Learning linguistics for language learning: to what extent?

I come to you with a question that more than a straightforward answer I assume should generate a discussion. But it is a discussion I am very much interested in.

The question is basically how much linguistics knowledge a person who is interested in learning many languages should have: i.e. should this person know the IPA, should this person know a lot of grammar (concepts such as nominative-accusative languages vs. ergative-absolutive languages, or other such concepts), should this person know syntax, morphology, etc (?)

On the one hand, it is clear that having at least some amount of knowledge is going to help in the long run. But to what extent? Reading an internet post? A book? A bachelor? And what are the areas that you guys think a person certainly SHOULD learn about?

Best regards,


PS: I’d also be interested in personal experiences of someone who has gone through the pain of learning e.g. IPA or someone who studied linguistics in University or something like that. Did that help for further language learning or was it kind of unnecessary?

If you study a language at school or at the university, you have to follow a certain program.
But if you learn some languages by yourself, independently, then EVERYTHING DEPENDS ON YOU!

If you like listening more than reading - do it.
If you don’t like learning grammar - don’t do it.
The level what you would like to reach - also depends on you!..

But I see that you are learning German.
And German, like Russian or Finnish, has a complex Grammar - four cases etc.
By learning such a language you need to pay more attention to grammar.

It doesn’t mean that you must have special grammar lessons, but by reading/listening some German podcasts you have to pay attention to the forms of the words and to the certain word order.
Good luck! Viel Erfolg!


Thank you. That everything depends on the person is actually a very good insight.

I am actually not learning German since I (am supposed to) know it. I’m just reading some literature with the help of Lingq for the few (more than I’d like to admit) words that I do not know. I am actually learning French (coming from my natives Catalan and Spanish) and Japanese. But thank you anyway!

My contribution would be that it doesn’t really matter, but like chicken soup when you’re sick, it can only help.

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Thanks! (Chicken soup? My mom used to do Rice soup like this http://www.realthairecipes.com/wp-content/uploads/rice-soup1.jpg)

  1. They are separate topics or areas of study. I have no idea why people always conflate and confuse them.
  2. Learning linguistics is good for learning linguistics.
  3. Learning language is good if you want to understand and potentially use a language.
  4. Learning linguistics to learn a language is a waste of your time.

Well, learning linguistics certainly helps better understand the way languages work. Plus learning phonetics (which is considered a subfield of linguistics) might improve your ease to pronounce new foreign languages or at the very least to know how they are supposed to be pronounced. Another example: just imagine you don’t know what a verb is and what a noun, and how they differ; one might argue that this could slow your learning.

On the other side, I had a friend who very easily learned a new language without actually knowing what noun and verbs are. That’s why I am asking what people’s opinions and experiences are…

I do not consider language learning and linguistics to be disjunct areas of knowledge as you claim. But I understand what you mean and I appreciate your opinion.

Indeed linguistics help to understand how the language works but learning a language is not understanding how it works. All languages work the same one speaks or writes the other listens or reads, one makes oneself understood the other understands.

I don’t consider the little grammar we need to be part of linguistics.
I prefer by light-years listening to learning the IPA.

I very much agree with Evgeny and LILingquist (wonderful chicken soup analogy!): you can get away with absolutely no theoretical linguistic knowledge but some notions here and there may be helpful, depending on your learning style.
I myself do know IPA rather well and use it frequently to check pronunciations. I like reading about grammar, language typology and so on and so forth. How useful is it? A large percent is not really all that useful practically but I do use some bits, such as IPA and basic notions of phonology and some points about grammar (declension/conjugation, aspect and so on). I find they give me a reference point to learn new sounds/structures,…and I also think that they help me be more aware of my errors (so I can correct them) and doubts (so I can ask about them/research more about it).

As for how to acquire that knowledge: as I said, the most useful notions tend also to be the most elementary ones, so I think it’s better to just begin with basic explanations that you may easily find in tutorials or introductory books. I’d begin reading a bit about my target language and then explore some points that I find interesting. You can always delve deeper later on.

Dude, you are flogging a dead horse! Even a small child without a Linguistics degree can discern the difference between a “doing word” and a “thing”.

Ok, that was a very lame example.
However I don’t think a small child will know what cases are for and the knowledge of cases certainly helps one to learn German, though they might not be necessary. I am just extrapolating this fact and asking myself, and all of you, where the line between useful and unnecessary lies when it comes to linguistic knowledge.

The useful line lies just the wrong side of your post!

That’s just the point - you don’t need to ‘know what cases are for’. It’s a known fact that most successful polyglots are very tolerant of ambiguity.

Well, learning linguistics certainly helps better understand the way languages work. - Which is linguistics. Not language learning. They are not the same.

Another example: just imagine you don’t know what a verb is and what a noun, and how they differ; one might argue that this could slow your learning. - We all know what verbs and nouns are, some of us just can’t label them. Even babies don’t confuse them. They don’t say ‘baby want computer the apple’.

Linguistics is what people who want to procrastinate in actually learning the language read about. Language learning is exposure to the language with some explanation later when you start output. Nothing more. Definitely not linguistics.

Learning IPA was hardly a pain; you can learn it in an hour, and the benefits are amazing! Ever wonder how to pronounce the Russian letter which is transliterated as “shch”? Just look up the IPA! Same goes with any foreign sound. Find the IPA, know the pronunciation!

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