When and How to Teach Grammar: II – Reflections on studying a foreign language

For two thousand years, no one in the western tradition challenged the notion that education should be based on the liberal arts, starting with grammar… It was not until the beginning of the twentieth century in America that a full-fledged revolt against the liberal arts occurred.

David Mulroy
The War Against Grammar

The goal in teaching grammar is to attain “second nature” competence. For some reason, in modern teaching theories this second nature element of language seems to go largely unrecognized (in the classical tradition it was a big deal. Aristotle used and, I think, coined the term), at least when it comes to language study.

For example, virtually every foreign language program these days markets itself as informal and immediately useful. They boast about the speed with which the student will be able to speak and even think in the foreign language.

Of course, what they mean is that the student will be able to ask for food or a cigarette as soon as they disembark.

The assumption seems to be that if you learn a language conversationally then you can say you know that language. So they talk about how you will learn a second language the same way you learned your own language and they think that is a virtue.

But have you ever stopped to think how hard you had to work to learn your own language? I have five children and I watched them do it. It took years, with an astounding number of models and corrections and suggestions and experiments.

The way you learn your first language is a great way to learn your first language, since it is the only way you can learn a first language and since the human mind is created to excel at that sort of learning between about 15 months and about five years.

But its a horrible way to have to learn a foreign language, especially if the speaker of the foreign language isn’t utterly fluent in that language.

But we seem to have an oven-burner aversion to formal instruction. It may be nothing more than intellectual laziness, but only an individual can look at himself to know that.

What I mean is that, formal instruction rests on the assertion of the will.

When you are learning “naturally,” as they sometimes call it, you don’t really have to assert your will. You pay attention and let the lesson carry you, like a TV show would, but you don’t have to demand much of yourself.

I will only note here, without indulging the temptation to fall down a rabbit hole, that the training of the will stands outside the consideration of most modern pedagogy for the simple reason that much post-Darwinian thought does not believe in a will the way the classical and Christian thinkers did.

What I’m saying about the point at hand is that contemporary educators and text book developers tend to avoid formal instruction, and this is certainly true of foreign language instruction, because of an aversion to formality. They think you can learn grammar and a foreign language on the fly.

And there’s an element of truth to what they do that would be neglected to our loss. Anytime you learn any skill, you need the informal element. Like anything, you can see this best in the physical realm. If you want to learn how to play basketball, you’ll want to play a lot of pick up ball. If you want to learn how to skate, you’ll want to tie those skates on and head to the park.

But in neither case can you attain mastery without formal instruction. I am proof of that with baseball, basketball, soccer, and football. I played all four of those games constantly as a boy. My best game was baseball, which I tried to play 24/7/365. But I was never systematically coached at it because every summer I went to camp for a week or two and it never entered my mind that I’d be allowed to miss that time.

So I became a decent baseball player who could field a ground ball off the gravel, but I never learned the fine points that would have made me a good baseball player.

So it is for so many of us when it comes to language.

We take it a step further and resent the notion that there is a right way to speak or write. “Who are you to impose your grammar and vocabulary on a subgroup?” we ask, thereby excluding members of these subgroups from political or social involvement that requires refined language, and setting them up as victims of petty demagogues.

But language does have a form and that form is rooted in the nature of the world and of the human mind. Thus, in a way that might seem ironic to some, the best shortcut you can take to learning a foreign language is to study it formally.

For example, I still want to learn Latin, even though I know that apart from a miracle of providential grace I’ll never be able to do so properly. So I try to pick up the Latin Grammar for a few minutes every day. I’ll review endings or read up on prepositions or remind myself how adjectives work. By doing so, I learn the form of Latin.

Vocabulary is the least challenging part of a foreign language. In fact, if I were teaching people who had an internal motivation to learn a foreign language so they didn’t need any short term cheaper satisfactions, I would hardly teach vocabulary at all for the first few lessons. I’d teach them three or four verbs and then show them a bunch of things you can do with them. In other words, I’d teach them the forms of the verb in that language.

Then I’d teach them how to form nouns, using three or four nouns.

It would lead to conceptually boring sentences, but so would any other option. You can’t write many interesting sentences for the first bit of a language program.

So why bother trying? Teach them how verbs and nouns behave while they don’t need to be distracted by also trying to figure out what the words mean. Then add a few more words as they get more and more effective at forming them.

Approaching it this way has less practical value, in the sense that you couldn’t go to Italy and ask for a coffee in good crisp Italian. But if that’s my goal, then I should just go to Italy for two weeks and send the kids on walking tours by themselves. Necessity, Plato taught us, is the mother of invention.

But it has much more practical value if the goal is to learn the language very well over the long term, to learn how to think, to learn how language works, to learn their own language better, and to learn grammar.

