Patterns or grammar rules

I would like to move this interesting discussion onto a new thread. Do you think we should try to remember grammar rules, or should we try to get used to the patterns of a new language by noticing that “they say things this way” and not asking “why” too often?

I suppose that there are two contrasting stances: (1) rules and their examples; (2) patterns and their explanations. Rules and “Explanations” have a lot in common.

I would most defiantly say know patters of a new language by noticing!

For example, when I really first started on German when I was a kid I didn’t know anything about grammar, so I focused on knowing key phrases and saw how they worked and would just replace the words in that sentence to formulate my own. Actually, I could hold a decent conversation doing this actually.

When I restarted my German many months ago I did the same thing. Before I even touched a grammar book I already had a good grounding in the grammar and could construct my own sentences. Finally, when I did get to that grammar book it was basically review for me. When I do ask why, thankfully I do have a native speaker on my floor, he just gives me a set pattern and tells me to accept it the way it is, which I agree with. If I were to continuously ask why, especially in German, I know I would get discouraged in the language really quick.

If I focused on grammar rules right in the beginning I know I would not learn them at all so why bother learning them. This is so true for me in Spanish at the moment. Most of the grammatical concepts that are being covered in class I have seen while others I have not or I have and not have noticed them at all. Those concepts that I haven’t noticed I do poor at when being quizzed or tested upon. I just can’t remember the rule(s). However, when I do speak I speak fluidly without having the “monitor” or grammar checker in my head. I see so many students in my class do this. They are slow to speak and think before they formulate their sentences to make sure that they are correct. Honestly, it just sounds unnatural and is hard to listen to them speak.

So, for me, learning patterns, noticing, and just accepting things in a language actually pays off for me in the end rather if I have a key pattern in my head and go off that.

If I’m instructed to memorize a rule then I have to memorize the rule. Yes? It might save time and sweat.

Rule: Pour mettre l’accent sur un élément, à l’exclusion d’un autre, on l’encadre avec « C’est…qui/que »

(Below is an example, which, by the way, would probably take me some time to notice and/or apply with certainty were it not for the rule:

Dites: C’est moi qui suis responsable. ***** Ne dites pas: C’est moi qui est responsable.

Okay, so that’s an easy one. I don’t want to take all day with this, so…

I’m beginning to think that because French is so grammatically precise (the French write by rules and appear to strictly follow those rules ), I might have to just start memorizing rules. I don’t want to, but maybe the rules will help me become less clumsy with the language.

Incidentally, I don’t usually ask “why” with French. Frankly, I don’t care about “why.” French is French! I usually find myself asking “how,” or “what.” For example, “How” do I use this demonstrative pronoun…What or which preposition goes with this verb…“How” can I ask a question using sub-verb inversion…“What” is wrong with this sentence…etc. I just want to know how I can do something, and what I can do to get it right, to get my meaning across. Folks, I have to ask the how and what when I write French essays because that is just the way it is at university. And I have to memorize that rule above (and many more besides) for my final exam. French is the most complex language in the universe! :stuck_out_tongue_winking_eye:

“Do you think we should try to remember grammar rules?”
At least, we should try to “notice” grammar rules.

“[S]hould we try to get used to the patterns of a new language by noticing that ‘they say things this way’ and not asking ‘why’ too often?”
“To often” is always inappropriate.

In my experience as a teacher, students who ask “why?” too much are often unable to advance in the language. They get stuck on all their "why"s. They want to know why they can’t say something, rather than just accepting that it isn’t said that way in the language they are learning.

The composer Arnold Schoenberg had a great quote to the effect when he was teaching composition, if students kept asking him why he did this or that, or made this or that choice, he had to think about it, and he felt like a centipede trying to consciously think about how to move all of its legs - he became unable to walk.

As for rules and patterns, rules are just verbal statements of patterns. For example, in English, if a word ends in -tion, like construction or ammunition, the syllable before -tion will be stressed. That’s a little rule about stress. Might help somebody, might not. But it just describes reality.

Or, if you want to talk about something that is not the case in the present, you could say: If it were sunny today, I’d go. You can make a “rule” and say: If past tense, I’d present tense. Or you can just give an example: If my Auntie had balls, she’d be my uncle (as the classic example goes).

These are not “why” answers: they’re just trying to state the pattern in verbal form.

I remember one student who desperately wanted to say: I want to eat cookies as many as I can. She could not accept that in English people say, “I want to eat as many cookes as I can.” The fact that we say “I want to eat many cookes” didn’t affect her. The problem was that she was just translating from Japanese and it was screwing her up.

Theoretical linguists are busy trying to answer the “why” questions about language, and there are still many questions that are unanswered. Linguistic, or explanatory, grammars are probably not going to be very helpful for students who are not well-versed in theoretical linguistics.

