Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The role of grammar: A live debate with Steve Kaufmann

A couple of weeks back, Steve asked in the comments of a post on his blog for someone to take the pro-grammar side in a debate with him. I took Steve up on the offer, and we did our little debate last week.

Steve posted the audio files of our debate last week, but since I happened to have the video as well I thought I'd make this debate the first thing on my nascent YouTube channel. I've tried to get rid of some of the repetition caused by the call getting dropped twice, so this edit's a little different than the audio recordings on Steve's site, but other than that it should be the same as the audio file—except now you can see our cherubic faces.

I agree with Steve when he noted that "I am sure we both feel that we did not get all our licks in", so I'll be revisiting a number of points raised in the debate later.

For now, here's the debate. Part 1 of 3 is below, and the other two are after the jump.


  1. Thank you both for this discussion. I like to review my grammar book because it puts vocabulary in context sentences. And, I can get some grammar along the way.

  2. I'm glad that you guys did this.

    My experience has inclined me to agree with Stuart Jay Raj: Everyone has an X-Factor. The second most important part of mastering any skill is to find what your X-Factor is. People often find it by trying different techniques and taking what works and doesn't until they have their own.

    The most important factor is diligence. No matter how good your technique is for you, it is unlikely that you'll master any skill practicing it only ten minutes at a time, once or twice a week.

  3. It was very interesting for me to see Steve Kaufman have a reasonable discussion, without acting arrogant, interrupting, or talking over top of every point with which he disagreed... However, I suspect that is representative of the fact that this was a manufactured disagreement.

    Anyhow, the one overwhelming theme that really stood out to me here is the fact that Steve appears to be most concerned with his ability to understand input -- particularly, reading -- whereas you appear to have much more interest in actively communicating. I think that makes a pretty good description of the key difference between Steve and Benny, too.

    Therefore, my first impression is that Steve's "method" is perhaps suited to a person who wants to learn a language for the purpose of taking in resources in that language... for instance, reading books, watching movies, enjoying theater, etc. And conversely, your method, (or Benny's, or mine) is more suited toward a person whose primary goal is to communicate with people -- to talk, to share, to converse. So at this level, it seems to be something of a basic introvert/extrovert scenario.

    However, just the act of typing out that observation caused me to make another observation: it seems that we all tailor our "methods" to suit our goals, and in doing so, our language learning methods reflect our personalities. Steve wants to read books, and his method, unsurprisingly, revolves around reading. Benny wants to live it up with the natives, and his method is, again no surprise, to go out and live it up with the natives! My own goals are more diverse: to meet interesting new people, to travel, and to learn about different cultures, and my own method is equally diverse, combining ways of using music, travel resources, social networks, etc. And in my initial estimation of you, your method focuses on the fastest way to gain accurate control of a language, which is no surprise considering that you are a lawyer!

    I wonder how much we could all expand on this idea...

  4. Randy, why do you say that I am not interested in speaking. I speak 11 languages?

    I have not seen evidence from you or Benny of your ability to communicate in other languages.

    You, like Benny, seem to feel that people who disagree with you are arrogant. I find it more useful to discuss the issues.

  5. To be more exact, I have heard an interview in Spanish with Benny, and have heard him read in other languages. But I have no idea of your skill level.

    In any case, my goal in language learning is to speak, and I always achieve my goal.

  6. @Ryan: Agreed that keeping at it is key. Even if you are using a terrible method, you should be able to make some progress as long as you keep at it. Once you're motivated enough to keep at it, the trick then is to simply go at it efficiently.

    @Randy: I'm not sure how "manufactured" the disagreement was, as I genuinely don't agree with Steve on grammar, although we certainly have a lot of overlap elsewhere.

    I'd agree that Steve's and my varying goals are strongly influencing our methods. I think you're also right that the methods of Benny, you, and me overlap a lot more than any of ours do with Steve's. Steve does eventually get around to communicating with people, but that's only when he feels "ready". One of the reasons I don't like that advice is because I think many people will keep putting off the day when they declare themselves "ready", although clear Steve himself eventually manages to get there.

    I wouldn't disagree that my method focuses on the fastest way to gain accurate control of a language, but isn't that, after all, everyone's goal? Given the choice, is there anyone who wants to do it slowly or inaccurately?

  7. @Steve I'll be in Vancouver for a day next week if you want test my skill level in person. Though frankly, I think you're the type of guy who prefers the safety of Skype, since (to use your words) in the real world there would be consequences.