Ironically, the biggest problem I encounter when I study the forms of Latin is when I don’t know the meaning of terms like participle, modifier, voice, mood, clause, reflexive, and others, which I would never have any trouble with if, in my middle school years, I had learned English grammar.

Blogs are hard to keep disciplined, so I hope I haven’t wandered around so much as to be incomprehensible. My point in this post is to say that we should teach grammar formally, not just “naturally” so called and not just “practically.”

Knowledge is a good thing, good for its own sake. It doesn’t need a practical justification. People like knowing things. Children like knowing grammar. So teach them.

To make that point, I have reflected a bit on my encounters with foreign langauge study. My argument is that almost every contemporary foreign language program errs by being too practical and too informal. As a result, children might well learn the foreign language they are studying, but that’s pretty much all they’ll learn.

They could have also learned about the structure of their souls, the order of reality, the form of thought, and how things fit together – though they would not have learned much of that directly and not all of them ever would have learned it.

So to the immediate, practical questions of when and how to teach grammar, I’ll add this:

  • Informal language study is best in the preschool years. I wish every preschool child could be bilingual, at least. I could not care less what foreign language they learn at that age.
  • Formal English grammar should be taught very simply, systematically, and gradually beginning in second grade.
  • In K and 1 children should be taught about verbs and nouns and some basic modifiers, but not so much with technical language. The crucial point for this age is that the teachers MUST speak with excellent grammar and diction and they must know the technical side of grammar well enough to know how and when to correct children (and yes, K and 1 students should be corrected for incorrect grammar!)
  • In the middle school years, every student should study grammar and composition intensively. Fail to teach formal grammar in these years and the golden age of grammar instruction has been lost. You can and must still learn formal grammar if you want to be educated, but it will be more difficult the older you get. There is just something about these “logic” stage years that makes kids pick up formal grammar (which is really a logical study) quite readily.
  • In high school, students should be writing constantly and, assuming they have learned what they should have learned by this stage, they should be required to use sound grammar in all of their writing for every class. In addition, they should go on to learn the finer points of grammar during these years. Until their senior year they should not be allowed to break the rules of grammar for rhetorical purposes unless they can explicitly and formally defend their actions.
  • The instruction I am referring to in this bullet point list refers to formal training in one’s own language. But their is no better way to drive home grammar lessons than learning to translate into and out of your own language. Therefore, in third grade, I recommend commencing the formal study of Latin Grammar – slowly, systematically, gradually.
  • I also recommend the memorization of Latin and Greek passages from great literature as early as possible. Age doesn’t matter here. If you want, you can also translate.

You probably can see that I think language is important. Is anything in school more important?

Indeed, everything else depends on it. Give her back her place.

And here’s the thing: close attention to formal grammar accelerates the process by which grammar becomes second nature. Just as, for most students, formal instruction in phonetics accelerates the pace by which decoding becomes second nature and the child can get on with reading, and formal instruction in the math tables accelerates the pace by which adding and subtracting become second nature and students can get on with fractions, geometry, algebra and the hidden mysteries of math, and formal instruction in dance accelerates (yea, makes possible) the pace by which a ballerina can dance en pointe, and formal instruction in painting accelerates the pace by which a painter can express the hidden mysteries of the universe in a smile.

Systematic formal instruction, in other words, saves the child from having to learn a foreign language the way he had to learn his own. That requires that he learn the form of his own language.

16 Responses

  1. Just to affirm your thoughts on foreign-language learning, this was most certainly my experience. I went through the military’s foreign language center and learned Russian, starting at almost eighteen (I graduated a little early and so went through basic training at seventeen, but very nearly eighteen! This I mention for a gauge, just that I only started learning the language post-high school!). First of all, you’re taught by native instructors and using a program that has been highly refined. Russian, specifically, instructors are still used to a classical form of education and certainly make use of it. Additionally, the military has you in class seven hours a day, five days a week, and skipping homework will get you kicked out of the program and sent to be a cook! ;] So there certainly was work involved — we were assigned about fifty words every other day to memorize in the beginning, and this is where I floundered. I have attained since then nearly native fluency, we speak it at home (my husband is Russian and didn’t initially speak English when he moved here to marry me) exclusively, I work as a translator, and worked as as interpreter for nuclear inspectors, blah blah (I only mention this to qualify the statement that I speak it fluently, as opposed to having the kind of knowledge one might gain via a few hours a week throughout college), but!!! (and this is my main point, finally ;] ) the vocabulary was what nearly sunk me in the beginning! Without a working context in which to put that vocab I had no way of learning it properly. I certainly couldn’t USE all of it, other than a point-and-name type of way, because there was no framework for it to live in… Only once we got though the cases (Russian is verrry close to Latin when it comes to cases and such, though the verbs are far simpler, thankfully!) and the tenses, suddenly vocab memorization became almost easy, because there were places to put them all, because I could ramble endlessly to friends (other students) about the aircraft carrier and the cadets on it and what they say and who they were and how many sisters they had, ad naseum. So. Just wanted to agree with what you say, I’ve seen people learning a language through the immersion method, and they struggle with grammar, though they can make their way around town far more quickly than a student of first-grammar, then-words, and are confused as to why they’re saying what they’re saying. Same, incidentally, for children of immigrants who aren’t taught in some way the grammar of the language they’re picking up at home. We had students in our interpreting course (not the initial basic course, but way later) who were great at interpreting but awful at translation because they didn’t know how to write what they were saying, didn’t know how many words a certain expression was, etc. (By the way, I’ve been noticing this more and more with native English speakers, where they know the sounds of an expression, but not the actual words in it, wonder if the causes are related)

