I am begging you for a chance to explain why learning grammar is SO useful… Please read on!!
“I don’t want to learn grammar” – WHY?
I often ask students what they find most difficult about learning French. The following feedback from Jillian inspired me to write this article:
“It is difficult for me to structure sentences and therefore oral communication. […] I don’t want to know about grammar because it just makes me more confused, I would just like to know sentences, then play with the sentences I know to create new sentences.”
It’s not uncommon to hear: “I want to learn French but I don’t want to learn grammar”.
I find this most interesting. Why claiming to refuse to have anything to do with grammar?
- Grammar may bring back bad school memories.
Oftentimes, when school students don’t like a particular subject, it is “because the teacher is/was not good.” (Read my article on this.)
I am convinced I would have loved history sooner had I had an engaging history teacher as a student. Instead, I hated it, because it was so abstract and I was overwhelmed by having to dumbly memorise dates. Now I find history fascinating, thanks French historian Franck Ferrand, whose TV and radio programs I thoroughly enjoy!
- On the other had, it may be that you’ve never learnt it at school. (We’re often scared of what we don’t know).
I know this is the case for many English speakers about their own native language.
Emotions and sense of security are important to take into account in any learning experience. What if I tell you that you can enjoy it, and maybe even have fun?! But keep reading.
What’s Grammar Exactly?
Well, it is definitely something that most students are scared of !
It’s true that the word “Graa-marrr” does sound like the mumbling-roaring of some scary monster!
Now, I need you to be brave and bear with me because I’d like to show you some unsuspected benefits you can get from grammar…
To tame this monster, let’s start by studying its definition:
“The rules of a language, that show how sentences are formed, or how words are inflected.”
(Collins Australian Compact Dictionary, 4th edition)
“The basic elements of an area of knowledge or skill.” Eg: the grammar of wine/of music.(Google)
- “The study of how words and their component parts combine to form sentences.
- The study of structural relationships in language or in a language, sometimes including pronunciation, meaning,
a mechanism for generating all sentences possible in that language.”
(The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 4th Edition)
…Did you notice that these definitions of grammar describe just what Jillian wants to be able to do?
Implicit Language Learning
Jillian may not be aware of it but she HAS to rely on grammar to create sentences. Only, she would like to learn how to create the sentences through implicit/passive learning of French grammar.
It is of course possible to learn a language through implicit learning : that’s how you learn to speak your own native language as a child, until you go to school and have to learn some rules too.
However it will still be a limited and slow process, especially if you are not regularly exposed to the language, for instance living in immersion in the foreign country. The child’s language development spreads over years of listening /exposure and trial and errors!
Learning French Grammar: the Benefits of Explicit Learning
The explicit learning of grammar has many benefits:
1. Learning French faster
The #1 advantage we have when learning a foreign language formally as adults, is that we can save an incredible amount of time by “owning” the rules instead of having to figure them ourselves bit by bit by trial and error.
A language is a system.
A system allows you to get reproducible results.
Getting to know how the language works is the best way to help you generate (or understand) any sentence in that language, with consistently good results.
In other words, understanding the underlying system of the language will allow you to be more efficient, to break bad habits and to stop making typical mistakes.
Once you integrate it, you’ll break through and improve so much, both on a proficiency level AND a confidence level.
- Think about a car.
If your car has a problem and you don’t understand how the different spare parts work together, then you can’t fix it yourself.
You can’t really go far if you don’t understand what you’re doing.
- Think about a house.
You can’t build a house on weak foundations otherwise it will collapse or be wonky.
Understanding French grammar is the fastest way to learn French with strong foundations to build on.
Using grammar doesn’t have to be complicated. When you ask if the word “maison” (“house”) is masculine or feminine in French, you are already doing French grammar. (By the way, it is feminine).
It is useful, because if you want to describe this house in more detail, eg. it’s big / white / pretty, your knowledge of grammar will tell you that all these words are adjectives, and as such, they need to match/agree with the word “house” that they describe. These adjectives therefore be in the feminine form: grandE / blancHE / joliE.
2. Using your English-French dictionary effectively
When you look up a word in the dictionary, you first need to know what type of word you are after (a noun ? A verb ? etc), so having some basic knowledge of grammar is essential. Also check out my article “How to Use your Dictionary Efficiently” (includes a free practice worksheet!).
The following example illustrates an incorrect use of the dictionary from one of my students:
“Je voudrais devenir pilote pour la mouche autour du monde.”
As I couldn’t figure it out, my student translated for me. She meant to say:
« I would like to become a pilot to fly around the world.»
Not knowing how to say “fly”, she had looked up in her dictionary.
