How important is grammar instruction and testing if we want to become fluent? Traditional y it has been at the forefront. I prefer to see grammar instruction very much in the background.

Intransitive verbs etc.

I spoke with an English teacher. I asked him why, in English, we say “listen to” someone, but “hear” someone. He answered proudly that “listen” was an intransitive verb, but “hear” was transitive. But then I asked myself if this was real y a meaningful explanation or just an abstract restatement of the original question. In French, the word for listen, “ecouter,” is not intransitive, why in English?

I asked myself if it is not just as easy to remember that “listen” takes “to” while “hear” does not, that “speak” takes “to” and “tel ” does not. If I listen to English or read English often, I wil come across these words often. If I do not ask why, but just observe and absorb the language, I wil gradual y get used to how the words are used. Then it wil not matter to me if I know if these verbs are intransitive or transitive. I wil not need to learn this term. I wil know how to use the words.

Do we need to study grammar?

Many language learners have been conditioned to think that they need to study grammar in order to learn a language. This is wrong, wrong, wrong! When I go to learn a new language I avoid explanations of grammar and avoid al questions or exercises based on grammar. Instead I look to the language to teach me how it works.

I listen and read and observe the new language. I take it in small doses. At first it is only 30 seconds or one minute at a time. In time the doses can be longer. I repeatedly listen to these small doses and occasional y read them. Of course I need help in having the meaning explained. This help can come from a book, or a teacher. The teacher can be with me, face to face, or online. Mostly, however, it is just me and the new language.

The grammar learner is conditioned to think of rules and ask why? “Why is it said this way?

I thought the rule was something else.” Half the time the learner has the rule wrong. Besides, if every time the learner wants say something he/she has to remember a rule, he/she will never speak fluently.

I speak nine languages quite well and do not remember ever asking “why do they say it this way? Why is this wrong?? I know that when I studied Chinese, learners around me who asked “why,” did not learn the language well .

Structures in the new language that seemed strange and might occasion the “why?” question, usual y started to feel normal with enough exposure. It was pointless to try to understand “why” before I was ready, and once I was ready I did not need to ask “why” anymore.

Confusing “he” and “she”

I often get resistance to the idea that language learning should not emphasize grammar instruction. This idea does not go down wel with many teachers and learners. “You have to learn grammar to stop making mistakes” is the refrain. However, just understanding the “why” of a grammar rule wil not ensure accurate language. Chinese speakers regularly say “he” when they mean “she” and vice versa. They understand the principle. They just cannot say the correct word when speaking. This is because spoken Chinese does not make this distinction.

You would think that this rule would be easy to learn, but it is not. It is not the understanding of the principle, but the development of the correct language instinct, that wil enable the speaker to be accurate and fluent. Only enough exposure and the gradual training of the brain wil make that possible. The emphasis needs to be on the word gradual.

Buy the smallest grammar book you can

Learners can have a grammar book for reference, although the smaller the better. I have looked up verb conjugations and noun declensions in languages like Spanish and German. It did not help me to speak. It did not help me to use the right declension or conjugation. I needed to learn phrases from real contexts, to notice phrases when reading and listening, and to repeat these phrases when speaking, in order to gradual y improve. And the improvement was uneven, with frequent lapses. But I was happy communicating, or reading, or listening, and happy in the knowledge that I was getting better just by listening, reading and using the language. My lapses and inaccuracies did not bother me.

Grammar is presented as a shortcut to learning the language. To me it is a distraction.

When I learned Chinese or Japanese or Korean there were al kinds of grammatical explanations that I just ignored. These explanations seemed contrived to resemble grammar explanations for European languages but did not help. I had to see the actual phrase patterns. Even in learning German, I could read the lists of declensions and conjugations many times, but it never sunk in.

If I read a lot and listened a lot, paying special attention to the words and how they come together in phrases; and if I got used to certain phrases, then I would slowly start to use them correctly more often.

Grammar learning may be an obstacle

There is a body of research that suggests that learning grammar is an impediment to fluency since it creates filters. The learner has to refer to a grammar filter before expressing himself or herself. This is difficult to do in a conversation. What is needed is to develop the right natural reflexes. Thus it takes time and a lot of exposure for Chinese people to stop say ing “he” for “she” even though they understand the “why”.

The study of grammar and the frequent (and unavoidable) mistakes on tests can create negative feelings towards the language, which are referred to as “affective filters”. This makes the learner nervous, uptight, and reluctant to leave the safety of the native language. But to learn wel you need to let yourself go, imitate and have fun. I have found a more holistic approach to be more successful in the long run. I do not believe that people who learn to be genuinely fluent in a second language do so in the classroom.

“You can only learn what you already know”

There is a Sufi proverb that says “You can only learn what you already know.” I agree. Once you are familiar with a subject you can start to learn about it. Can you imagine teaching someone how to swim based on theory, if that person has never been in the water?

Russian is the most grammar-heavy language I have come across. The grammar explanations in al of the books and tapes I have bought just make my head spin. I took a simple story I wrote for our English learners at The Linguist. I had a friend translate it into Russian and asked some Russians to record it. I listened to it and read it more than 30 times in order to get some familiarity with Russian.

Once I know Russian, I will look at the grammar to see a summary of what I have already come to know.

An English teaching certificate holder

I am more and more convinced that much of language instruction, TESL certificates and the rest of the industry are one big scam. The only thing I do not know is whether it is intentional or unintentional. I suspect it is unintentional.

I met a gentleman today who is original y from China. He has lived in Canada for three years. He studied English in China. In my opinion his English level is upper intermediate. He recently spent $1,100 to take a one week course in TESL and got a certificate for teaching ESL.

He felt that he did not learn anything useful. I suspect he is correct.

English grammar and Russian grammar

Alexandre claims that English is grammar easy. Perhaps so. But it is my exposure to Russian that has increased my sense that grammar instruction is at best a luxury to be enjoyed (for those who enjoy it) after the language has been massively absorbed. Korean is also a complex language and I had a similar reaction. Give me the language and spare me the complicated explanations at least until after I have a sense for the language. When I see sentences tel ing me about the “infinitive of the imperfect aspect and the perfective infinitive or infinitive of the imperfective aspect” I just flip the page.


There are concepts of grammar that are explainable and easy to reproduce, like the use of three different words for “year” in Russian, depending on whether the number is one, two to four, or five and more.

There are concepts that are easy to explain, like the use of ?he? and ?she? in spoken English. Yet producing this accurately remains difficult for Chinese speakers, because the distinction does not exist in spoken Chinese.

There are the explanations that are difficult to understand if the phenomenon does not exist in one’s own language, like articles in English, or verb aspects in Russian verbs, or “ser” and “estar” in Spanish etc.

There are the explanations where the exceptions exceed the rules.

Then there are the rules which are so complex, like the use of cases in Russian, where the accusative depends on whether the noun is animate or inanimate etc. and where the same ending can be used for different cases, numbers and genders…that the whole package is just too complex.

So every few months I used to leaf through a Russian grammar book, occasionally reminding myself of something. I have stopped doing that now. I now know roughly what the rules are supposed to be, in most cases, or at least I know what the overall game is, but I cannot remember them or refer to them when speaking,

On the other hand I am getting better at “feeling” what the case, or aspect, should be, and even expecting it when I listen.


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