Linguists, educators, and learners all face the same old question; does speaking or mastering grammar matter more when children learn a new language? The divide between conversation and grammar-based language learning has existed for decades, but it doesn’t have to stay that way. In fact, the two concepts can be integrated into the same teaching method to boost engagement and encourage learning that lasts.
This article will walk you through the reasons why isolated grammar instruction doesn’t work, explain what young learners need most, and show you how conversation and grammar can work together to help learners succeed both in and outside of the classroom.
Why the Old Way of Teaching Grammar Doesn’t Work
Why Isolated Grammar Instruction Doesn’t Work: Have you ever filled out endless verb conjugation charts, just to find that by the end you haven’t retained any grammatical rules? If so, you’ve experienced isolated grammar instruction.
- Isolated grammar instruction is a teaching method in which students study grammatical rules, forms, and concepts removed from the context of literature, writing, and speaking.
- By teaching grammar out of context, it makes it harder for the student to see its cultural and practical relevance. This can lead to lower levels of engagement and increased frustration in the classroom.
- Examples of isolated grammar instruction include skill drills, rote memorization tasks, and most of what you’ll find in a standard language workbook.
Learners Need Meaning: In the 19th century, the German Experimental Psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus examined The Forgetting Curve, which found that the more meaningful information is, the easier it is for them to retain it. If the information doesn’t strike the learners as valuable or relevant, Ebbinghaus theorizes it will most likely be forgotten. Isolated grammar instruction might help our memorization and drill speed, but if learners don’t see the practical meaning of it, their learning will be lost. This is why conversation and grammar need to work together to make learning memorable and meaningful for students.
The Importance of Teaching in Context
Learners Want The Big Picture: When a teacher tries to explain a complex grammatical concept to language learners, it often forces the instructor to speak in English and disrupt the crucial immersion process. This disruption is more harmful than one might think.
A recent study showed that young students who were immersed in a language ended up outperforming their non-immersion peers in both reading and speaking, and gained a full school year’s worth of extra knowledge. Luckily, there are ways that language instructors can combine grammar and immersive conversation for the ultimate learning experience. One way of doing this is encouraging students to look at “the big picture” before figuring out the details.
- This “big picture” approach is similar to the strategy of guessing based on experience, also known as inductive reasoning. As Kathryn Schulz says in her book Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, inductive reasoning is the engine that drives the machinery of human cognition.
Learners new to a language can use inductive reasoning to boost their communication skills and gain confidence in speaking. For example, thinking that one should add the suffix “-ed” to form a past tense verb in English is an inductive inference.
While it’s often correct, this reasoning might lead learners to eventually make mistakes such as “runned”, “eated” and “swimmed”.While these mistakes are significant, they still prompt the learner to start talking and can be easily fixed with more oral practice. Only once learners are deeply familiar with a language do they benefit from learning about complex grammatical rules and exceptions. So start simple!
Why You Should Integrate Grammar Into Conversation
Learning By Doing: Conversation practice helps young learners apply their knowledge, engage their senses, and learn through the process of doing. According to a study done at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, language learners that practice speaking perform better than those who learn through comprehension exercises that don’t require oral practice.
The same study also suggests that conversation practice actively bridges the cognitive gap between grammar, punctuation, and vocabulary. This means that through conversation, multiple linguistic elements seamlessly come together to help the speaker form a sentence.
Accent is Everything: Language is social. While speaking the written version of a language might be correct, it won’t help you integrate into a community or forge bonds with others. A great way to connect with the locals is to sound like one, and conversation is key in picking up the perfect accent. To truly impress a native speaker, it is important to sound natural, use colloquial phrases and pick up on a language’s distinctive rhythm and tone.
For better or worse, we judge people’s abilities based on their accents. A recent study conducted at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School found that participants rated entrepreneurs with non-native accents as less competent than competitors with a native accent, no matter how effective the candidates were at their jobs. By mastering an accent, your child will be better prepared for future job opportunities and have an advantage when speaking with locals.
We Learn Grammar Through Conversation: Speakers use grammar to organize their thoughts, keep the conversation flowing, and convey the right kinds of relationships between people and events. Conversation, on the other hand, helps us connect with others and express their ideas.
While these are different parts of language learning, the best language learning programs recognize that both of these methods share the same aim: to communicate. When young learners see how grammar works in conversation, they see grammar as an integral part of speaking as opposed to something abstract and separated from the real world.
TruFluency Kids Spanish Immersion Includes Grammar AND Conversation
Grammar and conversation don’t have to be enemies. They belong together and can work in tandem to help learners communicate clearly and confidently. Here at Trufluency Kids Spanish Immersion, we don’t believe in drills, conjugation charts, or mindless exercises. Instead, we use conversation as the driving force behind grammar acquisition and linguistic growth. If you want your kids to embark on a Spanish learning journey that will leave them fluent, sign up today.