Reasons to hate grammar
You are learning French or you want to learn French: to do so, you are told to work on French grammar. It’s complicated, and you still can’t speak everyday French. And every time, you say to yourself: « I hate French grammar! »
Just before going to secondary school, you were looking forward to learning French, but you were horrified by an education in which grammar took up such a large proportion in the teaching of French! Because the idea, perhaps too romantic, that you had of learning French, was spoiled by grammar exercises which firstly were not sexy, and secondly did not even allow you to say anything in French.
Most students leaving secondary school do not know how to speak French or any other foreign language. This is normal when teaching is mainly based on writing and grammar (reading, writing, doing exercises by filling in the gaps in often absurd sentences).
For others, it is a total misunderstanding when, in order to buy a loaf of bread or order a coffee, you are annoyed with terms such as ‘personal pronoun, verb, conjugation, object’. All this jargon and rules (very often followed by exceptions) to simply say: « Bonjour Madame, je voudrais un pain, s’il vous plaît ! » or « Bonjour Monsieur, un café, s’il vous plait ! » (Hello Madam, I would like a loaf of bread, please! / Hello Sir, a coffee, please!)
And I don’t want to dwell on the pain of dyslexic people for whom grammar in language learning (and often also in grammar classes in their own mother tongue) is a real nightmare.
Why most teaching of French (and other languages) is done with grammar
Traditionally, the school teaches foreign languages with grammar. This goes back, among other things, to the days when Latin was the first foreign language you had to learn. As Latin is not particularly a living language, but was above all a language of written communication, the use of grammar in its teaching seemed obvious.
Even in the second half of the 20th century, which saw the emergence of different methods of teaching foreign languages, grammar has always been very present. As if it were a sure thing for teachers.
But who, on leaving school, could speak a foreign language? Very few people. The goal of the pupils was (and still is) to get good grades and a diploma, but not to speak a foreign language. The primary goal may have been to learn a foreign language, but the system and habits have irrevocably changed this objective. The place of grammar in language teaching is largely responsible for this way of looking at learning French.
Textbooks that copy each other
An extension of the school, it is the world of educational publishing which offers methods for learning French. Practically all of them contain varying degrees of grammar. You would think that it is mandatory! But is it? Often, these publishing houses did not ask themselves any questions: we have always done it this way. Sometimes it’s about conforming to what customers want (schools want grammar, so they’re given grammar books).
There are even books entirely devoted to learning French grammar, such as French grammar for Dummies. Is this a bad book? Certainly not. It’s probably a very good book to learn French grammar, but not to learn to speak French (and when I say ‘speak French’ I mean knowing how to communicate in French: oral and written expression, comprehension and interaction). Unfortunately, these books often present themselves as a good way to learn a foreign language, suggesting that after reading them you will be able to speak French for example.
On the internet, there are many language teachers who are not trained as language teachers. Why not. You can always train yourself with books, lots of practice and common sense. However, if you look on social networks, you realize that there are a lot of publications that reproduce the pattern of the traditional school.
Over and over again, these publications offer grammar (just think of conjugation tables) and vocabulary lists (often idiomatic phrases that may be funny, but confuse the beginner more than anything else). In my opinion, these teachers have not really thought about what foreign language teaching can and should be. It seems that they lack lucidity and imagination.
On the other side – on the learners’ side – you can see something similar. The behaviour of many learners is to move towards the same type of content. Because in their pre-formatted brain, foreign language teaching inevitably has to go through grammar. Even if it must remind us of the bad memories of the school.
Just as many online teachers have not asked themselves questions about effective language teaching, many learners do not know that it is possible to do otherwise. For learners, this is understandable ignorance. For teachers, this is downright professional misconduct.
Because to the question of knowing if you can learn a foreign language without grammar, the answer is obviously: Yes. Yes, you can learn French without grammar.
You don’t learn a language with grammar
Have you ever seen someone who learned French with a grammar book and a dictionary? No. And you may be quoting some of the people who did… But those who have learned a foreign language with only a grammar book and a dictionary are usually academics who work on very old and extinct languages. They do not speak these languages, even though they know a lot about them.
These people have a scholarly knowledge of a linguistic object, but do not necessarily master communicative skill (but this is not their objective). And knowing how to communicate in a foreign language is what most people want. Speaking the language, not talking about the language.
You have to make a difference between knowing a grammar rule to explain how a language works and knowing how to apply a grammar rule almost unconsciously in real communication.
Some people say: « But I learned French with grammar. »
They tell you that. But is it really true? Is it really through grammar that they learned French? Is it not rather thanks to the many hours they have devoted to learning the language? Is it not by having built a kind of linguistic immersion at home or better in the country where the language is spoken? Is it not rather thanks to their motivation to learn French?
