Do people learn languages by studying grammar ? Of course.

I realize that some people aren’t going to like my answer to this question, because the Received Wisdom is that old-fashioned ways of
language learning don’t work. My husband is 65. He learned Spanish in high school – El Camino Real (read: organized grammar). He had a German major in college with a Russian minor and a Spanish minor. Very traditional. His MA is in Russian, and one summer he had a grant for 8 hours of Portuguese. He had 3 years of Bulgarian for his Russian MA (not a lot of commercial use for Bulgarian). He was an in-house translator for an oilfield company, and once they had a document in Italian – 84 pages – and he couldn’t find a translator. So he bought himself a grammar book and a dictionary, and 84 pages later he could translate commercial and oilfield Italian. We took a semester of French for reading in grad school and he continued learning French on the job.

He did this without living in the country in which the language was spoken. (He has travelled in Spanish-speaking countries, a couple of days in Brazil, and 6 weeks in Russia.) He translates in the languages – legal, commercial and oilfield documents, INTO English. He can’t always ask how your aunt is, nor say that it’s raining really hard, but he can translate stuff about running tools down the oil well or invoices being paid. (Well, I exaggerate – he can ask about your aunt. But he doesn’t necessarily have the full range of the language except in Spanish and Russian.)

His language learning was pretty old-fashioned: learn the verb conjugation, learn the noun case endings, learn the vocabulary list. Memorize, repeat. (I told you this wasn’t going to be a popular answer in certain circles.)

Another factor is that he had polio as a young child, and his arms are paralyzed. I have always thought that he was forced to be more verbal since he can’t gesture to get meaning across, and that helped him learn languages. An equally important factor, if not more important, is the desire to learn the language and the recognition that languages are important. If the student already has that desire and recognition, or if the teacher can impart it, then I really think that any method (or, ideally, combination of methods) can lead to true language learning. (Hold the flaming retort – I warned you up front.) I have several English speakers this year who opted to be in the class for Spanish speakers instead of regular Spanish II. We refer to it as their immersion Spanish class. They are very bright students, very motivated, and I would like to see them take the AP just to see if they could pass it after 2 years. I think that a couple could. I’d just love to sit here and tell you that they would pass because I am such a fantastic teacher, and that my methods are so wonderful. I would love to trot them out to prove that I deserve to be the teacher of the year. But – trust me on this – they are bright kids who have good study habits (i.e., they listen and take notes) and they want to learn Spanish. If the desire is there, all I have to do is polish the diamond in front of me. Which is what my husband’s teachers did.

So no, I don’t think the way he learned was the critical factor. In fact, he basically taught himself some of the languages, with a dictionary and a grammar. And he was always learning a couple at a time, from 9th grade forward. On the one hand, he is unique. (Tomorrow we make 42 and a half years of a happy marriage! He’s really unique if he can put up with me!) On the other hand, his experience is a comment on those of us who think that our own way of teaching is the One And Only Road To Language Learning.

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