Should You Learn Grammar to Learn a New Language?

learn grammar

Should I learn grammar in order to learn a new language? I believe many language learners have asked themselves this question at some point of their language learning journey. Well, simply put:

You don’t have to study grammar religiously to be fluent. But a general understanding of basic grammar can help you learn a language faster.

Surely babies don’t learn grammar to speak, and there are plenty of examples (especially before modern education) of people learning languages without grammar study. Think about the explorers of the old world who traveled and learned to communicate with locals through loads of exposure and time. So, it’s definitely possible to learn a language without studying grammar, but the question is, why would you?

It sounds attractive and cool: just blindly dive headfirst into a language and figure it out naturally by interacting with native speakers and watching entertaining dramas. For a very small minority of people, this could work.  But for most of us, this is more like a pipe dream or a get-rich quick scheme: it’s your ego wanting to get the rewards without putting in the effort. You want to do it because it sounds easy, and you saw someone on TikTok who claimed to achieve it.

But chances are, there’s more to the story than just speaking to native speakers and producing the language on your own. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Think about it: if it were easy to learn a new language without studying grammar, then anyone could just watch several K-drama series’ and become fluent in Korean. Does that sound realistic?

So should you study grammar? The answer is yes, you should learn grammar to learn a new language effectively and efficiently.

So instead of thinking about grammar as some dull study practice that is hard and boring, think about it as a shortcut to better understanding: Grammar gives you a better overall perspective of your target language. It shows you patterns and structures that you might not catch without it.

Besides, you can’t learn a language without studying grammar in some way or another. It’s just NOT possible. Sure, you can avoid grammar textbooks and online grammar sites, but you’ll still be analyzing syntax, memorizing vocabulary, and asking questions….you just won’t have the added benefit of a well-designed learning experience.

To better elaborate on my point, I’ll analyze learning grammar from the below 5 aspects. Read on to get a better understanding of what is grammar, why people don’t like learning it, how to learn grammar effectively, etc.

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What is grammar

As defined by the Britannica Dictionary Grammar is:

“The rules of a language governing the sounds, words, sentences, and other elements, as well as their combination and interpretation. 

In my opinion, grammar consists of the basic building blocks of a language. It’s the statements of regularities of a new language. It’s an attempt to organize and systemize a language into digestible parts.

In your native tongue, grammar is an afterthought. You have been so immersed in your native language for so long that you didn’t put much thought into the organization of your communication. You probably already forgot the grammatical errors and improvements you made as a child. 

Think about the cute toddlers who say almost everything in the present tense until they better grasp the concepts of past and future. They’re developing their understanding of correct grammar.

Why some language learners avoid grammar

Learning grammar is hard

No doubt grammar is hard. But nothing good comes easy. Many people avoid grammar study because it feels unnatural to us. Think about it: you didn’t have to study a grammar book as a baby or toddler to develop your native language skill. You just did it over years and years of being fully immersed in the culture of the language. You didn’t have any expectations of how quickly you should learn or how accurately you should speak. You were just a kid trying to communicate. 

When learning a foreign language, especially as an adult, you’re confronted with a slow and arduous process that is so contrary to your first experience of language learning. Your ability to pick up a language like a native speaker gradually disappear. It probably makes you feel dumb, and it hurts your ego. On top of that, you have to miss out on the fun of speaking a foreign language while you are developing your skills. Can’t we just learn a language the way a kid does through immersion without grammar?

Learn grammar vs passive immersion

Grammar study and passive immersion cannot suffice on their own; they are both necessary for efficient and effective learning. Immersion without grammar study is confusing and progress is slow. Grammar study without any form of immersion is relatively useless.

If you are passively immersed in the language, you would probably have a lot of questions about the language – “What is this?” “What does that mean?” “How do I say _______?” “Could you explain that?” … Essentially you’d be depending on the grammatical knowledge of others, who may or may not be able to explain and teach as well as a curated body of knowledge like LingoDeer 😊

Learn grammar vs learn vocabulary

Much like grammar and passive immersion, vocabulary is another important factor in your language development. But which is more important, grammar or vocabulary? It’s hard to say.

Having a deep vocabulary is useful, but if you can’t incorporate that vocabulary into syntax, you’re not going to be able to communicate appropriately. You’d just be communicating with disconnected words. Likewise, if you’re grammatically sound but you can’t incorporate the necessary vocabulary into your communication, you’re going to struggle to improve your fluency level.

If you had to choose, I would recommend putting more time and energy into grammar. It’s more complex than vocabulary and takes more time to practice. Vocabulary can be saved and updated as you’re exposed to it.  You can make notecards which can be studied later. After all, it’s much easier to look up a single vocabulary word than it is to look up a desired grammatical structure.

Why is grammar essential in language learning

If you want to understand or communicate in a foreign language correctly, you need to be able to identify and use certain grammatical concepts to achieve accuracy and comprehension. There is a reason why grammar is studied and taught in most language classes.

Let’s look at some basic Korean to see how confusing it could be without a grammatical understanding of the differences.

– 갔어요 (ga-seo-yo) – went

 Compared to

– 가세요  (ga-sae-yo) – please go

Both use the verb “to go” – they have entirely different contextual meanings but very similar pronunciations.  Now, for an intermediate Korean language speaker, they are not that similar. But for a beginner, they might sound almost identical. Without some sort of grammar study, it could take a learner a very long time to distinguish the difference in an authentic language scenario. And there are many more examples like this that cause confusion for Korean language learners. 