What if it was true anyway! If these people had really learned to communicate in French thanks and mainly thanks to grammar! Should we conclude that learning a foreign language with a grammar book works for everyone? I don’t think so. Are there not different learner profiles?
What do we do with learners for whom grammar is a complicated detour, a torture since their brain does not really work in the metalinguistic mode to produce a discourse on everyday life?
There are certainly analytical learners for whom grammar can work. But there are also visual learners, those who learn by doing, by moving, there are auditory learners, those for whom repetition in context works, those for whom only good immersion works. There are still those who end up finding their way of learning by using several types of learning. There are also those who eventually find their way by using several types of learning.
Since we are all different, there are consequently different ways of learning things, languages and French in particular.
Can we really do without grammar?
Yes. Children do not learn their mother tongue with a grammar book among their toys. Many adult immigrants have learned a new language without going to school and sometimes even without being able to read. These are two obvious proofs that you can do without grammar when learning a language.
So why is grammar still used in the teaching of foreign languages? As I said earlier: the weight of tradition, the lack of reflection and innovation among teachers (and also partly among learners).
But, not to blame the supporters of grammar completely, grammar can have certain advantages: such as saving time. Learning a language like children takes a lot, a lot of time. Learning a language like an immigrant also requires time, immersion and incredible motivation (that of survival). And not all learners always have all this time. Grammar can sometimes (and for some) offer some shortcuts. But in my opinion, these shortcuts can only be taken at a certain level. They are not for beginners.
How to learn French without grammar
Difference between learning and acquisition
This important distinction must first be made. Learning a language is what is taught in schools and in many books or methods; it’s the idea that one can manage to communicate in a previously unknown language by learning, rather artificially, lists of vocabulary and phrases, and grammar rules, for example by doing gap-filling exercises.
Language acquisition is the natural way to make a previously unknown language your own through exposure to that language. Provided that this exposure is intelligible, i.e. that the messages are partially understood. This is what happens with children who learn their mother tongue. Of course, the acquisition process takes time; a lot of time in the case of the mother tongue.
Stephen Krashen and the ‘comprehensible input’
According to the American linguist Stephen Krashen, the best way to learn a foreign language is to acquire it, not to learn it. This may shock many teachers whose job it is to teach a foreign language, to make people learn a foreign language.
Stephen Krashen (www.sdkrashen.com) explains that more effective than grammar, it is the exposure to compelling comprehensible content that enables the acquisition of a foreign language. This is what he theorized in his ‘comprehensible input’ hypothesis. If this comprehensible (compelling) content contains a small amount of the unknown, a slight element of the non-acquired, then the learner progresses in the knowledge of the foreign language, because the context makes it possible to clarify words, expressions or structures that were previously foreign to the learner. And the compelling nature of this content keeps the level of motivation high.
Create your own immersion
In order to have enough input and for as long as possible (or as often as possible), the ideal would be to live in a country where the language is spoken and to participate actively in local life among native speakers, but this is not always possible.
The most practical, but not always easy, solution would be to create at home, in your daily life, an immersion in the target language. Living at home as if you were living in France, for example: reading books and magazines in French, watching films and series in French, listening to French-language songs and podcasts, contacting French speakers by telephone or videoconference, consulting only French-language social media, surfing the internet in French, cooking with French recipes, etc.
With a little goodwill and to varying degrees, you can create your own immersion to maximize input time. But it will also be useful to not only consciously or unconsciously ingest French, it will also be necessary to have an active attitude. You don’t understand a word, it doesn’t matter, rely on the context for the general meaning of the message. But if that word comes up often in your inputs, then check out a dictionary and learn it. Sing the lyrics to your favorite French songs. Repeat what you hear when you can. Read aloud to activate more muscles and more of your brain, which increases your ability to speak French.
For other ideas on how to create your own immersion, see the article « 49 tips to create a French immersion at home. »
Learning by doing
It’s obvious : your learn to ride a bike by riding a bike, not by reading a book explaining how to ride a bike. It’s less obvious when it comes to foreign languages. However, the combination of a message and a gesture is better recorded by your brain than just by reading this message.
One could imagine that you would say in French everything you do in your daily life. Of course, that requires learning some key phrases. But after this preliminary phase of learning, saying what you are doing in French not only reinforces the anchoring of this learning, but also ensures that the muscles necessary for speech receive significant training for the future. In this way, you also work on your confidence during real exchanges in the target language.
For beginners, even before they think about learning endless lists of vocabulary and phrases, I would recommend adding an incredibly playful and effective technique to their learning: TPR. The Total Physical Response practices kinesthetics (movement), audio and visual learning.
