You Don’t Need to Learn Grammar. Really.

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.

More Common Questions About Language Learning

Every so often I post answers to common questions about language learning that I hear from students, their parents or potential students. Below are three answers to three common questions.

At what age should my child start learning a second language?

In America, we have a curious relationship with second language learning. I have noticed an interesting contrast whenever I talk with new people about teaching Mandarin Chinese to children. On the one hand, many strangers enthusiastically tell me how quickly young children learn languages. They believe that it is best for them to start young. On the other hand, many parents admit that they “know” that exposing very young children to more than one language will cause speech delays. Which one is it? Is it good for children to learn a second language? It seems that in America at least, we have two different answers. We appear to think that it is good for young children (say, ages 3-5) while bad for babies and toddlers. For my two cents, the best time for a child to start learning a second language when it works best for you as a family.

If you’re in the US and want to speak to your child in a home language and wait till he or she is in preschool to exposure your child to English, do that. If you want to go to a mommy and me language class to learn a second language at 18 months, that is fine too. There is no evidence that speaking more than one language causes speech delays. If readers don’t believe me, but perhaps you will find the American Academy of Pediatrics more convincing.

How Many Hours Per Week Should I Study Chinese?

Has anyone ever told you that you must have gas in the car before you drive it? Or that you shouldn’t attempt to de-board an airplane when it is in mid-air? Probably not. If something is truly necessary, like having fuel in the gas tank or staying on the inside of an airplane while it is moving, no one tell you to do it. So if someone tells you “you absolutely must have at least 2 hours of class per week” then they’re just trying to help their bottom line. The same goes for textbooks and language learning apps.

A student (whether an adult or a child) should spend as much time studying Chinese as he or she can. The math problem is pretty simple. A student who spends 5 hours in class every week is going to learn more than a student who spends 1 hour per week. The student who spends 1 hour per week learning Chinese will also learn more than the student who has an hour-long class every other week. The quality of the class will of course have an effect on how much the student learns. In general, more input (i.e. through class time) will lead to more learning. Spend as much time as you can getting input in Chinese, but be reasonable about what is workable for your own situation. Don’t make yourself go crazy.

I have been Using Duolingo for Month Now, Why is my pronunciation Still So Terrible?

Apps like Duolingo never killed anybody, but they are not an effective way to learn languages. They are at best a memorization tool. They don’t give learners the communicatively embedded input necessary to learn a language. Students often find it frustrating that the AI in programs like Rosetta Stone don’t recognize their attempts at speaking Mandarin Chinese. Many students assume that they have a unique problem with pronunciation. They probably do not. The most likely explanation for why students are not “getting it” is that they have not gotten enough input. They simply have not heard enough spoken Chinese (or Korean, or Spanish, or Swedish) to be able to speak at all.

If students think that they have a problem with pronunciation because a computer program says so, they should first put the phone or iPad down. Then, go and find opportunities to actually hear the target language in a communicative context.

Have your own questions about language learning? Use the contact page to get in touch

More common questions and common misconceptions about language learning:


Language Myths that hold students back

The Myth of Mandarin as Too Hard Even for Chinese People to Learn



Reading and Dual-language

I should have hung out a “gone fishing” sign during winter break. Oops. But I did write something for The Rivard Report to help parents make the most of dual-language programs. I don’t teach in any dual-language schools, but I have a stack of research from my master’s degree thesis. Here it is:

On Using L1 in Class

Does English (or L1) Have a Place in an Immersion Classroom?

I’ve read a a great deal of promotional material for various immersion programs. A common thread is that they claim to use very little of the L1 in class. In the US, the L1 is generally English. So I am going to refer to that language as L1 for the rest of this post. A parent reading about immersion programs might think that there is a relationship between how little English the teachers use and the quality of the program.*

Invest Time in Frequently Used Words/Structures

I think that it is perfectly fine to use some English in a Chinese class. This is especially true if that class is only meeting for a couple hours a week. Research shows that we should spend time helping students acquire the most commonly used words, structures and expressions. This means that it is probably fine to use “Pizza Hut” in a story in class because the students just aren’t going to use 必胜客 (Pizza Hut) until they are traveling in China, which probably won’t happen for several years.

It is far more important that students acquire structures like “她在Pizza Hut吃饭” (lit: She at Pizza Hut eats) than to memorize the Chinese names of American restaurants. In Chinese, we put the location before the verb. Students who study through legacy methods, however, often do not get enough input of the correct structure, so they continue to using non native-like phrases like *她吃饭在必胜客 (She eats at Pizza Hut) even after 5-6 semesters of college Chinese. With the limited class time that we have available, the minutes are better spent giving students comprehensible input, through storytelling, reading, or even watching a movie. This is a better use of time than making sure every word is spoken in the target language.

Textbooks Don’t Help

Open any Chinese textbook, even one meant for kids, and you will see names, places, and other proper nouns with their Chinese translations. It is a mistake to spend time on learning something like Pizza Hut. There are much more common words and structures that students should acquire first. They’ll pick up 必胜客 (Pizza Hut) pretty quickly when they are in China in any case :).

textbook photo showing problems with legacy teaching methods of Chinese
There is no reason to have beginner students memorize names of different countries in Chinese. They could be learning words and structures they’ll use every day instead.

*A more detailed (and research-based) discussion of immersion, or dual-language as it is often called, is available here. The platform is local to San Antonio, but the issues about language immersion could apply anywhere.