I’m a native speaker of English, but when I first started teaching English. I ran into some problems. Students would ask about English grammar rules – when do I use this? Why is this incorrect? And I didn’t really know what to tell them, because, well, I didn’t know English grammar rules.
This is a pretty common experience right? We don’t learn grammar rules for our native language, but for some reason, we pore over them when we go to learn another language. Language learning is sometimes approached more like any other subject – there is knowledge you need to know. Study it and regurgitate it for the test.
But you don’t actually need to focus that much on grammar rules. Rules are great because they help explain the pattern that is in our heads. They help clarify something that might take a lot of exposure to learn otherwise, but they aren’t entirely necessary.
Also, after I had been teaching English for a bit and then went back to the States. I realized something. Native English speakers make a good amount of mistakes according to these grammar rules that everyone is suppose to be following. Not everything we say is perfect. It doesn’t need to be.
We make these mistakes because we are not using English according to the rules laid down in grammar textbooks, much to the chagrin of grammar nazis everywhere. We use English by our own ‘set of rules’ that we ‘discovered’ for ourselves. We have formed these rules through massive exposure to the language, through listening to parents, our peers, watching TV, etc…
Cracking the Code
When I was in junior high school, we had to take a math test every year. And one of the components of the test was trying to figure out what number would come next in a particular sequence. For example, can you guess what the next number is in the following sequence:
1, 3, 6, 10, 15, 21, 28, 36, 45…
I bet you could pretty easily deduce that it is 55.
So what is happening here? You are basically looking at a couple of examples of a sequence and then your brain, with a little coaxing, forms a pattern for you to use to come up with the remaining numbers. I bet you even had a little eureka moment when it popped into your head.
And actually, there has been some research into how young children learn language, and evidence points to children having one of these moments when it finally clicks and they get it right from there on out. I’m sure you have experienced the same thing with a couple of grammar points that you were learning.
This is most obvious when you are having a terrible time with a particular grammar point, like when to use the wo particle. You struggle with it and struggle with it, give up trying to master it and then, a few weeks, months later, you see a sentence or see some examples and it just clicks in. Sometimes you need to read grammar rules to help point out the things to look out for, but in general, it just has to click some day. Your brain has to form that pattern in order for you to use it naturally.
Your brain is making these patterns every day, not just for language but for everything we do. Your brain, which uses a ton of calories more than any other part of the body, is constantly looking for ways to think more efficiently. And having these patterns in place keeps your brain from overheating when you go to communicate, as well as help you speak at a pace that someone is going to pay attention to.
As adults that natively use a language, we have some pretty solid patterns to use. We get use to them, and comfortable with them, which can make it hard for us to jump ship and build all new patterns. Sometimes, we end up building patterns on top of the patterns we have now, which leads to us ‘translating in our heads’ a major problem if you want to ever become pretty fluent.
How to Start Cracking the Code
When working your way through a phrasebook or set of phrases, don’t try to reach for a grammar text book to look up every little point. Try to form guesses as to how the structures are used. Play with them and add your own vocabulary to them to see if they make sense. You can use a native tutor or a service like lang-8.com to check your handy work. As a little tip, I find that if you write what you want to say in English on Lang-8, you tend to get a lot more feedback on your tries (because the checker can practice their English reading skills as well as know what the heck you are trying to say).
Another thing you can do is look through several example sentences with tatoeba.org or ALC’s 英辞郎 on the Web. Try to find a few examples of the grammar that you are trying to figure out. Hopefully after a few examples, you will start to see how it is used more naturally than trying to read how to use it in a grammar book.
Now, this method of naturally picking up grammar is really useful and will give you a good base of grammar. You could probably make it through N5 and N4 with this method and a few practice tests. It will help you use the language at about an 80% level, as in 80% of the time (or higher) you will be well understood. Not perfectly correct, but well-understood, and that is the point of using a language – being understood.
Now, it is still helpful to have a grammar textbook around to look up and refine some of those points that just aren’t clicking to get those hints to help you understand it well enough that it’ll click for you. You may even want to pick my N5 grammar guide along with the JLPT kit that has a bunch of helpful tips on how to study even if you aren’t taking the JLPT. Or some other guides, like the Japan Times Grammar Dictionaries, which are pretty expensive, but very thorough.
The key here is that learning grammar by trying to find the patterns first will help it stick a lot longer. You will still need some refinement here and there to speak well, but don’t get too carried away. In my grammar guides I give you plenty of examples so that you can see it being used instead of studying a bunch of rules and attempting to make sentences from that.
Are you learning Naturally?
What is your preferred way of learning grammar? Do you study grammar books? What works best for you? Let me know in the comments below.