Saturday, May 15, 2010

Trying to learn grammar primarily through exposure is inefficient

Imagine that someone gives you a cake and tells you to figure out how to make the same cake. A trained chef might be able to do that just by looking at the end product, but most people wouldn't stand a chance. Let's say they then give you all the ingredients you need to make the cake and then ask you to do the same thing. Making this cake would be cake (painful pun intended) for a trained chef, but the average person still wouldn't be likely to make anything close to the original cake. Now let's say they give you instructions for making the cake as well. The chef could probably pull off the exact same cake and the average person could probably get pretty close as well.

Now replace the cake with a language, the trained chef with a polyglot, ingredients with vocabulary, and instructions with grammar rules, and it holds up just the same; you need the grammar rules to bring it all together, and getting them quickly will help you bring it all together quickly.

I noted in an earlier post that the process of improving your language ability is fundamentally the same for each component of the language. The first two steps consist of identifying something you don't know and then figuring it out.

In my debate on how to approach grammar with Steve Kaufmann, I argued that his method for learning grammar is slower than mine. His approach to figuring out the things he doesn't know is one of the main reasons I think his method is slower.

Let's illustrate this with some imagery.

Let's say a little circle represents an exposure to a grammar rule when using the language, and let's color code them as follows:

You don't understand it.You don't understand it.
You understand it but haven't committed it to memory.You understand it but haven't committed it to memory.
You understand it and have committed it to memory.You understand it and have committed it to memory.

Let's say the first circle is your very first exposure to the grammar while reading or listening, and let's say it takes five meaningful exposures to commit the rule to memory. If you tackle the grammar up front, you won't have any red circles in your timeline; you'll jump right into getting the five meaningful exposures you need to commit it to memory (i.e., the yellow circles).

Steve says that he'll sometimes read the grammar at the outset, but that it doesn't stick when he does that (which makes sense, since passive exposure has a weaker effect than active exposure in terms of imprinting a memory on your brain). He also says that he doesn't really look up grammar points he doesn't get, but rather simply tries to puzzle them out from the exposure he gets. Let's say that, using this method, you need five exposures before you successfully puzzle something out (i.e., the red circles). It is only once you've gotten through this puzzling-out stage that you'll move onto the meaningful exposures you need to commit the grammar rule to memory.

I certainly do spend more time up front on grammar than Steve does, but I can't imagine that the time I spend per rule at the outset is more than the time Steve spends puzzling out the rules during exposure. How could it possibly take longer, on average, to understand something when it's written out right in front of you than to understand something when you have to figure it out from context?

Finally, like the chef in terms of the cake, Steve is a very advanced language learner. There probably aren't very many aspects of grammar that he hasn't seen before, so if it takes Steve five exposures to puzzle out a grammar rule, it might take you ten or twenty. I think Steve himself could learn grammar more quickly by focusing on it up front, but the benefit of focusing on grammar up front is even stronger for those of us who don't know eleven languages just yet.


  1. Your graphics always help to convey your point! What software do you use to create them?
    I don't particularly like studying grammar (i.e. it's not "fun"), but it's a necessary part of my process so I certainly don't ignore it.
    However, I don't study it much in the early stages - exposure gives me context for how the grammar is actually used - when I come back to studying grammar after a few weeks of exposure and trying to speak then it's actually fun and interesting to study. This also means that when I am being held back too much by a very particular point in grammar then it will get focus in the early stages.
    I wouldn't learn all grammar from the beginning though - a lot of it is just a list of rules that have no emotional affect on me, and certain grammar (adjective endings etc.) do not influence communication and are just for speaking "well" that is important in later stages. My own "wasted time" is for the purposes of letting me have a lightbulb moment of "so THAT's why they say it that way!" when I study the grammar later. I'm not sure if you'd put me with Steve on that or if it's basically what you do too (since you say you study the grammar when you see it as important - I imagine you don't study all grammar from the start since that would take time away from all the lovely 2 way communication fun!) :D
    In my initial studies of a language I will devote time to grammar quickly and flick through a grammar book to get the gist of it, but I'll only be truly focused once I am in the flow of speaking the language (even though that speaking would be riddled with many many mistakes for obvious reasons, I'd still be communicating).
    So I start with one yellow circle, then I'm orange for a bit and then yellow again and then green - hope that makes sense :D

  2. I actually *enjoy* studying grammar, so I tend to do that step first too.

    But consider the learner who hates grammar study. Maybe for them, it's better to puzzle it out even if it takes longer, because they enjoy it more and are thus more motivated to continue their studies.

