ‘sestra’ and ‘mama’ turn into ‘sestru’ and ‘mamu’ and why?’
Only now is the right time to look it up in a grammar book because the information will be both useful AND meaningful.
Grammar books should not be studied but used as a tool to answer questions that naturally arise as you use the language.
How to apply the discovery method to language learning?
So how can you use the discovery method to learn a language?
First, pay attention to patterns.
- What order do the words come in?
- What endings do the words have?
- What sounds do certain letter combinations make?
Second, be curious about the language.
- Don’t just let the information wash over you. Ask questions.
- What is the pattern?
- How is the pattern formed?
- When is the pattern used?
Last, consult your tools judiciously and make sure you get a meaningful answer.
If your grammar book explanation isn’t working for you, ask your tutor or look for more information online.
Now, it’s your turn. Do you have a question on language learning that you’d like answered? Put it in the comments below and watch for it in an upcoming video or blog post.
About the writer of this article:
Lucas Bighetti is a co-founder of LanguageBoost, he speaks 16 languages and shares the best language learning methods he has created and used over the years through videos and blogs. He is the creator of our learning methodology and is the main author of all our courses.
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