Grammar and Mezzofanti: My Take

Grammar is a tricky and notoriously fussy subject when it comes to learning languages. Recently, I read a post on the Mezzofanti Guild website, by Donovan Nagel. The post talks about the role of grammar in language learning in both self-study and institutions. Nagel concludes that grammar is not necessary and is even detrimental to learning to speak a language.

Why I agree

Grammar does make people fuss over the technicalities and intricacies of language. I myself am guilty of doing so. And Nagel’s right: you don’t need grammar to speak a language. Nobody thinks about the structure of the language as they speak. It just flows. You should be practicing full phrases (“prefabricated multi word items”) rather than individual words. Sure, it pays to know a lot of words and all the possible things you could say. But it’s important to focus on what people do say. You want to sound like a native speaker? Then listen to what they say and imitate. It doesn’t make any sense to speak a language unnaturally. Talking in a way that is technically correct but is stilted and unwieldy in speech is just a pain for no reason.

Why I disagree (sort of):

Nagel states the following:

The primary reason why we actually learn the grammar of our own language in school is to enhance our literacy skills (reading and writing) – not to make us better speakers.

This is absolutely true and I don’t disagree. But what I do disagree with is that you don’t need grammar to learn a language at all. Granted, that’s not what Nagel is saying. I imagine that he’s focusing on the learning to speak part.

Now, I want to be literate and versed in the spoken language. So naturally, I think grammar is important for reading and acquiring vocabulary. It makes you more learned and educated. It pays to be able to learn more about a language and the culture, and one of the best ways is to learn is by reading. (Obviously, reading is not an option for every language.)

What’s that? You’re not trying to learn to read/write?

Then good for you.

Everyone has different goals for the language they want to learn. Sometimes that means learning to be literate, and other times not.

Many language learners don’t like to learn grammar and that’s fine. But I do write my guides with a grammatical perspective anyway, since it helps me organize my lessons. More importantly, it’s there to act also as source material. That way, people who want to use a more immersive method as mentioned in Nagel’s article can convert it into their own format.

I suppose what I’m trying to say is that people’s goals differ. And I guess I don’t really disagree per se either. I’m just clarifying some stuff for people who may misunderstand his article as an attack on learning grammar entirely. If I’m wrong, I’d love a clarification.

Hope this article clears up some things! Please share this article and don’t forget to follow and like this page if you enjoy my content!

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sr3934@nyu.edu

I'm a student studying at NYU, hoping to pursue a career in diplomatic services, and I'm obsessed with learning and teaching foreign languages. I like to practice Taekwondo, enjoy Square Enix video games, and engage in Asian-American social activism and international political activism.