The Grammar Myth… Debunked!

library_by_asuka111-d81a3ebThis is not the first article ever written about grammar.

And it certainly won’t be the last.

But I was shocked to discover recently that, despite talking about it quite often, I’ve never actually written a post dedicated to that big question that kicks up so much controversy and divides opinion like Marmite: “Should I learn grammar?”

I felt it was time.

So here goes! 🙂

Should I learn grammar?

Right out of the gate, let me make one thing very clear.

Grammar is vitally important, and is an integral part of learning any language. (There, I’ve said it, so no emails telling me about the importance of grammar, please!)

However, as a new language learner, it’s dangerous for you to prioritise learning it.

These two statements are not contradictory.

Here’s why:

  1. There is an opportunity cost to everything. In other words, by spending time on one thing, you have to sacrifice something else.
  2. Grammar is very complex and learning correct grammar is extremely time-consuming.
  3. When you speak a foreign language, only 20% of meaning is conveyed through grammar. The other 80% is conveyed through words.
  4. Therefore, if you’re an average person whose goal is to learn to speak your target language, it is not smart to worry too much about grammar, because you will spend a disproportionate amount of time on something that is relatively unimportant.

This is a very important insight for you as a language learner.

Grammar is a bitch

Let’s put it in plain terms: Grammar is hard!

You’ll study it for years and still not get it right.

What’s more, the more you worry about it, the more likely you are to avoid speaking to people, because you’ll be nervous about making mistakes.

(Don’t underestimate this point – it happens to a lot of people!)

And all this fuss for…the 20%?

It’s like learning to drive by studying the owners manual of your car. Or learning to play the piano by reading books on music theory.

It makes no sense!

Yes, grammar is important. But it’s not what’s going to get you results in your language learning.


You’ve got other things to worry about

To learn to speak a language fluently you need to worry about staying motivated more than anything else. If you lose your motivation, you’ll stop learning. And then nothing else matters.

  • To stay motivated you need to feel like you’re progressing.
  • To feel like you’re progressing, you need to be constantly improving your ability to communicate.
  • To improve your ability to communicate, you need to focus on those things that make up 80% of communication.

…not the 20%!

Does that make you look at grammar in a different way?

It should.

You should be thinking to yourself: “I need to be spending my time on the 80% stuff!”

And you’d be right!

You should also be thinking: “If 80% of what I say will be understood through the words alone, it doesn’t really matter if I make any grammar mistakes!

And you’d be right again!

If this comes as a bit of a shock to you, don’t worry. It’s not your fault. After all, pretty much every language textbook and course out there wants to teach you grammar.

Why? Two reasons.

  1. It’s what people expect
  2. It’s something tangible that can be taught

(Think about it – it’s much harder to teach someone how to memorise vocabulary or how to find a language partner!)

Textbooks, like the excellent Assimil or Teach Yourself series, can be extremely useful for experienced language learners who know how they learn best, and can be selective with what they try to learn.

But if you’re out there learning a new language for the first time, all that information can get overwhelming, because you simply can’t learn it all and don’t know what to prioritise.

Focus on other things

So all of this is why I don’t believe you should spend a lot of time studying grammar when you’re learning a new language.

It’s just not the golden egg they want you to believe it is.

What should you spend your time on instead? Well, that’s what I try to answer in every other article on the blog! I’ve also got a special email series that teaches you my top strategies for learning a new language quickly – click here to check it out.

So that’s it, I’ve said my piece!

Do you agree with my views on learning grammar? Do you think I’ve got it all wrong? Please give this post a share on Facebook, then leave me a comment below to set me straight!

(Note: The 80% and 20% figures I used in this post are contentious. If you’re interested in reading more about this, corpus linguisticscognitive linguistics and lexicology are the areas you need.)

Image1: asuka111; Image 2: manuel2k10

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  • I love reading articles like this because I hate grammar. I study and forget it, re-study and re-forget it. I’m learning Russian which seems to have so much complicated grammar. I never know how to study it, or what the most important parts are, or for how long and it’s all very demotivating! The one thing I cling onto is that I went to Russia, and spoke Russian very badly before I had any clue about the grammar, and I was still understood most of the time. So, any article that says we should spend less time worrying about grammar is great imo! 🙂

    • Hi Emma. In all honesty, I actually love grammar, and can read about it all day. But I know that this isn’t the case for a lot of people. Whether you like grammar or not, it is not the deciding factor in getting out there and speaking, as your experience in Russia shows. Those first few experiences of speaking the language are priceless, and it’s such a tragedy if people never get to have those experiences because of fears about using correct grammar or making mistakes.

  • Kevin Richardson

    I may have found a sweet spot that works for me – after a couple of years finding my way in language learning, I did precious little grammar study for the main part. I’ve now found myself with a fairly workable general purpose vocabulary and can hold basic daily conversations in Japanese. About three weeks ago, I started learning one grammar function a day … previously I think I tried to learn too much and forgot most of it. After about ten days of learning one grammar function a day and then using it in a half hour conversation, I found that I remembered the useful ones and forgot the ones that didn’t really expand my conversational muscle. I definitely agree with you about not overwhelming yourself with grammar in the beginning … I see them as power ups in the language learning game … occasionally, I find an awesome one that suddenly gives me a lot more conversational bang with what I’ve got in my inventory.