The word “fly” can either be:
- a noun : a fly / housefly, this annoying insect thousands of which try to enter your mouth, nose and ears when you travel in the Australian outback
→ in French, the word for it is “mouche” (feminine)
- a verb : to fly – in the sky, generally with wings. Planes fly. Birds fly.
→ in French, the word for it is “voler”
My student should have said :
“Je voudrais devenir pilote pour voler autour du monde”, not « Je voudrais devenir pilote pour la mouche autour du monde » !
I have other examples in mind of VERY EMBARRASSING mistakes students made due to an improper use of the dictionary. More about using your dictionary efficiently.
3. Proofreading yourself
Proofreading your essay or being able to correct yourself is an extension of the former skill applied to a whole sentence: choosing the right type of words and putting them together in the right order. It is essential if you want to become a proficient and independent speaker in the language that you study, and you can avoid losing points at an exam! (and really, it’s not as difficult as it sounds)
I have created a proofreading checklist for your French essay writing.
4. Seeing the world differently
Remember: a language is a system of communication used by a country or community. The people from different cultures and countries see the world differently, think differently and as such their systems are different.
Therefore, studying languages opens windows onto the world, not only by means of actual travelling. You can tell how enriching and rewarding having the keys to access this knowledge and reflection of the world is.
In some languages such as Latin, German or Russian, you can clearly see the need to understand the grammatical structure of a sentence because the ending of a word (called the “inflection”) will change depending on its function/ role) in the sentence itself!
Inuit people have a wide range of words and roots to describe the “snow” (snow on the ground, from the air, snow as construction material for igloo, slush, etc), because the differences are relevant and important for daily use and for survival.
Chinese is the only remaining language in the world to use characters that can express words and ideas in themselves. Studying their origin (as I did, especially while I was living in China) is a fascinating experience, a real journey into the Chinese culture (both Ancient and its adaptation to the modern world).
As a last example, let’s see how people say their name in 3 different languages:
- In English: “My name is …”
- In French: “Je m’appelle…” (= “I call myself …” . The person is the subject of the sentence.)
- In Russian: “меня зовут” (“People/They call me: “…”. The person is the direct object of the sentence and the inflexion on the word will match this.)
These 3 structures are very different. I think that the French way is quite self-centered. Do you really call yourself by your name, anyway? I like the Russian way! 😉
5. Being on the same page
In addition to empowering you with proofreading skills, if you know the name of the grammar notion that you want to study, you can easily find exercises and resources about it online or in grammar books.
Besides, an explicit knowledge of grammar will allow you to be on the same page as your teacher. You will know what things are called – in other words, you can “appeler un chat un chat” (“call a spade a spade”)- and that makes it easier for reference.
My students and I can understand each other very easily and quickly. If a student says something and omits a word (an article for instance), I can just point out: ”Where’s your article?”, and they will immediately know what I mean and correct themselves. Mind you, they knew nothing about grammar when they started either, but the “Introduction to French Grammar” resource that I designed for them helped them tremendously.
By the way: I use English in my explanations so you can focus on understanding the concept and not try to work out what I’m saying on top of it!
If you’ve been listening to my French Your Way Podcast, you already know all that. 😉
6. Reflecting on your own language
Also, I believe that building bridges between languages and cultures is a sure way of getting a deeper understanding of both. That’s why I constantly encourage my students to reflect on how both French and English work.
Understanding French grammar is a fascinating journey that I would love to share with you. I invite you to trust me AND trust yourself in your ability to experience the confidence and the changes that will result from it.
The ultimate reward for me is to know that I have helped change your perception of grammar. That you’ve improved. And you had FUN.
Here’s a review a listener left on my French Your Way Podcast:
Have I convinced you too? Will you give grammar a chance to be your best learning ally?
How to Get Started With French Grammar
Here are my recommendations to get started :
- My article and free downloadable PDF worksheet: “Introduction to French Grammar: what type of word it this?”
This will help you understand the basics in a easy way. Discover the main relations between the words, in which order they will appear in a sentence, and how to coordinate them together. In one word, this is gold! 😉
- “English Grammar for Students of French: The Study Guide for Those Learning French”, by Jacqueline Morton
Perfect to learn or brush up grammar notions. For each of these notions, the book explains how it works in the English grammar and then in the French grammar. Allowing you to create such bridges should make learning way easier.
- My Grammar and I (or should that be “me”?)”, by Caroline Taggart and J.A Wines, Michael O’Mara Books Limited
Clear explanations about English grammar (not French grammar), packed with humour and quotes that should make even the most reluctant student crack a smile.
Disclaimer: these are affiliate link, meaning that if you decide to buy the book(s), I’ll get a tip from Amazon, at no extra cost to you.
Thanks for reading me until the end 😉
Please leave me a comment to let me know whether the scary monster has become a friendly one! Also share this article if you’ve enjoyed it, your support means a lot!