Let me ask you this: How many words of your mother tongue have you used today to express your thoughts and go through your day? 100, 1,000, or 100,000 words? Studies show that we use 4,000 or 5,000 of the most common words of a language to manage our everyday lives. 😉
Now, to put that into a meaningful context: You use grammar when you speak a language. You know how to form nouns (are they singular or plural?), conjugate verbs (are they in the present tense, past perfect, present perfect, future, or something else?), and other things that a typical grammar system includes. But while doing all this, you don’t consciously think about all the complex grammatical concepts. It comes as second nature to you because you have become accustomed to using the language and have gained a feel for which words to use and when.
And to be honest, most people don’t even understand what words like “syntax,” “modality,” “pronoun,” “infinitive,” “definite article,” and “phrasal verb” even mean. And even if you read about those words and what they mean, it doesn’t ring a bell for most people. They can’t make a meaningful connection to actively use this knowledge when expressing themselves. ☝️
So, the first thing we need to keep in mind regarding grammar is to purify our minds of the outdated view that “before speaking and understanding the language, you need to know its grammar,” when, as human beings, the natural way is the other way around. We first need to speak and understand the language before building grammatical understanding. 😉
Let me give you an example. I speak German fairly well and most certainly understand it well, but I have never learned German grammar. And even though I have translated a novel from German to Estonian with relative ease, I couldn’t name any German declensions or grammar rules even if I needed to.
Okay, but how do I speak the language, then? I speak it based on my experience using the language, hearing other people speak it, and mimicking the way they use it. Like young kids do—they mimic the way adults speak, automatically picking up the language’s patterns.
And yes, I make article and declension mistakes here and there in German, but to be honest, I don’t care about that. In surrounding myself with the language—listening to Speakly listening exercises, for example—I learn to eliminate these mistakes one by one by hearing how the language is used in specific sentences. So, now that I already speak and understand German, I’m really ready to learn its grammar because I have a larger context into which I can place it.
And what we see from research is that such an approach gives faster and better results. You might ask yourself, “Wait, but how can you even conjugate verbs if you don’t know how to conjugate them?” The answer is simple and lies in statistical relevance. Let’s look at that now. 🚀
Not All Words (or Verbs) Are Created Equal
Let me give you an example. Let’s say we need to learn the verb parler in French, which means “to speak.” It’s a reasonably useful verb to use when saying “Je parle français,” “I speak French,” or “Pardon, je ne parle pas anglais,” “Sorry, I don’t speak English.”
Now, if we look at the conjugation of this verb in the present tense in French, it will look like this:
But obviously, the present tense is not the only tense; there are many, many more. MANY more. Here is a typical conjugation table in French with the verb parler. Take a moment to dig in.
Now imagine yourself joining a language course and, in the first lesson, receiving a pile of pages covered with “relevant verbs” and all of these tables.
You would feel lost because it’s certainly too much for your brain to handle at once. And what are you supposed to do with all these conjugation tables? Memorize them? Okay, if you try, there is a big probability that you’ll forget the things that you memorized before you actually start using the language because you don’t have context—a meaningful knowledge of the language—in which to build the grammar system. 🚀
Okay, let’s look at this verb parler again. It might come as a surprise, but even the different forms of the present tense of the word parler are not equally used. Some of these forms are more important than others. You can imagine that “I speak” is typically more important than “they speak” because we tend to talk more about ourselves than others.
What we can derive from this is that, in reality, it doesn’t even make sense to learn all the forms of a verb in the present tense. They may not be optimal for your current level because the statistical probability of using them in conversation with French speakers is fairly low. ☝️
So, to be smart about learning a language and its grammar, you must build up the language with only the most relevant verb forms, adjectives, and other bits of the language. And the fun part of it is that you won’t need to dive into the grammar of a language at all at the beginning. It’s not necessary. Instead of trying to be perfect in grammar, you’re focusing on learning to speak and understand the language.
The best way to do this is to use the Speakly language-learning app. It will only teach you the most statistically relevant words and sentences in a real-life context, so you skip all the fluff.
Explicit and Implicit Learning
Have you ever tried to learn an instrument?
Imagine learning an instrument by just reading about how to play it as opposed to playing it. It sounds super weird, doesn’t it? But that’s how most of us are pushed to learn grammar. Instead of playing, we have a lot of knowledge about the intricacies of the instrument, we know complicated chord progressions and theory, but when we sit behind a piano, we can’t do anything meaningful. 😭
Now, most music teachers would say that the best way to motivate a learner to build up skills with an instrument is to let them play songs they like. Then, after they acquire enough skills to play songs, teach them the “grammar” of the instrument.
Do I need to learn grammar at all?
Our brains are super simplistic: If we don’t have a legitimate question about something in our minds, we won’t memorize the answer. If you force information into your memory that doesn’t originate from a question that arose from real usage of the language, it’s the same case—it will go in one ear and out the other.
Thus, we can say that, yes, you need grammar, but not at the beginning of your studies. You need it later on, and even then, not in large chunks but based on what you actually need. 🚀
I know this might sound strange compared to what is said by teachers around the world. The perception seems to be that you need to start with grammar and eventually arrive at speaking. But if you think about it intuitively, that doesn’t sound right. Why didn’t it work like that with your mother tongue? And kids who learn to understand and speak a language by watching foreign cartoons are never exposed to any grammar books!
The reason is simple: One way is natural for us human beings, and the other is not.
Let me give you another example. In Speakly, we have a grammar section that gives you a small taste of grammar each time you might have a question about something. Just tap on the grammar icon, see the relevant slice of grammar information, and continue building meaningful language skills.
Speak First, Then Learn Grammar
In your own native tongue, you learned to speak the language before structuring it with grammar and everything else. That’s exactly how we should approach learning a foreign language. That is natural for our brains.
So, how do you build up your language skills meaningfully?
You need a lot of input. 🚀
I recommend using Speakly listening exercises. Listening to them daily maximizes their effectiveness.
You need many meaningful interactions. 🚀
I recommend using Speakly LIVE-situations, which allow you to practice speaking—even if you don’t understand a word.
You need to find a balance between implicit and explicit learning. 🚀
Digest grammar information in small bites so as not to overwhelm yourself. You’ll build up language skills without stressing too much about your “lack” of grammatical understanding.
Strike a balance between these things and use everything the Speakly study area has to offer. It perfectly balances building up the language and offering grammar support.