How important is it to learn and use perfect grammar in your foreign language?
The conventional wisdom these days in the Spanish, French and German classrooms is that students need not overly concern themselves with their respective language’s grammar. What a relief for both teachers and students, alike! Now, the focus can be on making oneself understood without worry about utter conversational perfection.
What would that be like? Imagine I am a non-native English speaker, for example, and I ask you, “May you me please to show bathroom”? You may inwardly smirk at the crazy plea for help, but you handily enough understand what I’m trying to say and will hopefully help me locate the washroom.
Boom, problem solved, no shame or embarrassment involved; everyone lives to see another day.
Say something, perfect or not
It is always better to spit something -- heck, practically anything – out, with confidence, in a language you’re learning than it is to keep quiet because you are afraid of sounding funny.
And if you are SURE you have no intention of pursuing AP, college, or higher studies in the language… no worries. But I warn you… never say never!
When I changed schools in 8th grade, I was told I had to take either Spanish or Latin. I wasn’t pleased with either option, but I chose what I considered to be the “lesser of two evils” and selected Latin.
About three years later was I given the opportunity to
play hooky spend a schoolyear in Mexico and figured, oh well, so I will learn Spanish, I guess. I was having a great time eating amazing Mexican food and making fun new friends; the learning of the local tongue was hardly a concern of my teen self. If anyone had told me that I’d grow up to become a Spanish teacher, I would have laughed in their face!
I bring this story up not only because my life plans did a 180, but also because no one needs to have a better handle on the grammar they’re using than a world languages teacher. Our grammar needs to be perfect! How else can we help ensure yours is as good as it can be?
So yeah, there are arguments to be made that letting flawless grammar slide in the foreign language classroom is A-OK.
Let me ask again: how important is it to learn and use perfect grammar in your foreign language?
I would argue that, except in very rare cases, striving for perfection in the grammar is of vital importance. Let me be clear: it is not necessary to communicate with perfect grammar, however the language learner needs to strive to do so, anyway.
Poor Grammar Can be Distracting
It’s easy to imagine that reading poor grammar would be a chore, especially for readers with ADHD like me, whose attention already wanders off at the mere shimmer of a butterfly’s wings halfway around the world. Whether a text is in English or not, I need good grammar just to stay on track. Just add this awful attention span to my lack of ability to focus on words that are printed too big or too small, a lack of illustrations, or silly names the author came up with. It’s all terribly distracting! If I am familiar with unusual grammar or syntax in the language I’m reading, however, I can move past it and concentrate better on what the author wishes to share with me.
Fossilization, a situation in which a speaker uses vocab or grammar incorrectly often enough that it becomes permanently internalized, is also a likely outcome. The individual using incorrect forms of speech for a period will find that correcting them later will be far more difficult than just using them correctly in the first place.
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A Little Work Now Makes It a Lot Easier Later
Fossilization of poor grammar during the first years of language study, inasmuch as it allows for mental ease of communication, will make eventual higher-level pursuits much more difficult (ie, AP, college studies, teaching it, translating/interpreting it). As noted earlier, in my own life, I did not imagine myself pursuing advanced study in Spanish until it was thrust upon me by circumstance. In other words, you never know!
Could you imagine the passengers on a plane with foreign airline pilots, whose communication with air traffic control must be in precise, easily understood English, agreeing that grammar isn’t important?!?
Math Has to Be Precise. So Does Grammar!
Grammar is rarely an open-ended phenomenon except in rare cases like where you can say “further” and “farther” interchangeably in English, or “comiera” or “comiese” in Spanish. Rather, grammar is very concrete, just like your math homework. So just as 2 + 2 will always equal 4, je + tu in French will always equal nous. Language is black or white; there are no shades of grammar gray in a language!
Leave France Alone Already
As a final point, consider the bathroom example above. How seriously do you take other speakers whose speaking skills are... shall we say, less than? Many years ago, a major American credit card had a TV commercial in which a young couple was featured using the card to travel to France. The vacationing pair is shown having a marvelous time touring a picturesque French village. Before long, the husband loudly exclaims to all within earshot, “Je mange France!”
Now, anyone who has taken first year French recognizes him as having said he eats France. The commercial was a lighthearted look at a fun-loving young couple, but the husband’s poor grammar was the butt of the joke. Who wants their communication to serve as the butt of anyone’s joke? Likely not the young language learner!
Considering the importance of striving for grammar perfection, FFL recommends students:
- Strive to learn all facets of your language’s grammar at the pace your instructor leads you in.
- Don’t be embarrassed if it takes you some time to grasp anything that seems odd.
- Take every opportunity to speak up! It is better to say something imperfectly than not say anything at all. But do request feedback and try to learn from your mistakes!
- Ask your teacher for help. Ask online resources, for example, these native speaker/teacher Instagram creators, for help.
- YouTube videos are your friend! Look up videos to help. In the YouTube searchbar, enter the language your learning plus the type of grammar you need help with. For example, type “German irregular verbs,” or “Spanish preterite vs imperfect”.
- Remember that grammar is really nothing but a set of blocks and patterns. Sometimes a set won’t always make much sense, especially right away. But like a humble math equation, a pattern is all that grammar truly is, so don’t let it feel complicated.
- Learn not just your verbs, but how to conjugate them, at least in the present tense, at the same time.
- Learn not just your nouns, but what their plural forms are, at the same time.
- Use the multifunctional flashcards I discuss in Fearless Foreign Language: The Book.
What Do You Think?
How do you feel about the push to eliminate learning perfect grammar in the world languages classroom? Let me know in the comments.