    I doubt there's One True Way to learn a language, given the diversity of people's preferences and abilities.

  3. "Steve is a very advanced language learner. There probably aren't very many aspects of grammar that he hasn't seen before, so if it takes Steve five exposures to puzzle out a grammar rule, it might take you ten or twenty."

    So what does it say when Steve has been studying Russian for four years and still can't figure out when to use perfective and imperfective verbs? Any five-year-old (in Russia) can manage to do that correctly, even without having attended any grammar class.

  4. By the way, Vince, Blogger's commenting system is horribly unfriendly. I suspect you'd get a lot more discussion at your blog if you added Disqus.

  5. At a biological level, I believe that we all learn languages in a fairly similar way (i.e. it takes a certain number of impressions for the brain to create new connections, and then a certain number of subsequent impressions for those connections to not break down.)

    But as adult learners, we are both blessed and cursed with amazing cognitive abilities that a child does not possess. I think we can and should apply some of this brain power to language learning, such as some light study of grammar and use of memory enhancement techniques like spaced repetition, imaginative memory (e.g. Remembering the Kanji). If used correctly, and in combination with lots of interesting, comprehensible input, these tools can greatly speed up the language learning process.

    But I think the vast majority of language learners fail to reach fluency because they think of language as an academic subject to be studied and memorized, not the sub-conscious physical skill it truly is (a skill ALL healthy humans are evolved to acquire given enough input). This is why I disagree with spending too much time on grammar, especially in the beginning.

    But as some of you have already said above, it ultimately comes down to what floats your boat. If you enjoy grammar study and if you believe it will speed up your acquisition of a language, go for it. Just make sure that you still spend enough time ALSO listening to and reading authentic materials (or at least well-made language learner content) that fits your interests and level.

    An exception to all this is learning to read and write well. Unlike listening and speaking, the written word is a human invention that does require (at least some) conscious, academic study.

    P.S. IntenseDebate is also a great blog comment solution, but I'm not sure if it can be used with Blogger. I have previously used it on some of my WordPress sites to great success.

  6. I have to agree with the comments about the commenting system. The content on this blog is excellent, but using a backward and simple system like blogger to present it takes away a lot of your potential for discussions and easier navigation. A lot of people might dismiss the blog as "just another blogger site" when they see the layout. Add your personality to it :)

    I'd highly suggest you export the entire blog to self-hosted Wordpress on the same domain (quite straightforward).

  7. Seek and ye shall receive. Disqus comments implemented.

    I actually tried to do this before a few weeks back, but importing old comments got hung up and I couldn't figure out what the problem was. Today I just tried to do it like three or four time and for some reason it finally worked.

  8. That actually gets to the point I was making in my debate with Steve. Because he doesn't systematically track down grammar points he doesn't get, he can only learn those which are common enough that he gets sufficient exposures to both understand and learn them. Having not gone far enough into Russian, however, I can say whether perfective and imperfective verbs fall into that box.

  9. Disqus done, but I'm not quite feeling up a transition to a completely different system just yet. I actually tried to switch to Wordpress once before and it was a big hassle; I got mired down somewhere in the middle of it, and it became a real time suck. This was probably back in early 2009, so maybe things have changed since then.

    Still, for now, I'll just have to let the content speak for itself to differentiate this from "just another blogger site". I do have to get rid of that stupid blogger favicon though…

  10. The graphics program I use is OmniGraffle. It's a great program. Most of these graphics that I put up on here hardly take any time at all to put together. And it's certainly much easier to explain a graphic than to explain what could have been explained with a graphic using words alone.

  11. When I outline grammar up front, I actually do go through the entire thing. But it's not like I take any effort to cram it into my head; I just synthesize the rules into my own thing. This active output does a lot to get things in your head quicker. I wouldn't really call this studying in the way that that terms is typically used with grammar.

    I can't say I learn all grammar either; I usually like to get a grammar book that covers all the fundamental points without going to deep. This keeps the time to a minimum and helps you avoid covering rules that you're unlikely to use (the almost-nonexistent Spanish future subjunctive is a great example of that).

    I usually take care of the grammar before my feet hit the ground in the language zone so that I can jump write into speaking and other things and not need to spend time covering the grammar when I can be speaking with people, etc.

