Learn Grammar from Language or Language through Grammar?

I have been reading Hungarian polyglot Kató Lomb’s excellent book on language learning entitled “How I Learn Languages“.

Among other things, Lomb mentions this quote by Toussaint and Langenscheidt:
“Man lernt Grammatik aus der Sprache, nicht Sprache aus der Grammatik.”

Translated into English, it reads, “One learns grammar from the language, not the language from the grammar.”

I wholeheartedly agree with this statement, and I like how this one statement points out what is wrong about the language learning approach taken by many language schools. And the approach suggested by Toussaint and Langendscheidt is also that espoused by LingQ, the language learning community I use to learn languages.

The way that I use LingQ, I work through lessons in the library by creating LingQs, reading through, listening multiple times, and gradually building up my comprehension of the text. As Steve Kaufmann, the founder of LingQ suggests, I use a slim grammar reference book to learn grammar, and refer to it when I get stuck. But more often, I just use Google to understand a grammar point or ask questions in the Forum. The absolute truth of the quote lies in the fact that the grammar is already contained within the language, and in my opinion, the best way to learn (or rather, absorb) the grammar is by tackling the language head-on. But in many language schools and language learning approaches, one learns the language through the grammar. I think this approach necessarily involves much rote memorization and application of rules to language text, which I believe to be the more academic approach to learning a language.

I thought this quote was a witty comment to those who strongly adhere to a grammar-based approach. I posted the quote as my Facebook status, and it generated some interesting comments, one of which was “Man muss aber die Grammatik lernen.” (But one should learn grammar).

To that I responded in the following way:

“Meiner meinung nach, es ist hilfreich die Grammatik zu lernen, aber es ist nicht unbedingt erforderlich um eine Sprache zu lernen. Zum Beispiel, schau wie die Kinder lernen an. Sie lernen keine Grammatik, aber sie können noch fließend sprechen, nicht wahr? Ich glaube, dass für Erwachsene, es hilfreich sein könnte, zu die Grammatik lernen, aber es ist nicht unbedingt erforderlich. Wenn man Kanadas Sprache Bildungssystem sieht (z.B. französisch), es ist nicht effektiv weil der Schwerpunkt ist auf der Grammatik. Die Studenten lernen französisch aus der Grammatik, nicht aus der Sprache. Also ich meine, dass es mehr hilfreich würde, wenn man nicht die Sprache aus der Grammatik lernen, sondern die Grammatik aus der Sprache. Die beste Methode ist lernen durch die reale Inhalte, durch hören und lesen was die Muttersprachler wirklich sagen.”

I’m still learning German, so I’m sure I didn’t get everything correct grammatically, but I took advantage of the opportunity to practice my German. Here’s the translation in English:

“In my opinion, it’s helpful to learn grammar, but it’s not absolutely necessary in order to learn a language. For example, look at how children learn. They don’t learn grammar, but they can still speak fluently, don’t they? I believe that for adults, it could be helpful to learn grammar, but it’s not absolutely necessary. If one looks at Canada’s language education system (e.g. French), it’s not effective because the main focus is on grammar. The students learn French from grammar, not from the language. Therefore, I think that it would be more helpful if one learns grammar from the language, and not the language from the grammar. The best method is to learn through real content, through listening and reading what native speakers actually say.”


One thought on “Learn Grammar from Language or Language through Grammar?

  1. But language and grammar are not necessarily mutually exclusive, I believe. You can’t really have one without the other obviously. In your last paragraph, you provide an example comparing how children learn languages. Considering children are much more capable of soaking up languages due to the critical learning period, pure minds that are uncorrupted, angelic attitudes toward the world, whatever, they have advantages that an adult does not have in approaching and learning a new language.

    I believe the following example may be of some interest and may shed some light on what I’m talking about. What is the difference between creole and pidgin? Pidgin languages are extremely crude, makeshift languages with no REAL functioning grammar. It is important to keep in mind that pidgin languages are “created” if you will, by adults of different backgrounds who must communicate with one another. Fascinatingly enough, the children of these pidgin speakers, as one would expect, grow up soaking up the pidgin “language”, but what is important is that what the adults fail to do the children provide. They implement a grammar system to the pidgin language, which will now be called creole.


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