Does Mastering Grammar Make You Fluent?

If you’re like most people who have wondered how to learn Spanish or another language, you cringe at the thought of grammar. It feels like you’re barely able to stumble through introducing yourself, and you’re already be told you have to learn how to conjugate verbs. 

The methods many teachers use to instruct students in a foreign language involves grammar. And it is an ineffective one. Often, students may test well in a foreign language, but then struggle to converse in it. This is why only one in four adults in America can speak a foreign language despite it being a graduating requirement in nearly all schools.

But if grammar is ineffective, then we should entirely do away with it entirely, right? It’s not that easy. As it turns out, to speak effectively, you need grammar. However, you don’t need to be taught grammar in the way that traditionally happens in most language learning settings.

Grammar’s History in Language Learning Programs

Much of the way we have learned grammar in the past comes from an approach to studying the classics. Rote memorization of vocabulary and grammatical structures went hand in hand with the study of dead languages like Ancient Greek and Latin. The reason for this is that no one speaks those languages. In fact, many people pick those languages when they are forced to take a second language in high school only to avoid having to speak a language altogether. 

Unfortunately, the education system is dated in many ways. While there are plenty of advancements in various literary theories that cater to different types of learners and move away from a teacher-focused classroom setting, language education still clings to old, failed methods. It doesn’t help when people push the belief that you have to “study harder” to grow fluent in a language. The result is a strategy for studying that is similar to how we learn math or science. 

Why Teaching Grammar Fails

Teaching grammar fails because to learn grammar you must understand the language. Take the word, “drink,” for instance. It is important to know what “drink” means. But regarding tense, it can be complicated: drink, drank, and some informal cases, drunk. And even though most people don’t say, “I drunk some water,” it still gets the point across. Now, you could focus on the different forms of the verb and memorize them in each situation, but the chances are that you’ll confuse or forget them when you start adding more and more words to your vocabulary. And this is what happens with language learners. 

Grammar fails because it attempts to take in all the characteristics of each part of language before the learner has them fully mapped out in his or her brain. If you understand that you need to say, “I drink water” in one instance, but don’t fully grasp that, “I drinked water” is incorrect, that is still fine. Over time, you will filter out the errors and adapt your speech. This only comes through exposure, however. 

Jumping in and learning all the intricacies of grammar from the beginning is only beneficial if you are interested in learning grammar. And if you love grammar, then go for it. If you’re the kind of person that enjoys understanding why each part of a word works in a particular situation, then that motivation will stimulate your ability to keep learning. Most people are not like this, however. Instead, most people need to more exposure to comprehensive input to filter out the errors.

Why You Still Need Grammar

This doesn’t mean we need to get rid of grammar altogether. Kites need strings to fly and language needs grammar to function. Words have structure. Sentences have structure. Speech has structure. You need to focus on trying to understand these structures to be successful in your foreign language programs. But you do not need to obsess over them. 

You’ll pick them up by studying common phrases and while listening or conversing with other speakers. And once you’ve reached a conventional understanding of the target language, you’ll be able to understand complex grammatical structures. This is because you’ll have enough prior knowledge and experience to apply to more complex situations. And, like most people, you’ll forget lessons over time and will have to be reminded. This is the complex nature of language. 

When Should You Study Grammar?

If you pick grammar up naturally, then should you pick up a book on how to learn Spanish grammar if you’re studying Spanish? You can, and you should try to understand the grammar behind the language, but only if you’re confident in your abilities and you have time in your schedule. 

Many of us have busy lives to juggle and trying to learn a second language hinges mostly on the ability to converse with it. If that’s the case, then you should be focusing on speaking in a second language. Spending time looking at grammar out of context, while interesting, won’t help you become fluent.

When Does Grammar Matter

Grammar for academia is essential, however. If you’re going to move past surface conversation and communicate about important issues in society, you’ll need to have a more in-depth knowledge of more complex sentence structures. This is where academic grammar comes into play. 

We all know the difference between conversational English and academic English. At some point, you’ve probably heard a teacher tell someone to use “I” instead of “me” or that “Superman does good. You do well.” When your setting changes, the level of language needed to communicate adequately changes as well. 

As you progress deeper into an understanding of the target language, you’ll need to focus more and more on removing mistakes and developing a professional level of fluency. In these rare cases, you will need to study, memorize, and review these structures to communicate effectively.

What’s the Final Verdict? 

The most important rule to live by with studying a foreign language is to use what works for you. Ultimately, you’re the one that’s going to be studying another language. If you’re someone who enjoys the challenge of reading in a foreign language over speaking it, then focus on grammar to gain a better grasp the language. 

However, if your goal is to speak fluently, then know that you’re going to learn grammar along the way. If you’re starting out, focus on exposing yourself to the language. Listen. And when you’re ready, begin speaking. You should be seeking out comprehensible input and immersing yourself in the language to grow, not obsessive over small rules that are rarely used. And the more comfortable you get with the language, the more you’ll pick up on the little quirks that grammar governs. 

If you don’t learn it right away or even after a while, don’t worry, it will come eventually. Your brain is continually working to help you adapt to the new language. The more you learn, the more samples your brain has to compare and the more you’ll be able to differentiate between what it’s correct and incorrect.