    By covering grammar upfront, those exposures are repeating the rule to you. So rather than, "So that's they say that", it's "Oh yeah, I remember this!"

    So at the outset you're more like Steve—puzzling out the grammar (sorry, red circles for you there). But Steve doesn't systematically seek to figure out what he's getting wrong, so after that our systems are more similar (so you'll have less red circles than Steve).

  12. I very much do think that there is a theory of everything for language learning. Of course, part of that theory has to take into account different learning styles (visual, audio, etc.) and other factors, but that theory should potentially be able to direct any learner to the method best for them.

    For the person who hates to study grammar, I'd recommend that they consider their options like this.

  13. People always say to those of us who speak a bunch of languages that we're some kind of language geniuses, but we're all wired to do this, so I truly think that just about anyone can learn lots of languages. All they need (and all they are typically lacking) is an effective method.

    I'm not for spending much time focused primarily on grammar either. The approach I take aims to get you an overview of the grammar stuck in your head to some degree without spending a lot of time doing it.

    And I'd agree on the "floats your boat" thing as well, to some degree. See here.

  14. People always say to those of us who speak a bunch of languages that we're some kind of language geniuses, but we're all wired to do this, so I truly think that just about anyone can learn lots of languages. All they need (and all they are typically lacking) is an effective method.

    I'm not for spending much time focused primarily on grammar either. The approach I take aims to get you an overview of the grammar stuck in your head to some degree without spending a lot of time doing it.

    And I'd agree on the "floats your boat" thing as well, to some degree. See here.

  15. I've seen IntenseDebate around, and it looks pretty good, but given that I'd tried to implement Disqus once before, that was the path of least resistance!

  16. Yay! Less red circles :P
    I like the new commenting system, thanks!

  17. Glad you guys brought it up! Had you not, it'd've probably been months before I gave Disqus another shot.

  18. I strongly suggest you do NOT export the blog to Wordpress.
    Start a blog on Wordpress and experiment a little first, learn to know it, post something and see if you are comfortable using it, and appreciate the differences.
    I hate Wordpress.

  19. I actually did play around with Wordpress before and found it to be a pain. Seems like it's more flexible but also more work, so without some compelling need I'd rather not wade alone into a formatting morass.

  20. I think the case of your husband actually illustrates my point nicely. Your husband got it in 5 minutes, as you state. However, it only takes a few seconds at most to read "In a declarative sentence, the direct object pronoun goes after the subject but before the verb." And I think the time difference would be even greater for more complex things, like multiple pronouns, use with infinitives, use with affirmative imperatives, etc., where the positioning might not be so obvious.

    And it still certainly does take meaningful exposures; you made those exposures for your husband meaningful by translating as needed.

    Even starting from a grammar outline, you would only guess at the right form of the verb based on your outlining knowledge at the outset, i.e., before you've had much exposure. Your exposure should quickly confirm what you've outlined and, if it doesn't, that means you need to revise the outline. In this way, your outline should always match up with what you're actually being exposed to. 

    Irregular verb forms, like ovat, are part of the rule and not an exception to it. And there's not really a need to explain why the rule is what it is, but just to know what it is. I also have no idea why "run" is "I run" but "be" is "I am". Knowing would help a new learner remember better, but it's certainly not necessary to get neck-deep in etymology to learn a language. 

    And you are certainly right on kids. How many times have my own kids said "buyed" instead of "bought"? And they'll get it eventually through exposure, but they'll get it quicker if it's a rule I can explain to them. You may have gotten sheep after two exposures, but I'd bet you'd've learned even more efficiently if your teacher said, "Here's a list of x words that don't change whether there's one or more of them: sheep, moose, fish, etc."

    I would really doubt that 10 sentences would be sufficient to learn all the ins and outs of the subjunctive, but 10 rules might. In fact, looking at the subjunctive in my French outline, I boil it down to just 9 rules on when it should be used.

    I would agree that we can't conclusively say which method is quicker at the moment, given that there are no empirical studies comparing the two. In the study you propose, I'd imagine that at the outset outliners would get a better grasp of grammar more quickly and immersers would get vocab up more quickly, but once the outliners wrap up with the outline and dive into the exposure, they'd get more accurate language more quickly and they'd close the initial vocab gap during the time where the immersers spend puzzling out grammar rules.

  21. One of the best way to learn a language is to speak with native speakers.

    You can find language partners and speak to native speakers at:

    Easy and free.