So, in the end, I think it’s best to remember patterns. But if there is a “rule” (ie, a verbal description of the pattern or phenomenon) that is easy to remember, then by all means remember it. But I think that grammar explanations are like explanations in a dictionary - they are there to help you understand something. You don’t learn words by memorizing the dictionary definition, and you don’t learn grammatical patterns by memorizing the verbal descriptions of patterns. Besides, this isn’t school and you don’t have to take a test - you can consult your grammar reference whenever you want.

That being said, if someone is interested in the deeper “why” questions about language, there’s nothing stopping them from getting some textbooks and learning about theoretical linguistics. I don’t know that it will make them a better language learner, but it may help satisfy their curiosity about the “why” questions.

Surely this is about striking a balance. There are rules that are easy to accept just by example, and this is going to be easier the closer the target language is to your own. However, if there’s a big difference, it may not be easy to notice such patterns, and studying will allow the learner to be aware of them and then notice them in a native speaker’s language. The same is true of vocabulary, certainly, so why not grammar? To be accurate in French requires it, and some of the differences in tense usage in Japanese I was completely oblivious of until I studied them. In many of these cases you find that native speakers even have to learn them.

But this isn’t asking ‘why’, but knowing ‘how’ as Botrun says.

First of all I should say, as I have done in the other thread, that active grammar study is something I only do very little of, mostly in the beginning stage of learning a new language. Later in language learning phrases just feel right, or they don’t.

My Why-questions stop when I found a recurring pattern aka. rule with universal or near-universal character. To me it makes no sense to try to understand why the word order in French is different as opposed to German. Maybe scientists can answer that question, but I am not interested in it.

I try to find patterns and rules within the framework of a new language. I find it difficult to make progress without regular patterns. One example of a rule vacuum would be the tones in Chinese. They seem to be completely random to me without any connection between meaning of the character and the tone and I find memorizing them extremely difficult.

I should add that one of the big problems that grammar books have is that their explanations are not comprehensible to the average person who knows nothing about either modern linguistics or traditional grammar. Grammars that are written in English, for learners of English, can have this problem. The explanation is simply incomprehensible to the leaner and therefore not of much benefit.

Grammar books also try to jump from explaining what a patterns means to giving you a schematic guideline for how to construct that pattern. I like books that are satisfied with presenting a pattern and explaining what it means and how it is used.

It’s the same as a dictionary - if you can’t understand the explanation of what the word means, then the dictionary is not very useful. Whatever grammar book a person uses, it’s most important that they be able to understand the explanations inside - and also that lots of examples are given.

Fortunately, there is now a lot of choice. We can choose grammar references, or grammar coursebooks. We can choose books in our native language or in our target language. We can choose books that are very detailed, or books that are more of an overview. We can choose books that have lots of technical terminology, or books that try to keep that terminology to a minimum.

I found that the grammar books I used for Japanese in the beginning (mostly published by Kondansha) were very helpful in that they mostly presented a pattern and then explained what the pattern meant. I ended up putting a lot of those example sentences in my SRS with the answer portion being the explanation of what the pattern meant.

In fact, my first book was called “A Dictionary of Basic Japanese Sentence Patterns”. Pretty straightforward. A bunch of different patterns and what they meant.

Bortrun, I hear you. It is unfortunate that grammar explanations often assume familiarity with all sorts of linguistic terminology. I happen to have quite a good grasp of it, but I can easily see how it would be frustrating to someone who hasn’t.

A similar thing is trying to force certain grammatical constructs on a language where it really has no relevance. I remember a Swedish lesson in 3rd or 4th grade where we were meant to learn about the accusative and dative. That’s all well and fine, except that words do not change their form in the accusative and dative, save for personal pronouns, making the distinction pointless. It would be like explaining how to use the future tense in Japanese. And this is just one example.

Not every language works like Latin. This is something I wish grammarians would understand.

As for the question the OP asked, grammatical rules are certainly important to study, but the way we actually learn those rules is not by drilling declension tables, but, as stated, by noticing and getting used to the patterns. It’s funny to me how much fuss is being made over grammar when in the end it really is an infintesimally small part of any language - compared to the actual content; vocabulary, idioms etc etc - which will become apparent to you when you really start to progress in it. I mean sure it can be a bitch at times, but once you get it, you got it, so to speak.

I like to learn a general rule (without too much detail at first) with one or a few examples I will try to memorize. The goal is to have to remember as little as possible, while still having enough information to allow me to create new correct sentences (at least most of the time).

