What the Makers of a  Language Learning App Don’t Understand

Today’s post is based on a tweet in response to an article from Babbel. Their article suggested that students can learn a language (including Mandarin Chinese) through focusing on sentence structure. There is no evidence that this is true, and plenty of evidence that explicit grammar teaching just does not help students learn a language!

The Problem With Legacy Methods

If you ask most people how they learned a language (usually in high school for the US), they will probably say that they learned a bit of grammar, some vocabulary words, and then combined it all together in “practice.” If you ask a second question, whether this method is effective, most people will probably say that they still don’t speak the language that they spent 2-4 years studying in high school. Why do so few students actually speak the languages that they learned through these legacy methods? Part of the reason is that students do not actually need to learn grammar explicitly in order to speak a language.

Did Someone Teach You English Grammar?

We certainly do not do this with our first language. Students in America speak English fluently long before they start to learn English grammar. Which of these phrases is correct: “the big, red, wooden box” or “the wooden, red, big box.” If you speak English fluently, it was probably easy to see that the first phrase is grammatically correct and the second one is not. Most people don’t learn the rule of adjective order in English, however. It would be hard to write down what the rule is. Most people would have to write down a few sample sentences before extrapolating that adjectives in English go in the order: number, quality, size, age, shape, color, material (or origin), and qualifier. Very few native English speakers learned this rule from a teacher, but we all know it. What does this teach us about how people learn language?

Our brains don’t actually need to learn rules in order to use them. We take in language, in all of its complexity, and then subconsciously learn the rules. Children in the English-speaking world hear strings of adjectives thousands and thousands of times from birth. From there, they instinctively know that when many adjectives modify a single noun, they go in the order of number, quality, size, age, shape, color, material (or origin), and qualifier. The same goes for second language acquisition, too.

Will Students Learn Grammar Without Explicit Teaching?

Some students, parents, or administers object to teachers not explicitly teaching grammar as part of a second language class. Many people feel that if students don’t learn grammar through explicit teaching (think textbooks and charts of verb endings) they won’t learn grammar at all. Ironically, through methods like TPRS, students actually get more exposure to different grammatical structures. With legacy method classes, students plod through the textbook, learning one sentence structure after another. This is a frustrating experience for the students, and it is not very effective.

In a Mandarin Chinese class structured around TPRS (teaching proficiency through reading and story-telling), students hear far more sentence structures in the early days than they do with the first chapter of a standard textbook. For example, on day 2 of a TPRS-based class, my elementary students can use correct word order in the Chinese sentence “Diego在Pizza Hut 吃比萨”  (Diego eats pizza at Pizza Hut.) It may be hard to believe, but there are students who have studied Mandarin Chinese for several hours a week for a year who make mistakes with this sentence structure. I’m sure that their teachers carefully explained that in Mandarin, we put the location before the verb. The reason that students in legacy method classes keep making this mistake is that those careful explanations don’t work.

Yes, You Can Toss the Textbook

Students learn grammar rules in a second or third language just the way they learn grammar rules in their first languages. They learn rules by repeated exposure to correct language. English speakers would probably blink in confusion if asked to right down the order in which a string of adjectives appear. They still would answer the question in paragraph two of this post correctly every time, however. The human mind is built to learn grammar rules without reading them in a textbook.

photo of grammar rule from Chinese textbook
Reading this page won’t teach you how to use “在” correctly

More on why a good language class does not include explicit grammar teaching.

Have you taken a language class that used legacy teaching methods? What was your experience? Share in the comments!


One thought on “What Babbel Gets Wrong: Learning Sentence Structure Won’t Make You Fluent

Leave a Reply