So, understanding grammar is essential in helping you speed up your language learning process. Don’t think of it as a boring and tedious process. Think of it as a hack or shortcut, and you’ll be much more inclined to utilize it.

What role should grammar play in language learning

There is a common belief that you must laser-focus on grammar while learning a new language. Personally, I disagree with this to an extent. Grammar study should be utilized and prioritized intermittently during your language study, but it shouldn’t be your number one priority the entire time. I say this from experience: you can get so lost in trying to dissect and understand grammar that you become frustrated and lose all joy in the language learning process, which is a pity. Language is ultimately how we connect with each other. It’s an interpersonal experience and a way to expand your social circle, cultural understanding, and opportunities.  Those benefits can’t be enjoyed through grammar study alone.

However, grammar study can accelerate your learning though even if it should not be the main focus. Remember we said early that grammar is the statement of regularities of a language? Knowing these regularities can surely help you find patterns and speed up. In your language learning journey, grammar study can be used to help you understand language structure and syntax, which is also one of the teaching methods implemented in the LingoDeer app.

LingoDeer app grammar tips

Then what role should grammar play in different stages of language learning? Below is what I’ve concluded from years of language learning and teaching.

Beginners: Study grammar to help you get a grasp of key language concepts and fundamentals.

Intermediate learners: Use grammar study to compound your knowledge, or help you understand some confusing parts of the language. Use your grammar books to assist you in the process. When necessary, implement real-world conversation practice.

Besides, you can’t learn all the grammar points of a language by reading a grammar book from cover to cover.  You need to first develop an understanding of a concept, then practice, use it in real-world contexts, and finally sharpen your ability before you move on to another grammar point.

As stated earlier, grammar is a set of tools to help you build your foreign language ability.  It is not a book of rules that must be memorized. So, I recommend grammar study when you want to better understand a sentence structure, tense, or pattern so you can use it in conversation with native speakers.  Build your understanding step by step, but don’t burden yourself with hours and hours of grammar study while ignoring the joys of communicating with others.

How to learn grammar

Learn basic aspects of grammar

If you’ve read so far, you are probably thinking, okay, I know the importance of grammar learning, but how and where should I start?

First, you should know there are fundamental concepts that exist across languages. Depending on the language, some concepts and rules are more important than others. For example, English is a language in which “tense” is very important. To speak English well, you must be able to seamlessly navigate between the past, present, future, past perfect, conditionals, and so on. In Korean, honorifics are more important than tense: formality, respect, tone, and familiarity are the key aspects.  In Spanish, pronouns, and their gender (masculine or feminine) are very important. But in Korean, pronouns are often omitted from speech entirely. So, knowing which grammar points are most important is going to expedite your language learning. 

Here are two grammar aspects that is relevant to every language:

Sentence structure

Sentence structure is fundamental in every language. For example, English uses a subject + verb + object structure.  While Korean is very different:  subject + object + verb.

English:      I   (Subject)     met (verb)    a friend (object)                  

Korean:       (나) (subject) 친구를   (object)  만나요 (verb)                          

In the Korean equivalent, the subject can be omitted, and the verb tense does not need to be conjugated.  Another reason grammatical knowledge can be useful.

Parts of speech

Having a grasp on the various parts of speech (word types) used in language will also help you learn more quickly and see patterns that can be used to simplify learning. The most common types of words are: verbs, nouns, pronouns, adverbs, adjectives, conjugations, prepositions, and interjections.

Being able to recognize and categorize these words in your target language will help you organize your thoughts and communicate more smoothly.

Use the right tools

Grammar books are a great source to gain an overall understanding as well as learn the details. But it will be even better if you can incorporate grammar learning into your main language learning resource. For example, LingoDeer is a language learning app that teaches you 13 languages comprehensively. Grammar tips are incorporated into each lesson so you can learn at ease. Give it a try today for free!

Adapt grammar patterns to your real life

One of the best methods for learning grammar in an easy and meaningful way is to adapt it to your life, and practice using it in personal contexts. Language is much more memorable if it is connected to emotion or has relevance in your life. Grammar textbooks are great at modeling sentence structure,s but they are not great at presenting it in meaningful and interesting ways. So, try to adapt it to your life.

For example, if the grammar lesson is about using the past tense, you may see some example sentences that are quite boring, like…

“Yesterday, Minsoo ate breakfast and went to school”

“어제 민수는 아침을 먹고 학교에 갔습니다.”

Try to adjust the pattern to make it more fun and relevant to your life, like…

“Yesterday, Minsoo drank too much alcohol and fell asleep at the bar.”

“어제 민수가 술을 너무 많이 마셔서 바에서 잠들었어요.”

Then, think of more situations in which you can adapt the grammar to make it more realistic to your own life.  Ask native speakers to help you make it more natural and provide some slang. I guarantee you’ll start to look at grammar study differently. 

Grammar doesn’t have to be boring. You can use it in various ways to expedite your learning journey, have fun, and improve your language recall. So don’t shy away from grammar. It is just a tool to help you build a second (or third) language!  Have fun with it!

Don’t forget to share this article if you find it helpful!

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