05 June 2011

Why I chose to study grammar

No matter what language you're learning, and no matter how complicated its grammar seems to you, one thing holds true for any human language you might study:

There is hardly any grammar.

How so?  Go into a bookshop or library and compare the size of the biggest grammar book with the biggest dictionary.  And don't forget that big dictionaries are printed on thinner paperstock than grammar books.

Juan Kattan Ibarra's Modern Spanish Grammar has 472 pages, and is pretty comprehensive.
Collins' unabriged Spanish dictionary has a whopping 2208 pages, in a smaller typeface than the grammar book and with a printed area approximately equal to two pages of the grammar book, and formatted to reduce white space to an absolute minimum.  In terms of raw text, a comprehensive dictionary is about 20 times as big as a good grammar book.

On top of that, each grammar point in a grammar book needs a couple of pages of explanation and multiple examples, where a word gets a couple of inches in each half of the dictionary.

Really, there's loads of words in any language, and hardly any grammar.

So why not get the grammar early on?  It's quick and it is universally useful.  Very few people can pass a single day without using the majority of the verb tenses and noun cases available in their native language.

Vocabulary is a different matter.  When did I last say "robot"?  I can't remember.  "Lamb"? Roughly four weeks ago.  "House"?  About 2 weeks ago.

So if I study vocabulary, I not only have an almost never-ending task (the dictionary I mentioned above has 315,000 references), but I also find myself unable to remember words because I don't use them enough.
But if I study grammar, I can cover all the basics really quickly, and those basics can be used every single time I have a conversation, and they will stick.

The best part, though, is that once you know grammar, learning words is easier, because you can use them and understand them in various natural contexts, because grammar can change both the form and meaning of words.

Right now, I'm mapping out the grammar of Polish in order to teach it to myself and a friend, and when I'm done, I expect to know less than 50 words.  But I can learn more words later.


Colby said...

Hey, you say at the end that you're "mapping out" the grammar in order to learn it. I've often thought it would be useful to form an overview that showed the scope of what you had to learn, instead of going about it in the "tunnel" approach that most books take. Do you have any posts or examples of how you go about making your grammar map? That is, do you have any particular methodology, or do you just do a quick overview and then break it up according to whatever catches your eye?

Nìall Beag said...

Actually, the map I'm making is with the aim of being perhaps even more tunnelled than most courses...

Basically, my philosophy is that grammar books were designed around the shape of paper, not the internal structure of the learner's mind.

Polish has several conjugations, each with minor variations. Traditionally, these are laid out in individual tables, whereas I'm looking for the minimal differences.

For example -- in the present/future conjugation, the informal 2nd person singular is formed from the 3rd person singular + -sz (which are related sounds). The first person plural and informal 2nd person plural are formed by adding the suffixes "-my" and "-cie" to the informal 3rd person singular.

There are very few exceptions to this rule -- only the most irregular verbs break it. But learning this one rule and its exceptions is much easier than memorises the same ending 11 times in "different" conjugations.

In fact, one of the main differences between some of the conjugations is only in one vowel -- in many cases, the last vowel of the infinitive becomes E, but A tends to resist this change. This rule isn't universal, but it describes a fundamental systematic pattern that reduces the complexity of the conjugation system.

grammar fan:) said...

I like the idea, but I'm not sure how to go about putting it on paper. How do you organize those observations afterwards? Are you able to condense all that new knowledge into some neat A4 reference sheet, that contains everything you need to know abou
t conjugations? (could you show an example?) Or do you just keep it as bunch of notes? To put it simple: how does the mapped grammar look on paper when it is finnished?

Second question. What actions do you take to internalize the grammar after mapping it? Do you organize somehow order of learning grammar points, based on the created grammar map?

Maybe you could consider writing a blog post describing in a more detailed way how do you learn grammar? I would find it interesting.

Nìall Beag said...

Putting it on paper? That's not really the point of the exercise. Everything I've put down on paper is pretty scrappy and a million miles from "neat".

And the process itself is pretty far from neat and quite hard to describe in anything short of a book.

I'll try and organise my thoughts a bit and post something a bit more concrete at some point in the future.

Anonymous said...

Your post has elements that are insightful (e.g., that the bulk of what a language consists of is lexis), but you are misguided in the idea that grammar is best mastered first because it is more straightforward and useful.

I'd recommend reading something by Michael Lewis on the lexical approach. These ideas, although not new/revolutionary by any stretch, may discourage you from thinking that learning a language is first and foremost a function of mastering it's rules of syntax (grammar).

We also know that the first 3,000 most frequent words in the English language allow L2 learners to begin to grasp grammar. Before the first 1,500 are learned grammar teaching is unlikely to be very effective.

As David Wilkins said in 1972 "while without grammar little can be conveyed, without vocabulary nothing can be conveyed"

Nìall Beag said...

I'm perfectly familiar with the lexical approach, and a lot of what Lewis says makes perfect sense.

However, there are vanishingly few lexical bundles that do not conform to the rules of grammar, and those that do break the rules often actually gain expressive force from the fact; something that would be missed if you weren't familiar with the normal pattern.

It does not take 3000 words to "begin to grasp grammar". I would suggest that any study that claims such would most likely be starting with the assumption that grammar must be "assimilated" from exposure, rather than taught.

You can teach grammar, though, and with 7 pronouns and 5 or 6 intransitive verbs, you can get a quick start into regular conjugations in the present and past tenses. Add the 5 other object pronouns and a few transitive verbs, and you're getting even further. Throw in "will", "would" and "can", and "and" and "but" and you can build up a very good model of basic sentence structure.