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How do you approach grammar?

February 20, 2012
English: illustration from Leech's comic latin...

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Working on Russian as I have been for the last week or two, using Memrise and one or two other online resources, as well as a textbook that is meant for those working alone, I realise that I’ve been pushed to try to make sense of grammatical forms I haven’t officially learned about yet, pretty much right from the beginning. I don’t know that I’d have planned to do it this way, but it seems to be suiting me down to the ground!

I’m coming across word forms and having to try to work out out, without explanations, why they are spelt/pronounced in certain ways and in certain combinations, and then go to my book and learn the rule. Doing it this way forces me to think about what is going on far more that I would if first presented with the rule and gobs of examples, and thus I tend to understand those rules and examples far better than I do if presented with them passively, even if my suppositions had been slightly incorrect and had to be amended.

It’s possible that I am somewhat unusual in this interest in working out grammar for myself – I studied linguistics at university, specialising in syntax (not morphology, although it came up in the more general classes) and strongly considered staying in the academic field before trying other things instead (I still wonder about going back to it some day) – and yet it would seem to me pedagogically obvious that complex structures are going to be learnt more easily actively than passively.

So why do I feel like none of my language teachers ever asked me to attack grammatical tables, or better yet true life examples, this way and try to make sense of them, rather than just learning the charts off by rote? (My linguistics tutors/lecturers certainly did, often with languages we weren’t learning at all.) Some have got closer to that when reviewing structures we were supposed to have learned already, and it often helped, but by then many times people (including me, on occasion) would be feeling overwhelmed and for some it seemed simply too late.

I’m certainly neither the first nor the last to decry grammar education in all our languages; what I want is to work out the best way(s) for me to familiarise myself with how to speak Russian well, and if I get to share thoughts on the topic with others along the way then so much the better!


From → Resources, Russian

  1. Thanks for an interesting post. The Irish Polyglot said in his TED talk that grammar is the story behind why people say things the way they do. I think it’s a good explanation.

    I know Russian, so I feel your pain. I think that the extent of complications with Russian noun (and adjective and numeral) cases, it doesn’t hurt to memorize tables. But some induction will also help. For example, I used to teach my kids Russian when they were little. They couldn’t understand grammar. One day I told them that sometimes “devochka” comes out as “devochku” or “devochke.” Then they kind of paid attention.

    Also, I’ve found that these super-complicated parts of grammar causes problems among even native speakers when they’re young. I heard a 5th or 6th grader in Ukraine get corrected on using the wrong genetive plural ending. Just think of how 5th and 6th graders in the US occasionally will say “throwed” or “ringed.”

    I bring it up because memorizing tables will help, but if you make mistakes it’s not a big deal.

    • Oh, I’m sure I will learn the tables when I get there, but I’ll do it more efficiently and effectively for thinking through what I’ll find in them before I’m faced with the mass of them. Ultimately some straight memorisation is required, but the more I see the patterns the less of that there is.

      Thanks for the encouragement! Child language acquisition is certainly fascinating – I’m looking forward to seeing my daughter (currently understanding plenty but only producing a few single words) start producing speech a lot. It’s interesting too, just how long children take to speak the way adults do. I heard a talk by one researcher saying that her research (done in conjunction with the local police force because of its relevance to child witnesses) showed that it’s not until the mid teens that the average child really distinguishes the nuances of complex emotions. It doesn’t surprise me that young adolescents (5th/6th grade is about 11?) might confuse lesser used formal forms, especially if (perhaps?) these don’t come up or get so carefully distinguished in casual speech.

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