    @Vincent I never said Steve doesn't want to communicate. But if you listen to his comments in this conversation, his personal interest in reading and "enjoying the language" is well-stated, whereas his desire to communicate is almost completely un-stated. So he's not saying he doesn't want to talk, but he's certainly making it know that it's not his top priority. That's all.

    I had hoped this might spark some kind of friendly discussion amongst more than just two people, but apparently young Steven and I are just not ready to be friendly with each other. It's a shame, and I apologize for that happening in the comments of your site.

  8. Vincent, everyone likes to feel that their own way gets us there faster. I feel that a heavy focus on input gets us there faster. The amount of output we do depends on circumstances and opportunity. Obviously more output if you live where the language is spoken. But even when I learned where the language was spoken, as in the case of Japanese, I spent most of my time on input.

    Tell me how quickly you have achieved fluency using your approach. I doubt if you are faster. The fastest way, in my view, is to get the language in you, lots of it, and lots of words.

  9. Maybe he's just sore because Chicago just ended Vancouver's playoff chances last night, for the second year in a row. :)

  10. Vincent and Steve, good job. Very entertaining. A few quick points:

    1) I remember someone (it could be Benny) who said that when you read the grammar rules, they will start to make sense only after enough exposure to the language.

    2) I think in general, native speakers have no clue of the grammar rules of their own languages. Most often when asked, they are unable to explain them.

    3) I think intensively learning grammar is fine provided that you don't downplay the importance of exposure to the language.

  11. Watching the drama unfold from the outside is so much more fun! I agree with Randy & Vincent of course :)

  12. If grammar rules produce fluency, why aren't high schoolers all over the US fluent in foreign languages?

    Grammar rules are great, if you have a foundation in the meaning of the language you're hearing/reading first. Then the brain has the input it needs to sort things out. With sufficient 100% comprehensible input, the brain will acquire the language and its grammar very nicely without any memorization or application of "rules".

    However - since we are adults and need to/want to speed things up -- using rules can act as an accelerant on top of a basis in comprehension to allow more output and the production of sentences you have never heard before -- which is a hallmark of having acquired the language rather than just repeating memorized utterances.

    I teach Chinese based on Comprehensible Input and the students can speak and understand much more effectively than those taught with traditional memorization or textbook based methods. They don't need to stop and apply a rule (and sometimes get it wrong) to speak. CI-based instruction and CI-based self-learning (yes, it is possible) is the way to go -- supplemented with grammar study if you are so inclined, but after you have some basis to recognize grammar in language you know, not try to construct language from grammar alone.

  13. @Randy: I can certainly agree with that; his top priority is definitely understanding input. Although I'm pretty sure his argument will be that by focusing on input, he is able to communicate more quickly. I'm not sold on that argument.

    And no apologies necessary! If there are some rough-and-tumble discussions on here, I can't say that that's necessarily a bad thing.

    @Steve: Sure, everyone "likes to feel" that their own way is better. But I don't "feel" that my way is better, I think it is. That is to say, when I lay our your and my method side by said, I can't see how yours is or is more likely to be faster than mine.

    I think we should have a separate debate on output and input. I was itching to get into it during this debate, but I restrained myself because I thought that would take us too far afield from the grammar.

    "Tell me how quickly you have achieved fluency using your approach." To just throw out an example, Portuguese took three months, but there's so much behind this question that a short and sweet answer doesn't seem possible. First, how are we defining fluency? Was I "fluent" in Japanese when I knew enough to get a Japanese girlfriend (after about 3 months) or when I was able to speak about history and politics (after about 10 months)? Second, how do we consider other variables? For instance, having a long background in Spanish, for example, made it very easy for me to learn Portuguese in just three months. Third, what's really important here is the number of hours spent, not months or years, and while I could certainly attempt to make estimates at this point, it'll be nothing more than guesstimates. And I could go on…

    Short of a study with two statistically significant populations, I think the best we can do is to approach them conceptually, or for you and me to both start a language and then compare where we are at different intervals, e.g., after every 100 hours of study. That would be useful, but it still would suffer from not controlling for other variables, e.g., the possibility that one of us is smarter than the other, that age is having some effect, that you knowing a few more languages creates some kind of an advantage, etc.

  14. @Edwin: I think I can safely speak on behalf of both Steve and myself that we're glad you enjoyed it.

    Re your other comments:

    1. I think that's actually Steve's position, so maybe that's some common ground for him and Benny. I'd agree that reading alone is not enough, which is why I recommend taking additional steps to get grammar in your head at the outset.

    2. I'd agree that native speakers often don't have much of a clue about grammar rules, but they can typically puzzle them out by thinking of a few example sentences.

