The Modern Method to Learning Grammar in a Foreign Language
Imagine how much more efficient you could be at learning your target language(s) if you knew how to approach learning the modern way.
Traditionally, language learning was centered around memorizing grammar, but modern language learners have different views and take different approaches.
So how do we break from tradition and approach grammar learning from a modern perspective? Read on and learn!
- The Three Principles of Grammar in Modern Language Learning
- How Modern Language Learners Dodge 3 Obstacles to Learning Grammar
- 3 Ways Modern Learners Approach Grammar
The Three Principles of Grammar in Modern Language Learning
We started our break from traditional learning methods by understanding three general concepts about grammar that shape our approach to learning it the modern way. So how can you learn a new language and its unique grammar? Let’s explore each of those three ideas together.
1. Grammar is a side dish, not the main course
Do you remember art class? Glue was important, but it wasn’t the emphasis. Nobody looked at your piece of art and complemented you on how well you used the glue. Glue isn’t spectacular. It’s important because it holds things together. But it’s only supplemental. It’s not the principal component.
Modern language learners understand that grammar is the glue of language, and modern technology has adapted to this understanding. One example is the Grammarly app, a convenient grammar checker for your browser that checks your English writing for errors whenever you type anything online. Technology like this shows that we know grammar still matters for clarity, but we also don’t want to have to think about it all the time.
Phrases, vocabulary and conversation are the key ingredients in language. Grammar is important. But its function is to hold all the other parts together.
No artist would make a piece of art by simply smearing glue all over a canvas. Nor do we modern language learners overwhelm ourselves with the grammar that holds all the pieces of our language learning together. We don’t ignore or overlook it, but we don’t emphasize it above other language learning aspects either. We simply combine all components of language (and use grammar to glue them together) to create a beautiful piece of linguistic art.
Modern language learners relax. We emphasize conversation and see grammar as simply a tool to help us accomplish that goal.
2. You don’t have to know it all
After you master one element of grammar, another one will pop up. If you learn all the ones that pop up, then the first one you learned will have changed because languages constantly evolve.
Modern language learners avoid discouragement by taking it easy and viewing grammar as a journey, not a destination. We learn as we go, make mistakes along the way and try to take a relaxed approach to whatever language we’re learning.
This approach makes learning language fun and keeps the stress at bay. The modern way is to do it without the pressure and enjoy the ride.
3. Conversational grammar is still grammar
There’s a difference between conversational grammar and academic grammar. Just because something is not grammatically correct in writing, doesn’t mean it’s “wrong” to say it a certain way in conversation. In fact, speaking a language in perfect academic grammatical patterns will give away your “foreigner status” quicker than an accent.
The key to learning grammar is to give yourself a break and know that conversational grammar is still an acceptable form of grammar to learn. It’s okay to say things the way natives say them even if writing that way wouldn’t be acceptable.
Traditionally, language learners forced grammar lessons on themselves, then tried to speak the way the academic grammar demanded. This makes conversation sound forced and unnatural.
Modern language learners relax. We converse with comfort and accept conversational grammar as an acceptable form of grammar to use in daily practice.
Now that we’ve looked at the three ideas that shape modern language learners’ approach to learning grammar, we also need to consider the three things modern linguists avoid when learning grammar.
Understanding these obstacles and getting beyond them is also essential to transition from the traditional approach to learning grammar to a more modern method. Let’s look at each one of these thoughts together.
How Modern Language Learners Dodge 3 Obstacles to Learning Grammar
1. We avoid getting overwhelmed with textbooks
Textbooks are excellent resources. They provide a wealth of information on many different aspects of a language. And with so much information in front of one’s face, it’s easy to get overwhelmed and feel like learning the language is next to impossible.
Modern language learners breathe. We use textbooks and other valuable resources. But we never let them overwhelm us.
2. We avoid focusing too much on grammar
It’s important to learn grammar but not study it too much. Vocabulary, conversation and comprehension are essential along with grammar. A good metric is to use about 25% of your study time to learn grammar. The other 75% should emphasize fun audio listening and engaging conversations with people who speak the language.
Language in its natural form is never learned from grammar charts and vocabulary lists. Not that those are bad. But consider that language is naturally learned in context. It’s developed in relaxed, conversational settings.
Children make plenty of grammar mistakes but continue to learn the language by emphasizing natural, real-life conversation. They relax and learn it naturally without getting too focused on mastering grammar.
Modern language learners take the same approach.
3. We avoid get-fluent-quick schemes
Life is a series of give-and-take. You get out what you put in. The reason get-rich-quick schemes don’t work is because they promise something for nothing. Language learning is just the same.
When we say “modern,” we don’t mean quick or effortless. We simply mean different than before. Language learning requires effort, and it takes time.
Anything promising to have you master grammar in 10 days or less can leave you discouraged. You didn’t even learn to tie your shoes in 10 days or less—that took your entire kindergarten year to figure out!
Modern language learners avoid the three-week-guarantee propaganda and focus on conversational skills in a relaxed, but consistent manner. We push day-in and day-out towards the goal and eventually achieve the results we’re after.
So, how do we learn grammar the modern way? We can’t ignore grammar altogether and pretend it isn’t at all important. So, what can we do to learn it in ways that differ from traditional approaches?
There are in fact three things modern language learners do when learning grammar. Let’s look at each one together.
3 Ways Modern Learners Approach Grammar
1. We read what we enjoy, not what we’re “supposed” to read
Reading exposes us to grammar in its natural context. And yes, reading in a foreign language is difficult. But it’s easier when you read what you love. The key is to read what you would normally read in English.
For example, if you like cooking, you can read food magazines in your target language. A relaxed approach is best. So, open the umbrella, stretch out on the lawn chair, get the lemonade and read what you love with the breeze blowing around you.
2. We study in short, frequent intervals, not long and random spurts
Six 10-minute sessions of grammar practice is better than one hour straight through. We learn best in short segments. And language is learned by frequent repetition.
Good language learners study in small, frequent intervals for optimal results. Many language learning platforms allow you to set goals for how long you learn per day or how much XP you earn, to help you stay on track.
Memrise and FluentU, for instance, both do this. They both also chunk learning into these small portions for you. Memrise uses short lessons that teach specific grammar points or vocabulary words, while FluentU centers around brief videos from native language speakers and subsequent quizzes.
Whip out your phone (or notebook, or whatever your learning tool of choice is) and spend at least five minutes per day on your studies to see results quickly.
3. We use the grammar we learn in real conversations
The best way to learn something is to do it. We learn better by using what we learn than by letting our new information collect dust in our brain cells.
A good approach to learning (and remembering grammar) is to use the one grammar concept you last learned in a conversation five times within the next day. Then learn the next concept. Then use it five times in conversation. Keep repeating this process and you’ll program grammatical patterns into your use of the language.
This is better than memorizing five concepts, using one, then forgetting four. Instead of learning five then using one, try to learn one then use it five times. It may be only one. But one concept remembered is better than ten concepts forgotten.
The key is to relax. Modern language learning takes the pressure off, focuses on conversation and makes learning languages fun. Modern linguists understand that grammar is important, but it isn’t everything. We don’t have to know it all. And conversational grammar is still grammar. We don’t get overwhelmed with good resources, we don’t focus too much on grammar, and we avoid the get-fluent-in-a-week claims that discourage some learners. As modern language learners, we read what we enjoy, study in short intervals and use what we learn in real conversation.
And besides, learning modern grammar in real-life conversation will keep you from sounding like a professor from the 17th century who forgot that her language has changed over the past 500 years.