Does the grammar matter when learning a language?

There is a great commercial service out there for those interested in learning English. It is called theLinguist and is run by the polyglot Steve Kaufmann (with 9 languages and more on the way, he more than deserves the label). Steve’s approach is very unconventional, but I think in a good way. It is run as a central website, it provides a lot of reading and listening material, it tracks the words/phrases you are learning and it provides tutor services that will look over what you write and suggest better (more standard) ways of saying the same thing. This is a combination not offered by any other provider that I know of.

So, what’s the problem? Well, Steve does not believe in grammar. In fact, we are having a bit of heated discussion about it right now (context start). The part I agree with him is that the study of grammar can confuse a person and even scare him/her away from the language study altogether. The part I disagree with him is that (quote):

It is enough to focus on the words and phrases the way we do at The Linguist.

Unfortunately, any single method is never a silver bullet. The grammar-translational approach failed; so did the audiolingual method, the Silent Way and Total Phisical Response (overviews). All of them appealed to some people for some time, but then the problems and holes showed up. This has been proven over and over again with practice and academic studies. Unfortunately, Steve does not believe into academic studies either. It is a little hard to progress the discussion from there.

For myself (and I am only on my 3rd language), I believe that different people need different methods in appropriate proportions.

I like seeing grammar rules because it allows me to compact multiple examples into one structure. For example, in Esperanto, correlatives such as who, where, everywhere etc. are described as a 5 prefixes x 9 suffixes grid creating 45 options alltogether. I only have to learn 5+9 entries to get the benefit of all 45. In English, where such grid is not available (where->there, but any->some->all), I had to memorise the different options individually, each with its own full supplements of examples and contexts. To me, what Steve advocates seems to be not taking the advantage of the grid, even when such grid is available.

Of course, that is just me. Other people prefer feature drills/flashcards (also not part of theLinguist) and having a very large stock of standard phrases to use. Others will not learn anything at all unless they talk (not just listen) to a human over and over again.

So, have I turned around and proved to myself that theLinguist is not a good service? No, I am just saying that it is not a complete one. Which is fine as people can find complimentary material when required if they knew it would help. The last if, is why I take an exception with Steve flogging his approach as the end-all solution over and over again on the blog. I think that the byproduct of the sale message can actually do people some harm in learning progress or even in the self-esteem, if their learning mode does not align with Steve’s.

As to our challenge, the game is on. This post just took a bit too long tonight to do it immediately. 🙂