Adult Learners Often Want to Learn Grammar

Kids don’t usually question what we are doing in class because they are having fun. Adult students, however, often panic in early Chinese classes because they think that they should be “studying grammar.” Understandably, most adult students (and high schoolers too) are used to opening up a textbook in a language class. The textbook lays out the grammar rules, and then lists vocabulary words. Chinese textbooks often have dialogues for the students to practice in each chapter. If you’re a language nerd like me, learning about grammar is interesting. For the vast majority of people, however, there really is no need to sit down and learn a bunch of grammar rules.

You Don’t Need to Know the Grammar to Speak a Language

If you are a native English speaker, when did you start learning the rules for English grammar? Late elementary school? Middle school? Maybe you learned the parts of speech in fifth grade. Maybe you learned how to diagram a sentence in middle school. You were probably quite fluent in English by the time you were five, but you didn’t start learning grammar as its own topic until half a decade later at least. So why do so many people think that they need this explicit kind of knowledge to learn a second language when they obviously did not need it for their first?

The Rules Don’t Hold Up Anyway

Rules are reassuring. Students, especially adults, don’t like feeling like they are “saying it wrong.” Unfortunately, grammar rules are not really rules. They don’t hold up under scrutiny. In this video, I talk about the difference between ser and estar in Spanish (both mean to be). The textbook would have you believe that we use ser for something permanent and estar for something that is temporary. Yet, we say things like “El es joven” and “El esta muerto.” Language is too complex to be boiled down to just a few rules.

If you don’t take my word for it, maybe you will listen to David Sedaris. In Me talk Pretty One Day he writes about his struggles to learn French. French includes a gender system for its nouns and of course the rule he learns does not really make sense:

I spent months searching for some secret code before I realized that common sense has nothing to do with it. Hysteria, psychosis, torture, depression: I was told that if something is unpleasant it’s probably feminine. This encouraged me, but the theory was blown by such masculine nouns as murder, toothache, and rollerblade. I have no problem learning the words themselves, it’s the sexes that trip me up and refuse to stick.

Grammar Rules Don’t Become Fluency

Early on in my adult classes, students often get tripped up by measure words. In Chinese, measure words are the little words between numbers and the nouns that they describe. In English, we say “three people.” In Chinese, however, we say “three (pieces) people.” Each noun has an associated measure word. We could summarize measure words by saying something like, “we use the measure word 张 for flat objects.” But when we are doing that, we are giving students the illusion that they can memorize this rule and then use measure words flawlessly. They really can’t. It just does not work that way.

We learn language through communicatively-embedded input, not through reading about rules in textbooks. While it is tempting to think that reading about grammar will turn into fluency, it just does not work that way. I know that my students want to see a list of all the measure words in Chinese next to rules for how to use them, for example. But reading that list and trying to memorize will not really help. They are better off just listening to the input and making sure that they understand the overall meaning.

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