My last post was about strategies for learning vocabulary. With this post I’d like to talk about learning grammar. In the vocab post, I shared a lot of ideas from a blog post that solicited various opinions. Interestingly, the same blog has another selection of opinions about learning grammar, which are notably more diverse. Grammar-learning is a controversial subject. In fact, I decided it was necessary to have a whole post just on what we mean by “learning grammar.”
Our goal is clear and accurate speech and accurate understanding
I want you to speak correctly and fluently. I want you to understand completely and fluently.
Some people are paralyzed by the need to speak correctly: they just seize up. If that’s you, then loosen up a bit. Let yourself make a few mistakes—you can learn from them.
Other people speak fluently from the beginning, accuracy be damned. If that’s you, you should be cautious about letting bad habits fossilize. Make the effort to speak correctly as well as fluently
The goal is to understand and produce, not to know about grammar
If you can understand and speak the language correctly, then you’re done. Stop reading this. I have nothing more for you. You don’t need grammar.
If you’re having trouble speaking and listening, you probably need to learn grammar. But you need to internalize the grammar, not study it explicitly. To understand that contrast, here is a sentence about Dari grammar:
“The subjunctive is used as a dependent complement of the independent verbs khâstan ‘to want,’ tavânestan ‘to be able’ and gozashtan ‘to allow, let.’”
It doesn’t really matter in the least whether you understood that. On the other hand, you do need to be able to fill in the blank below.
“I want to go.” ma mexʌjʊm _______.
If you can’t fill in that blank, you need to study grammar. You can get a book about Dari grammar (like the Glassman book), or you can sit down with a teacher and just try to figure it out.
An inductive approach is the best way
The ideal is to learn the grammar inductively, without reading a book about grammar. We hope that this goes on during the Long Course. The goal is that the language “sound right” to you. It should eventually just come out by itself.
But the inductive approach is not the only approach, and we have grammatical resources (like the Glassman book) to give explicit instruction. Always remember that explicit instruction is a means to an end: to help you internalize the grammar. It’s not an end in itself.
Some limited rote repetition is probably necessary
At some point, I’m sure that I practiced verb agreement by rote: [ma mijʌjʊm, tu mijʌji, u mijʌja, mʌ mijʌjem, ʃʊma mijʌjen, unʌ mijʌjand; ma raftʊm, tu rafti, u raft, mʌ raftem….] — and on and on. If you’re learning about the perfect subjunctive for the first time, I recommend that you produce twenty or thirty perfect subjunctives to practice.
But again, this is only needed to beat the forms into your brain. You should be able to leave off the drills fairly quickly and use it in the real world. I do not recommend that you do drills with a language teacher. Find a foreign friend and practice with him/her if you need the correction. Use native speakers to practice fluency.
The grammar example is from Wheeler M. Thackston’s An Introduction to Persian, 3rd ed., pg. 112. It’s the best book on Persian grammar I’ve found, and I’ve learned a great deal from it.
[ma mexʌjʊm bʊrʊm], if you weren’t sure.