I feel that we should not worry to much about rules but let your mind get use to it. I think its similar to Math, you can always ask why, otherwise you get left puzzled and its harder to grasp, but if you just keep doing it and practicing it makes sense and your brain starts to understand it.

Dear Minjun, if you want to be taken seriously as a tutor, please check your comments before posting them. (We all produce the occasional typos, but yours are consistently the same.)

I think “rules” vs “patterns” is a false dichotomy. From a grammatical point of view all language is just patterns. In order to categorize these patterns you have to group them in some kind of meaningful way. If you can do that, you have a “rule”. I suspect by “rules” vs “patterns” you mean “invalid rules” vs “valid rules”

All language patterns occur in a meaningful context, meaning the question “why” is always in the background. For example, “If it rains, the picnic will be cancelled.” can be interpreted as a pattern at face value. In the context of planned picnics, possible rain, and people who don’t like to get wet, we COULD get this pattern as a whole piece.

You can also extract from this pattern: “IF (present tense clause), (WILL clause).” And claim something like: “This is called the “real” conditional because it is used for possible situations. These situations take place if a certain condition is met.” This is nonsense. Here are a few counter examples starting from the same context, and leading to a different pattern:
“Smoking too much will give you lung cancer.”
“Given that their defence holds up, the Canucks could win the Stanley Cup.”
Here are more counter examples starting from the pattern in question, and leading to a completely different meaningful context:
“He’ll come if he likes it or not.”
“I’ll be there if I have to run all night.”
A rule is just a pattern in a given meaningful context that holds true >99% of the time.
Individual words, being spelled almost always the same way, are just like mini grammar rules, since they are patterns of text or sounds that are more or less invariable in structure and always indicate the same context.
EG Let’s imagine a grammar rule for the word “jump”. When you want describe a vigorous autonomous bipedal thrusting of an animate object into mid-air, you sequence the letters j-u-m-p. Of course these “word rules” are so self evident in most languages that you don’t even think of them as rules.

Rules that cross word boundaries naturally emerge later. Think of “s” endings of verbs following “he/he/it” or the nouns they represent in the present tense. This pattern, being invariably true, qualifies as a rule. It is also exciting. It is concise and clear. It cuts across traditional word boundaries. It is like a slightly higher order word.

This excitement is what fuels those who love grammar rules. These few valid and concise “higher order word rules” are seductive. They promise that all these mountains of “word rules” can somehow be packaged into easily digestible AND valid “higher order word rules” and speed up the learning process.

Unfortunately the cart gets put before the horse. The excitement breeds grammar McNuggets (bite size, all taste, but no nutrition) like “use VERB-ed for actions that are finished.” “use VERB-ing for things you can see happening” etc.

These rules are just as vague and nonsensical as the so called “2nd conditional” rule above.

What is great for learning language is not consciously looking for higher level rules in grammar books, but consciously trying to develop them from scratch on your own as a SIDELINE to paying attention to content. Even though the objective is unattainable on a conscious level, it encourages a much better level of engagement and opens “the doors of perception” to learning the language.

I agree that correct usage is all about mastering patterns that are generally accepted in the language as spoken by the natives. Of course the patterns may vary according to which tribe of natives we want to emulate, but language mastery is still about patterns.

I believe that massive input, with a little help, whether from teachers, the odd correction, grammar books, self-help tools like LingQ or Anki, is the shortest path to the mastery of these patterns.

I find the explanations of the patterns using a lot of grammatical jargon hard to follow. I prefer, “in Japanese they say things this way and it more or less means this”. Then I watch for the pattern and gradually get a clearer and clearer sense of what it really means, the more I come across it in my reading and listening.

Do we really learn or memorise grammar rules for our native language?

I certainly didn’t. I just picked it up.

Why should learning other languages be different?

Because for your first language, it took you years and years of getting it wrong with constant reinforcement from native speakers surrounding you 24/7.

I personally feel that understanding grammar brings a greater understanding of the text more quickly. If I wasn’t aware of the case endings in Russian, than I would’ve become confused extremely quickly by the free word order. Also, the reason we didn’t learn grammar rules when we were younger was because 1) we couldn’t read and 2) we had nothing to base our first language upon. At least when it comes to the 2nd , 3rd or even 9th language we want to know, we have foundations on which to learn. I think that will ultimately speed up the language learning process. I also think that it is important not to confuse 1st language acquisition with the 2nd language acquisition.

“Do we really learn or memorize grammar rules for our native language?”

I, unfortunately, was required to attend school as a child, where Mrs. Ritter, my 8th grade English teacher, subjected us to a form of endless torture known as “diagramming sentences.”

I wonder what Mrs Ritter would have to say to the students of today, who are allowed to just “pick up” concepts of grammar? You kids are really lucky!