The creator of TPR, James Asher (http://www.tpr-world.com/) developed this technique while reflecting on the learning of the mother tongue by young children. Children learn their mother tongue first by listening to and observing their parents.
The teacher gives ‘commands’ in the target language while doing what he says. The learner reacts by executing these commands. This learning by imitation allows learners to associate the meaning of an action with words/phrases. The teacher says and does what he says; one or two volunteer learners imitate the teacher’s actions. For example, in the first lesson:
- Lève-toi (Stand up)
- Assieds-toi (Sit down)
- Lève-toi (Stand up)
- Marche (Walk)
- Arrête-toi (Stop)
Gradually, the teacher makes the ‘commands’ more complex and the learner comes to integrate the vocabulary and complex structures of the language in a natural way. Learning the foreign language is done without the use of grammatical explanation or metalanguage.
For more information on TPR, read the article (in French) « TPR, pour un apprentissage naturel des langues ».
Learn by circling around a story
Another learning technique that allows you to acquire the structures of a language without having to do grammar and learn vocabulary lists is TPRS (Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling) developed by Blaine Ray (https://www.tprsbooks.com). A story is told (often created with the learners) and the teacher turns each element of the story around by asking questions in the target language. Learners respond easily, as new elements appear gradually and smoothly. And in any case, through the questions, the teacher obviously makes sure that the learners understand the message.
Learning is engaging and accessible. This makes the learner feel confident with their learning, and that’s a lot for a better the acquisition of the foreign language. Often the teacher introduces personal elements of the learners into the stories: the more the learner feels engaged (and this in kindness), the more he will retain what he has just learned, because there will be an associated emotional part with his learning. And again, this method does not offer any grammatical explanations or fill-in-the-blank exercises !
For an overview of the question systematics, see video 203 of the Français illustré : « La ronde des questions »
Learning by imitating gestures that make sense
The Accelerative Integrated Methodology, AIM, was created by Wendy Maxwell (https://www.aimlanguagelearning.com/), originally for French. It is a method based on gestures that could resemble the language of the hard of hearing and those with speaking difficulties. The principle is to support oral French through coded gestures, easily assimilated and repeatable by learners. AIM courses are almost 100% given in the target language.
In addition to this gesture, a large place is given to playful interactions, music and sketches produced by the learners. After a year of AIM, learners acquire an impressive level compared to that of pupils in a school where language teaching is traditional and where grammar, despite all attempts at communicative approaches, still plays a large part.
The AIM cocktail also works particularly well thanks to the joyful involvement of the learners. From the very beginning of their learning, learners are involved in their learning by the active repetition of language-gesture associations, by the staging of the target language. AIM offers another type of stimuli that can unlock overly traditional learning situations.
Learn with illustrations
While the three methods listed above are difficult for the isolated beginners to apply, there is one that is ideal for independent learning. Like these three methods, the Français illustré (illustrated French) is based on a message that is comprehensible to the learner (see above the comprehensible input). Le Français illustré offers simple and natural learning based on illustrations that support what is said and written in short videos. Thus the acquisition of French takes place directly, without going through a translation into the mother tongue, without using the slightest grammatical explanation.
These videos (more than 200) use the simplest and most common structures of French. After regular viewing of the videos, the learner integrates not only the structures of French, but also a vocabulary chosen from among the most frequent words in French. The beginner learner is exposed to the pronunciation of French, and can even practice pronunciation by simply repeating sentences.
Here are two examples:
The Français illustré is ideal for learners who are resistant to traditional French teaching, for those who are uncomfortable with methods of learning French based only on writing, for those who are disgusted by the school with the pleasure of learning French, those who hate grammar. The Français illustré is also a very good complement to the non-grammatical methods of learning French seen above.
To get a glimpse of the Français illustré, just browse the website: https://lefrancaisillustre.com
It seems that there will always be teachers (professional and non-professional) who will use grammar, as there will probably be learners for a long time who will be convinced that grammar is essential in language learning. But if you don’t like grammar, if you say to yourself: « I hate grammar, but I still want to learn French, I just don’t know how. » Don’t despair, because there are solutions for you which are excellent and which work.
Have a good mindset: stay positive and motivated, even if you know that learning a language does not happen in three months as you can see on the internet.
Build a French-speaking environment by promoting what you particularly like, because you learn better when it’s fun.
Choose a methodology (or several) that encourages comprehensible input in the most natural way possible. Increase the sources of this input. And persevere, because you can learn French, even without grammar.
© Jérôme Paul https://lefrancaisillustre.com
A bientôt, Jérôme