Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Getting to Grammar: Comparing my method with Steve Kaufmann's method

Steve and I have been having a bit of an interesting back-and-forth on how to approach grammar. It started with my post entitled If you want accurate grammar quickly, Steve Kaufmann's method is not for you, and then moved over to the comments section of a tangentially related post on his blog.

The back-and-forth actually led me to think that we're a bit closer in our approaches than my earlier post suggested, so I thought I'd pull together all of the relevant comments into one place and then offer some further comparisons of our methods, making use of a few rough graphs. The fun begins, after the jump.

There's quite a chunk of text that Steve and I generated in the comments, so if you want to skip all that and get right to the (much briefer) comparison of our methods, click here. Otherwise, let's dive into the discussion.

First, you might want to take a look at the post that started it all.

Steve's reply came over on his blog:
I read your post and I am sorry but it makes no sense to me. I find that I cannot get the grammar rules into my head without first getting the exposure. … Input and vocabulary over grammar rules, anytime, at least in my experience.
Feeling like I hadn't quite explained myself well enough, I replied:
First I should probably be clearer about what it means to "get it in your head". I don't mean that you need to have it mastered, or that you need to have it memorized. I completely agree that that will most easily happen after lots of exposure. But anyone who picks up a grammar and reads that "estar" becomes "estoy" when "yo" is the subject already has it in their head to some degree, and that's the minimum you'd need to do to get it in your head. As I'm sure you're not saying that you can't get that in your head, I presume we're talking about different things.

The language in which I'm closest to the degree of accuracy that I seek is Japanese. … I would presume that your argument here would be that the input I'm getting is leading to my improved grammar, and I won't disagree that that's contributing, but whenever I come across something that doesn't fit into my understanding of how Japanese grammar works (extremely polite forms that I'm not accustomed to using come to mind), I dig until I understand how the rule works. That makes it much easier to understand it a second time. If I didn't get it the first time and didn't look it up, the second exposure would just be another puzzle.

And I'm definitely not saying that grammar is the only thing you focus on. When I've employed my approach, it typically takes me two or three weeks before I'm hardly spending any time on grammar at all. So you say "input and vocabulary over grammar rules", and I say "spend a few weeks getting the grammar into your head, then exposure and vocabulary over grammar rules".

… I think another point where you and I differ is that I think you should systematically try to fix your grammar, whereas my understanding of your approach is to just get it as it comes to you via input, filling in the gaps when you feel like it. (Correct me if that's wrong.)
Steve replied:
I constantly refer to grammar books, a little at the beginning and thereafter quite often reading the same rule or looking at the same table. I do not try to nail anything down. Eventually it all sticks. I have always said so. It is just that my point of emphasis is input.

I am actually quite accurate in my use of language, and constantly try to get more accurate. Expanding vocabulary is one of the best ways of achieving greater accuracy.
To which I replied:
I'm beginning to wonder if our positions on grammar are closer than I originally thought. Let me ask you a few questions:

1. When you start a language, how and to what extent do you review the grammar?
2. When you encounter grammar you don't understand, how and to what extent do you systematically try to figure it out? Every time? Sometimes?
3. What do you do when whatever you do in 2 is taking a very long time to stick in your head? (German cases are an instance of this for me; I needed (and, thanks to not using German frequently, now again need) to take steps beyond just getting exposed to them and reviewing my grammars to get them down.)
And, finally, Steve replied to my questions:
1) I have never started a language with LingQ. I have usually bought a little starter book Teach Yourself, or Colloquial and followed it, and then moved on to other content. I tend to skim the explanations and devour the little dialogues. I then refer back to the book from time to time. I do not try to understand or remember the explanations. In future, if the language is Dutch, or Czech or a language related to one I already know, I think I will just dive in, and only refer to grammar explanations later. If it is Turkish, I may still start with the starter book and CD and do LingQ in parallel.

2) Rarely look things up. It is usually when I am writing or speaking that I will look up a declension table of something. On the other hand, I will from time to time review a short grammar book, to see if things make more sense. I do not retain much, but I think it helps to make me more attentive.

3) When I was studying German on my own, I spent a fair amount of time trying to get the declension tables into my head. I was unsuccessful and now rely on having heard it so often and hope for the best. The same with Russian. I do save phrases in LingQ which feature the cases that cause trouble. I have tagged words and phrases for their case endings and reviewed them as a batch. I try to be attentive to these. I occasionally review the tables but find that the benefits are very short term. Mostly I try to notice them while listening and reading and hope for the best when I speak.
After Steve's last post, I decided to polish off a post explaining in some more detail my own grammar method, and there you'll find more details on the system I'm comparing to Steve's.

First, here's how time is spent on grammar under my method, as explained here:

And this is my understanding of how it's spent under Steve's method:

So Steve spends a little time at the beginning with some introductory materials. He then refers back to grammar as necessary, with exposure to the language (in particular, reading and listening) being his main source of exposure to grammar rules. He also engages in a similar refinement effort. However, because that is his main source of solidifying the rules outside of exposure, the amount of grammar time spent on that declines more slowly that it does under my method. Under both methods, it will eventually go down to next to nothing, but it will take longer under Steve's method to get to that point.

Accordingly, here's a rough comparison of the grammar understanding generated by the two methods (assuming that the average native speaker's knowledge of grammar is 100%):

Under both methods, an initial review of materials will quickly establish some basic understanding, but from there the level of understanding diverges.

Under my method, you get a large initial jump by outlining your grammar. This will cause a lot of it to stick. Not all of it, of course, but because you are actively processing the information, it is a much stronger form of exposure than the passive grammar reviews that Steve primarily relies on.

From there, both methods rely on a refinement process. Steve frequently consults grammars while I use my own refinement process only as necessary. Both processes result in a gradual approaching of a native speaker's grammar level, but because of the boost the outlining gave under my method, my method will get you there more quickly. Steve's method will of course get you there too, but it will just take more time.

In the post that started this whole discussion, I wrote that Steve's method won't lead you to the same level of accuracy in your grammar. However, given enough time and enough checking with grammar books, as Steve does, I think Steve's method can take you to at least an equal level of accuracy. The issue, again, is that I think this will take more time.

Thus, I think Steve's method will work if you've got both the time and the commitment to continuously get regular exposure to a language over a very long period of time. Many language learners can't or don't do that, so I would be wary about recommending Steve's approach to grammar. My approach on the other hand, will lead to a greater understanding more quickly, and can be put to good use when time is limited. After this comparison, I’m left with one question that I’d love to have answered: how much more time would Steve’s method take to reach accuracy parity with my method? Although I think the time difference is significant, I don’t have a good basis on which to make any guesstimates.

As a final note, and one that I’ve mentioned before when comparing my approach to Steve’s, I think our varying approaches very much reflect our varying goals in language learning. Steve main focus is to enjoy content in the language, while my aim is more centered on being able to use my languages at work, which means I need to try to get more accurate more quickly for output purposes than a nearly all-input method would allow.


  1. I'm with you on this. You don't have to memorize all the grammar up front or master it... but spending the time actually reading and learning about the grammar will at minimum give you an idea of what to look for in exposure.

  2. Yeah, and not trying to memorizing it is key. You get it in your head and keep turning back to it, but I can't say I'd recommend doing drills or whatever to jam it in your head (although I will throw particularly troubling things into my SRS system eventually).