In today’s episode of language diary, I want to share with you guys some thoughts about learning grammar when taking on a new language. Have you thought about it before? If I’m learning a new language, should I start with grammar? Is grammar important? If so, how far should I learn it? If not, what should I be focusing on? I’ll try to share some of my thoughts in this episode with you guys, so stay tuned!
How important is grammar?
Hey guys, welcome back to episode five of Language Diary, where I discuss all things related to language learning, not just Cantonese, but any language in general. As you guys can see, the topic I want to share with you guys would be “how important is grammar”. By asking that, I’m actually making the assumption that most people think / believe that some grammar is important in order to understand how a language works. But maybe not everyone does. So, whether you do or don’t, please let me know in the comments below – do you think having at least some grammar is important? Do you think having a lot of grammar is important? Or no grammar is the way to go? Please let me know. 🙂
But let’s kind of move on using that assumption for now, that at least a little bit of grammar is important. So the next logical question then might be, “to what extent should we learn grammar?” The first thing I I want to do is to run through a list of topics I feel are important to go over when you’re starting a journey learning a new language, and it’s surprisingly a very short list. This is also the list, or a part of the list I’m using to structure the curriculum at Cantolounge for Cantonese. So if you guys are wondering where that came from, here it is.
So aside from the absolute basics, things like pronouns, like I, you, me, her, they, them, and things like prepositions like in, at, by, near, here are some topics I believe are important at various stages of learning from a beginning level all the way up to a lower intermediate level.
So for example we have things like passive voice, or the causative, passive voice would be something like “I was given this”, versus something like “she gave this to me”. Causative is to make someone do something, although there are various forms of that. I’m not a grammar expert, this is just my experience from the languages I’ve studied or learned before. So that’s one part of it.
Number 2, we have modals. Modal are things like “I want, I can, I must, I should”, things that express possibility, desire, things like that.
Tenses are, of course, important, when we talk about desire, I think that for those of you who’re learning, or are speakers, or who have learned a European languages before, then the subjunctive comes up [when mentioning “I want”], right. So tense, I think, for example, the present tense, the past tense, the future, the conditional, subjunctive, present continuous, those are the absolute basics everyone needs to know. Pretty much, especially for European languages, if you know how to conjugate your verbs, especially for French and Spanish, remember those big-ass conjugation tables we had to remember, then that pretty much covers a huge part of the technical aspect of learning grammar, which is to remember the various forms of a word, and to be able to conjugate a verb on the spot, which can be quite hard without practice, right.
We have conjunctions. Things like so, and, or – linking words, basically. This is usually something that’s skipped over when teaching grammar in a language, I think it shouldn’t be skipped over, it’s really important. But it’s kind of considered as vocabulary, but it’s still an important of grammar.
We have things like negation, so how to negate something positive, so saying “I walked”, and negating that to “I didn’t walk”.
Then there’s comparisons, things like “more than”, “less than”, “like”, as in “this scent is like the spaghetti, the seafood linguine when I was in Milan”, “seem”, the structure “the more…the more…”, e.g. the more I speak a language, the more comfortable I am with it, superlatives, so things like “my favourite”, “the biggest size we have”.
Then there’s stuff like adverbs, a little bit less talked about, again, treated like vocabulary, but still important, so words like “still”, already, also, always, rarely”, and then there’s just the “ly” verbs, like “slowly, quickly”. And then there’s, let’s see. [Sorry, I’m almost done with this list, guys!]
Imperatives, i.e. orders. So for example, “don’t do this”, giving commands to someone, “go”, or “eat”, or “stand”, when talking to your dog or something. In English, it doesn’t change [from the infinite form], but in other languages, like French and Spanish, those probably change.
Then, there’s relative clauses, for example, how to say things like “the cat that’s sleeping on top of the bench has since slinked away”. So phrases that describe a subject, in this case, the cat.
And miscellaneous stuff, like politeness levels, honorific language, prefixes, suffixes, how to quote people, how to emphasize something, etc.
So that would be, I think, a portion, or a big portion of what I consider to be important when learning a new language. If I had to give a specific number in terms of how many of these individual principles we need to know, and those areas I just talked about, are huge areas with multiple principles, but if I had to give a number, somewhere around 40 principles cover all the needs you have on a daily basis, things that you might use, or you might hear in a daily conversation, and that’s it. So that might give you an idea as to whether you’re over or underlearning.
I almost hesitate to give a number, but you know, as it was written in the Little Prince, “adults love numbers”, so there we go.
Next I want to talk a little bit about what brought this on, why I decided to talk about the extent of the importance of grammar. Just a few days ago, I was watching a presentation that the current South Korean foreign minister is giving to a student body in a university, and she was talking about the diplomatic issues of the day, with the highlights of the relations and some of the progress between the North and the South. I was following along, it was really interesting, so I followed along, and a couple minutes in, I realized I could understand, I could follow along the discussion [speech] without too much difficulty [and I’m not thinking of the structure of the language, the grammar, etc.].
It was then that, for some reason, I started think back to the beginning of how I learned Korean, and how I might have tended to put too much of a focus on grammar, and so for the longest period of time, I think for the first year and a half to two years of learning Korean, I was pretty much focusing on grammar without thinking about the practical uses of it, or I was trying to gauge the scope of grammar, when I really could’ve just engaged more with my Korean friends, or my online pen pals, and moved on to authentic materials, and that’s something I thought I made on, and even after learning a few languages before that. And I thought, this might be something useful to share with you guys, because I feel that this is a mistake that could be entirely avoided.
So in other words, learning grammar doesn’t have to be tough, as long as you know what to learn, I think that’s really important. It’s really helpful to have a list of things to learn, and then check those off and you say to yourself I’m done, I’m not going to learn any more, because advanced grammar is useful maybe for style, and for writing, at a much higher level than what most of us probably need for the daily situations we’re going to be getting ourselves in using these foreign languages.
So more so than advanced grammar, I think having a wide spectrum of vocabulary is more important to be able to express yourself in a precise manner. At a certain point in time, I just feel that we need to develop the confidence enough to let go of the grammar, basically, the infrastructure [scaffolds] and advance step by step towards using native materials, or just dive right in.
So, if we were to delineate grammar on a spectrum into the types of people who believe we don’t need to learn any grammar at all, and the faction that believes grammar is everything, I probably lean towards the side that the less grammar you learn, the better, but obviously, you need to learn enough to understand how, in principle and practically, a language works.
That’s my presentation for today, hopefully you guys found that useful, and / or interesting, what do you guys think about it? Do you think grammar is important, and how important do you think grammar is? And if you’re learning a new language, how far along are you with grammar, and how are you planning to transition to more native materials in the future? Please let me know in the comments below, I’d love to hear from you guys.
Today’s challenge is a simple one as well – if you’re learning a new language, and if you could spare five minutes, try to think about how much grammar you’ve learned, and what grammar you’ve learned:
- Have you covered the topics we’ve talked about in this episode?
- Passive and active voice
- Relative clauses
- Miscellaneous (honorific language, quoting, emphasizing, etc.)
- Based on your answer to question 1 – do you think you’re over-learning grammar or still need to put in a little bit more effort?
Once again, thanks again for tuning in to another episode of Language Diary, and I look forward to seeing you guys in the next episode. Thanks guys! Take care, cheers. 🙂