Monday, January 19, 2009

The role of grammar in language study

Recently I had posed an open question to people out there to see how much they remember from their intro language courses. I then stumbled upon two relatively recent starred items in my google reader that I had not read yet:

The role of grammar in language study
and
More on grammar.

I have to say that I agree with Steve on both his posts, and this comes from personal experience. As an undergrad I spent a lot of time in language courses despite being a computer scientist. The reason I wanted to take language courses was communicative. I wanted to be able to communicate with natives in a spoken and written format. The curiosity about linguistics was a secondary factor.

My professors were great, but I find that the format was rather formulaic and of a different era in language teaching. From what I gathered, my professors were literature people, not strictly foreign language pedagogy people, In Italian this wasn't a problem as I had already had French and I could translate my language acquisition skills to that language easily.

This was however an issue with Russian and German where we had to memorize tables of declensions for exams and such - not very useful.

Before I wrote my previous post, I had been throwing ideas around with my wife about language learning (she is a language geek too). The consensus was that (in addition to requiring people to minor in a language as an undergrad) it would be more useful to focus intro classes (101, 102) on communication skills, vocabulary building and some grammar - but not too much, focus the intermediate classes on speaking and writing, and introduce more grammar that is relevant, and finally spend the advanced classes refining grammar points while still practicing reading, writing and speaking.

Thus in the end, by the end of intermediate classes you are ready to be unleashed in a different country and you can function.

Don't get me wrong, grammar is important. You should know grammar to be able to write and speak without sounding off, however it shouldn't be the main focus. Memorizing declensions does no good when you can't apply them!
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