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Linguaholic

Learning grammar the natural way?


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I think I approached the English language a bit differently than anyone else. Right from the start it was a complete and constant immersion for me. Before that immersion started I only knew the very basic aspects of English grammar.

15 years later I started tutoring Italian kids who wanted to learn English, and that's when I noticed something. I did not know the rules of grammar. They were almost all unknown to me. Yet I was still able to produce grammatically correct sentences, and to use the right syntax.

For example I knew how to say sentences like "If I had known earlier I would've done everything differently", but I had read no rules about the hypothetical structures.

Obviously there were some things I had to look up from time to time, but the bulk of my grammar was, in a sense, "internalised", it came effortlessly to me. If someone asked me why I said May I help you? instead of "Do I may help you", my first thought wouldn't be about modal verbs, it would be "Because that's how you say it".

I think I learned grammar in a "natural" way. By that I mean that the learning process I went through was somewhat similar to that native speakers go through, learning through experience, immersion and practice. Could that be a better way to approach a foreign language? Sometimes I think the focus on grammar is counter-productive, after all native speakers know when to put the -s after verbs without having studied it on a grammar book!

What do you think?

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  • 1 month later...

I think a mixture of both approaches is the best.  Those that learn by immersion, like you, don't learn the "rules" and may end up using incorrect grammar without realizing.  It's harder to self-correct, and most native speakers are unlikely to correct awkward phrasing unless you ask them about. At the same time, if you focus too much on learning the theory it can get very overwhelming just trying to talk.  And I think you need to get a "feel" for how things are constructed to speak comfortably.

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I agree, it is a good way to learn English. A lot of the kids in my family learned just by watching almost exclusively English shows and also only reading English literature, so even though they do not know of the terminologies for structures yet, they already have a very good idea of how to properly form sentences. In comparison, I have lots of friends who only learned academically and though they know of all the rules and terminologies, they still have a harder time expressing their thoughts in English.

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I do believe that learning any foreign language the natural way does supercede focusing on grammar. When a person gets immersed into that language they get to have a better understanding of the language more than even what a text book could teach. They also net to practice the language all the time so learning is much quicker and it therefore becomes more natural.

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  • 4 weeks later...
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Interesting observation! I share the same sentiment about not knowing most of the grammar rules, yet knowing how to formulate correct sentence structures. There was a part in our work where we had to correct students' writings by pointing out to them the errors they made. I definitely had no problems identifying their errors. But for the love of me, I had to google the explanations as I don't know the 'labels' (complement, subjunctive, and the like stuff.) of the words/phrases.

Immersion is indeed a big help as you expose yourself to the language day in and day out, that usage becomes familiar to you, without you realizing what rules of grammar you have already applied. Live interactions force you to speak, especially if no one in the group shares your native language. The only limitation is if your exposure is with the wrong ones.

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  • 2 weeks later...

Hi there, OP!  I have a similar story to share... the way I learn english was very immersive and natural :) I had no idea what I was doing back then to be honest, I just knew I wanted to be able to talk with more people online, for that I needed to learn English.  I started using Yahoo chats, sit there, look at the things people wrote and hear what they said. 

After a while I started searching for language buddies, I wrote emails to them, we kept doing this for a while. I learnt by making a lot mistakes and having them corrected :)

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Learning through experience is a good way to learn anything. If you listen to and speak to people in their native language you will eventually learn the correct way to speak. I however believe that one can learn the correct grammar through reading, reading and more reading. Not books that have been written recently as some of the authors use a lot of slang but the old classics that have grandeous words and sentences in the corrrect grammar. I have been reading books since I was a little girl and I must say that it helped me win all the spelling bee's as well as give me the knowledge to write correctly too. I do get lazy but I think you eventually learn once you are with people that speak the native language. I always sy if you want to learn a language go to the country to do it.

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When you say "learning English the natural way" do you mean "being exposed to English TV Programs at a young age"? I know people from Scandinavian countries that learned English by just playing English games and watching English TV Programs.

In my experience, I did learn English the "natural way". I always watched cartoons such as SpongeBob or Johnny Bravo at a young age (4 years old or lower). Though, I didn't care if I had grammar mistakes if I was writing something in English. I learned how to write in proper English Grammar when I was 11-12 years old. That's the age when I started caring about my grammar.

For me, "learning the natural way" is being exposed to the English Language as early as 2 years old.

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I do think that learning a language the natural way is a good idea nd it is a bad idea. A good idea because you will learn it quickly and someone will be able to correct you and a bad idea because you might learn the lazy words that are used instead of the proper grammar. The pronounciation and grammar are very important when learning a language as this would help to communicate a lot better.

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Love your story... very informative and interesting!!! You made a valid point. The only problem is that not everyone hangs out with people that speak grammatically proper English. The fact that you wrote "may" already says a lot about you. So, in general I will always say it's best to learn both ways. But specifically for your cases like yours, it's good to learn your way too.

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I think the natural way is through speaking or using the language often as possible to get used to it. The grammar will eventually improved and through using the language constantly, the correct grammar will come out naturally. Learning it from a class and using it on real life can both contribute on improving.

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