    Okay, enough rambling from me, just thought I’d share my experience and observations :]


  2. As an English teacher in Mexico, I have much experience teaching language. I focus a lot on grammar in my classes. Anybody can learn words, and use them. But will they actually make sense if people just spit them out, without any understanding of the grammar involved? I don’t think so, hence why I do the heavy focus on grammar.

    • It is interesting to read claims here (and elsewhere on the web) that the traditional grammar-based language teaching model is “under attack”, when nearly EVERYONE still subscribes to this archaic approach. The vast majority of language classrooms, whether in high schools, universities, or private language schools, still spend most class hours teaching and testing explicit information such as grammar rules and lexical items out of context.

      In the linked article, Mark mentions “Anything students need to know has to be taught, not caught.” This soundbite seems logical, but it underpins the major misconception widely on display here: LANGUAGE ABILITY CANNOT BE TAUGHT. Human language is a physical skill akin to walking. Parents and schools did not “teach” you how to walk; you figured it out through trial and error. Language ability is the same; you did not learn how to speak English because your parents or teachers taught you about “subjects” and “predicates”, the meaning of Latin or Greek word roots, or English case inflections. Schools, educators, and parents have come to believe that we have to teach children that which they will acquire automatically given proper input.

      The exception to this stance is writing, a human technology that MUST be taught. Writing is a skill that requires massive amounts of reading input, and an equally massive amount of writing output. Having a teacher to give feedback on readability, mechanics, style, and writing conventions DOES help significantly.

      One last thing: Perhaps the biggest reason grammar-based language teaching remains so common (despite disastrous results), is good old fashioned business. There is a lot of money to be made selling books, training teachers, running conferences, preparing students for tests, and selling cram school tuition. You’ll notice that Mark makes affiliate income through links to such books on his site…

  3. Andrew, you mentioned teaching yourself Latin. That is something I’ve been contemplating doing, especially since it is something that Jacob is starting to learn in school (although I have more selfish reasons for wanting to learn the language than being able to help him with his homework). Right now they are just learning vocabulary (he’s in 4th grade) and it is in either 5th or 6th grade that they start studying Latin as a language, which I assume means grammar. How would you suggest I start my own study, and can you recommend any resources?

    • Melia,

      If I were you I would more or less disregard vocabulary for a little while and just focus on forms of verbs and nouns, but that does depend on your appreciation for forms. If you don’t like form for its own sake, you might want to get into more translation. For me it’s a matter of learning the hard stuff first and getting it in place without being distracted by vocabulary.

      So I would get a Latin grammar book from the early 20th century or from Henle’s Latin and memorize the verb forms, one conjugation at a time. You’ll have to learn one or two words for each one and that will let you develop sentences, but from my perspective that’s not important. Take your time.

      Once you have thoroughly learned one or two first conjugation verbs (make up drills for yourself that make you change things rapidly until you can do it very quickly), adding vocabulary is ridiculously easy. You could add 10/week for three months and have 120 verbs under your belt and you’d be able to use them pretty effectively.

      So that’s what I would recommend you do. Form, form, form: both shortcut and key.

      But not everybody has the patience or stomach for this approach.

  4. Hi Brandy,

    Not Andrew, but I can tell you what is working well here for us. In 1st and 2nd grade, we worked through “First Language Lessons” from Peace Hill Press. I focused on teaching the children parts of speech and what a complete sentence requires. Then this year, for 3rd grade we’ve started Rod and Staff English and it is going very well. I try to not leave the formal grammar in a vacuum though and integrate what we learn in Rod and Staff with our writing (Classical Writing-Aesop) and we’ve also started Latin which adds to our study of English grammar as well. So from those three angles, along with hearing and reading excellent literature, I feel like my children are on the path to speaking and writing well.