    3. Agreed. Focusing on grammar should ultimately be a very small proportion of the time spent on language learning, which is why I like to get it out of the way quickly.

    @Benny: I don't think Steve and I generate quite the kind of fireworks that you and he did.

    @Terry: Grammar rules are certainly no where near sufficient to produce fluency, and the inordinate focus on grammar rules is a big problem for most language-learning programs.

    I don't support trying to memorize the grammar rules up front. I support getting an understanding of them and then move to seeing them in action through exposure. My exact method is here. The immediate goal is not to jump right into construct language from grammar alone, but rather to know what you're seeing when you see it, i.e., to make your exposure to the grammar rules a meaningful exposure as opposed to being merely "white noise" amidst vocabulary that you understand.

    That grammar rules can has an accelerant is exactly why I spend some time focusing on them up front.

  15. I like the idea of the outline, and not going with conventional grammar explanations. I am not sure I could do that right up front though, I will try one soon in the language I have recently started. I would want to be able to come up with my own sentances (from known vocab.) to add to the outline though.

  16. I don't only outline when I start a language, although that will be a big chunk of how I spend my time for the first several weeks. Another thing I typically do up front is get the 1,000 most common words or the like and start using a spaced-repetition system to learn them. If you do those two things, you'll have some common (and thus useful) vocab to make example sentences with.

    And, in a pinch, you could always just look up some words and then add them to your SRS. If you stick to words you definitely want to know how to say, this could be another good way to get useful vocab quickly.

    What's the next language you're tackling, by the way?

  17. By the way, I presume you've already seen this post, which puts the outline in the bigger picture of my approach to grammar.

  18. I have dabbled with a few languages but fixed on Thai, it is not close to Mandarin but shares similarities that make what I learned whilst learning Mandarin valid for experimentation. Have done eight weeks so far (low intensity by neccessity) but posted about 20 blog posts on a private blog, will make public in a week or two when I have 30 or so posts.

  19. My preferred spaced-repetition system at the moment remains Anki.

  20. In my view English communicative integrated skills courses that
    practise listening, speaking, reading and writing alongside
    pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary are the most effective and the
    most comprehensive courses. Conventional communicative English teaching
    and learning supported with adequate regular long-term practice in
    listening comprehension and speaking in English yield effective results.
    Lack of such practice in English by learners produces speculations that
    conventional English learning and teaching methods don’t work. Knowledge of grammar rules reduces making mistakes by learners. Without
    adequate knowledge of English grammar rules learners often cannot create
    their own grammatically correct sentences and often cannot understand
    what they read or hear in English exactly. In my view learning English grammar in the following sequence ensures firm solid thorough knowledge of English grammar:

    1. Read a short clear easily understandable explanation of a grammar rule.
    2. Study several practical usage examples (sentences) illustrating that
    particular grammar rule. Check yourself whether you have mastered the
    3. Do several exercises for that rule with communicative content (with
    sentences that most likely can be used in real life situations).

    Grammar exercises that contain dialogues, interrogative and statement
    (or narrative) sentences on everyday topics, thematic texts and
    narrative stories are especially effective for mastering grammatical
    structures. Grammar practice should also include exercises in listening comprehension and speaking, not just in reading and writing. Grammar exercises must help learners not only form correct sentences,
    but also use them correctly in context in real life situations.
    Contrastive and contextualised exercises give practice in form, meaning
    and use.
    It is very important to learners for practising English grammar on their
    own that there are answers provided to exercises in their
    grammar practice book for self-check. A learner of English can’t rely on real life communication or on reading texts alone to
    be proficient in using grammatically correct English. Learning English
    grammar from books, audio and video aids is equally indispensable to
    substantially accelerate mastering of English grammar. Correct oral communication in English is based on knowledge of English
    phonetics, grammar, vocabulary, and on practice and experience in
    communicating with native English speakers in real life. I would argue
    that first a learner must master at least major English grammar from
    books with exercises before being able to communicate grammatically
    correctly in real life with native speakers of English. I believe what especially matters in effective teaching and learning of
    English grammar is how clearly and easily understandable all grammar
    rules are explained and whether adequate supportive exercises with real
    life content are practised to master that material. It would take
    foreign learners much less time to learn grammar rules that are
    explained to learners than to figure out grammar rules on their own
    intuitively from texts because grammar rules may have exceptions and
    other peculiarities.
    Grammar books with explanations and exercises have been published by
    knowledgeable language specialists to make learning grammar easier so
    that learners don’t have to discover grammar rules anew the hard
    long way.