The Truth about Grammar and Speaking a Second Language

Language students can not apply very many grammar rules

There are a lot of grammar rules for every language. A lot. Language teachers have never studied a significant number. Teachers are not to blame for that. In the words of linguist Steven Krashen, “Teachers, after all, have a great deal to do besides study the work of applied linguistics.”

Teacher consciously know SOME of the grammar rules.
Teachers cover SOME of the grammar rules they consciously know.
Students memorize SOME of the rules covered.
Students can apply SOME of the rules they memorized.

This means the majority of grammar rules are NOT going to be memorized and purposely applied by a language student.

Applying grammar rules in speech is difficult

Applying a few grammar rules in written exercises for school is do-able for most people. Applying grammar rules in conversation is much more difficult because there isn’t much time to think.

Here is an example of what happens to a language student using grammar rules to build sentences in a conversation.

Question from native speaker: What kind of job do you want?
Language Student thinks: I want to be a doctor. I don’t need to say the word “I” because it will implied by the verb. The verb “to want” will be conjugated in the “I” form. There are 2 verbs for “to be.” Which one do I use? I’ll use the more permanent one. Do not conjugate a verb that directly follows another verb. I’ll make the word for “a” feminine, since I will make the word for “doctor” feminine, since I am a woman.” Wait, my verb for “to want” is in the wrong tense. Oh well, I haven’t learned all the tenses yet. Okay, I have built an understandable sentence, although I don’t think it is quite right.

With all that grammar rule application the student will have to pay a native speaker to converse with her because normal people can’t put up with how long it takes her to think up a sentence to say. Normal Spanish speakers will shrug her off, and walk away.

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Super-smart hard working students can get faster at applying rules, but even the smartest student can’t apply several rules instantaneously. Even the smartest student doesn’t know a large percentage of the grammar rules, and can’t build complicated sentences like, “If I would have known he was leading the meeting, I wouldn’t have come so early.”

Many commonly used phrases “don’t translate well,” and a language student would not be able to figure out how to say them. This is why every language course tells you how to say commonly used sentences, rather than solely relying on applying grammar rules.

Studying grammar rules does little to help us speak fluently.

How Do We Get Fluent?

How do we get to the point where sentences we need in order to ‘get by’ in a language just pop into our minds and slip out of our lips?

We get fluent primarily by listening to sentences enough to be able to remember them.

Reading the sentences, and practicing saying the sentences are important too, but hearing sentences repeatedly deserves the majority of the credit for fluency. Without hearing words repeatedly, we can’t remember what they sound like, and so we can’t pronounce them. Without hearing sentences, we wont know how things are said.

Language classes that spend a lot of time doing grammar exercises, don’t have much time left for the students to listen to the language; One hour of class time doesn’t equal one hour of listening time. Watching an hour of a foreign movie with lots of dialogue would count as an hour of listening. It takes hundreds of hours of listening to become fluent.

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Learning Grammar Intuitively through listening and reading

You can learn grammar without studying grammar rules.

If you know how to say

I like apples.

I like grapes.


I like bananas.

Then you’re going to be able to say you like oranges. You can figure that out easily without grammar lessons. Your mind is quite clever at learning grammar intuitively.

All children learn grammar intuitively and subconsciously. They are incapable of studying grammar rules, yet they eventually use the same grammatical structures as the people around them . Countless adult immigrants have become fluent without formal grammar lessons, so they prove that adults can do it too.

Reading books and listening to dialogue on television shows are great ways to learn grammar, intuitively and subconsciously.

Learning Grammar Intuitively Takes Time

Language learners may make mistakes and say things like

I like apple.

No like grape.

I like it banana.

Rome wasn’t built in a day. It takes the mind many many hours of listening to figure out how to speak another language fluently. Making mistakes means they need to hear the language more.

When someone says, “No like grape.” Explaining the grammar mistake to them will probably not help, because they will probably not be able to stop making that type of error until they hear proper English more. Immigrants who make mistakes like that for years are either:

A. Not hearing English enough OR
B. Listening to English from other foreigners who speak that way too.

The bottom line:
In order to speak fluently we need to learn grammar intuitively and subconsciously through listening and reading. Studying grammar rules does little to help us speak fluently because we can remember and apply only a small percentage of the grammar rules of a language.  Applying rules takes too much time to do while speaking.

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