    Cheryl Lowe has some interesting thoughts on teaching English Grammar through Latin on the Memoria Press site. But I’ve felt that my own grasp of formal grammar isn’t quite strong enough to rely solely on our Latin studies. But I do think there’s something to building a foundation and yet not really expecting the student to be able to step away from their own language in a truly analytical way until 7th grade or so.

    I suggest finding a text which makes use of diagramming though, I think that’s the best way to seeing if the grammar *works* apart from how it sounds.


    • Oops, I meant for that to follow Brandy’s last comment. 🙂

    • Jami,

      THANK YOU! I will definitely check out all that you suggested. 🙂


    • I would second the recommendation of “First Language Lessons” from Peace Hill Press. We finished the 3rd grade book and are now starting on 4th grade, and only wish they had the FLL series done so that my sixth grader could switch from Rod and Staff. From a homeschool mom’s perspective FLL is more child friendly, yet extremely effective.

  5. We both agree that language learning takes a lot of practice (much like a sport) and willpower. I also agree that most language learning product which promise immediate results or “practical language” are a waste of money. Language does, after all, take time. And knowing only the basics will just get you into trouble (you will say a canned phrase you learned but not be able to understand the response.) However, contrary to your advice, I believe the actual learning process should be based on natural input, not formal, grammar-based learning.

    You assert that formal language learning accelerates acquisition, but countless studies (and my own experience as a language learner and teacher) show otherwise. Formal study not only inhibits the ability to make a language “second nature”, but also encourages bad habits such as relying too much on translation to and from the native language, overly monitoring one’s speech (there is no time to recall and apply grammar rules during actual conversations), and perhaps worst of all, it turns most people off of languages. Interest is the strongest catalyst in effective language acquisition, and dry grammar rules, drills and test taking push the excitement right out the door for most people. (Incidentally, I personally enjoy learning about the grammar of languages, but I do so as a Comparative Linguist, not a language learner.)

    My basic contention, and the foundation for my disagreements with your points above, is that human language cannot be taught through explicit explanations of a language. Languages are innate physical skills that all humans will automatically acquire subconsciously over time given:
    1) sufficient amounts of input (preferably just above one’s level of comprehension),
    2) interest in the subject matter, and
    3) a lack of inhibition in the language (This is one of the major advantages children have over adults. It is also why most people’s fluency improves dramatically with moderate consumption of alcohol!)

    This “natural approach” is neither passive nor lazy. It takes courage, dedication and putting up with a great deal of ambiguity. And it works every time. If it didn’t, how could human civilizations have survived and flourished before the advent of writing and formalized learning?

  6. How about informational books? Books that teach us about the correct grammar, pronunciation and spelling about the language you wanted to tech your kids or to yourself. You can also surf the internet. There are a lot of training there can help you solve this problem.

  7. Okay, so for those of us who are homeschooling children and were given little to no formal training in grammar in the public schools, where do you suggest we start? How do WE learn grammar well enough to correct our children?

    What do you suggest for formal grammar in second grade, for instance? Is there a curriculum or text or book you prefer? This is the age of my oldest student.

    • The best advice I ever heard regarding this kind of question came form Dr. Stephen Krashen at a conference in Taipei, Taiwan: “If you have to look something up yourself, it is NOT something you should teach your students or children.”

      The best thing you can do for your second grade child (or students of any age for that matter) is get them to read and write as much as possible. High quality reading input leads to improved writing output. The same basic equation exists for learning to speak a foreign tongue: the more you listen, the better your speaking becomes.

      • I suppose I was hoping Andrew had a favorite text. 😉

        I must say I’m not sure I agree with this informal approach in general. I tried that with spelling–using copywork instead of formal lessons–and I had on hand a child with a seventh-grade reading level that couldn’t spell to save his life. I have spent only 80 days teaching him pattern-based spelling and now he spells wonderfully.

        I don’t think we choose one thing or the other per se. Formal lessons are a good complement to the natural exposure you mentioned. But I fail to see how someone would master the English language without lessons at some point, even if the argument could be made to delay until, say, the later age of 10.

        When I objectively examine my own writing, most of my weaknesses are due to my lack of formal grammar lessons. Even though I constantly read and write, it is hard for me to bridge this gap. I feel it is my duty to be generous, to give my students what the public school system denied me, even if the answer is that I need to spend hours in study until I myself have mastered the language.

    • For you as an adult I would get Harvey’s Grammar from Mott Media. Determine if you think your kids could handle it. I haven’t seen anything that excites me in grammar because I think since the 50’s or at least the 60’s textbook publishing companies have been tyrannized by unsound text theories, namely and especially that they are trying to replace the teacher with a text book.

      I don’t go for that.

      So check out Harvey’s as a starting point.


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