    • Hey Kevin. I think there is always certain grammar that we’re ready for, and other that we’re not. This is one of the big problems with textbooks and language classes (which, let’s face it, are usually one and the same thing) – they systematically teach you things regardless of whether you’re ready to learn them or not. Self-directed learning as you describe is so important to make sense of everything and to give you what you need when you need it.

      By the way, I’m sure you must be black belt by now! 🙂

      • Kevin Richardson

        Maybe not black belt, but definitely growing stronger. I’m actually going back to my Japanese phrasebook to put into practice your tip on learning vocabulary in context.

  • This is interesting. I like the focus on vocabulary. I agree that it’s vital.

    I have a question. How are you defining grammar?

    I’m studying Somali. I have several hundred words of vocabulary memorized. When I go to read a newspaper, though, even with a dictionary I have trouble because I can’t tell when one clause starts and another begins. There are particles sprinkled throughout that can have different meanings.

    I need syntax and phrase-structure rules to understand what’s going on, to feel like I’m progressing. I need plural rules and verb conjugations to look things up in a dictionary.

    Now this is for the decoding side. On the speaking side, I agree that one can string words together and people will likely get the meaning. I also believe that obsessing about the correct verb conjugation will cause your brain to freeze. Without syntax, phrase structures, particles, etc, one will have a hard time expressing new ideas when the time comes.

    So maybe that’s it: study grammar (the rules behind the language) when the time comes. You’ll know it’s time. Trust your instincts, Luke…

    • Hi Richard, you’ve picked up on the one area that I deliberately avoided going into depth with here, because I feared it would stop the main point getting through. I think you’re asking two different questions, but ironically they actually step from the same room problem.

      You ask “How am I defining grammar’, but I think the real question here is how I’m defining vocabulary. I use the term “vocabulary” throughout the article, but the more proper term would be “lexis” (I just wanted to keep it simple!). Lexis refers to the use of words in language, and the key point is that most of the things we say are made up of prefabricated “chunks” of language that we store in our brain and dig up whenever we need them. There are infinite examples, but take, for example: “How have you been?” “I was wondering if you’d mind…” In both these cases, we are not thinking about what grammar to use as we speak, rather simply reciting the chunks that we know and use on a daily basis.

      Therefore, I would define grammar as “the things you need to know in order to manipulate the chunks of language that you speak in day-in-day-out, and to add more nuance to them.”

      So whether you’re talking about understanding the newspaper, or trying to speak with people, in the first instance what you need is not grammar, but it’s huge amounts of those prefabricated chunks of language (“phrases and expressions”) that make up 80% of what we say.

      The common misconception is to think of vocabulary as being single words. It is not. Words cannot exist alone and we always need to be thinking about them in context.

      I hope that makes sense… entire books have been written about the subject! Here’s one, in case you’re interested:

      • I think you make a lot of sense from a scientific, linguistic point of view. First, I think when you say “grammar,” I hear “syntax” and maybe “morphology.”

        Second, I’m thinking of first language acquisition, as opposed to second language acquisition, as the suggested book addresses. Babies don’t seem to put a lot into syntax at the beginning. They’re gathering a lot of syntactic data, but they are just saying individual words, then two words at a time, etc.

        I happen to love syntax and morphology, but I understand that isn’t everyone. Nevertheless, if I only do one thing in a day for my language, it’s got to be vocabulary. So vocab is correctly taking up the bulk of my time.

  • robmackay

    I have to say that I do agree, but something I feel is important to note here is this.

    In the 1980’s 1990’s, state school in the UK taught nothing on English grammar.

    This had a really bad affect on my language learning.

    I am currently learning French, and have been casually for the past nearly 2 years now. As a complete beginner to language learning and someone who wasn’t very good at languages in school it has been a hard and slow road.

    What I have come to realise over this time is that my main hurdle was that I had no clue about grammar at all. I had to find out what the definition of a verb was, let alone what conjugation was…

    So although I would agree that learning grammar is probably not the most productive, having at least a solid foundation (knowing the basics) in the grammar of your native language is a very very good thing indeed 😀

    As I have taken the time to learn some grammar, not much mind, I am still very basic with it I think, I have found that my understanding of French is increasing as I can see why things are done like they are.

    I think if you have been taught basic grammar in school for your native language you will find learning a new one much easier. If like me you were not taught grammar in school I would recommend at least spending some time on learning your native language grammar, as it will make the transition much easier.

    That’s my 2 pennies on grammar – and yes I would agree.

    • Rob, that’s a really interesting point. I also was not taught anything about English grammar, but I remember picking up the basics of verbs, nouns, adjectives etc from my French teacher in school. For some reason it stuck…and I’m very grateful that it did. I absolutely agree that you need to understand grammatical terminology – not a lot, but certainly the basics. It’s also not that hard to learn, but let’s face it, how many of us are ever going to head to the bookshop (or Amazon) and buy a book on English grammar in use?

  • Carlos Javier

    I would add a third reason for schools to teach you grammar: It’s something easy to evaluate.
    It’s very hard to evaluate oral communication skills when you have to evaluate several groups, each one with 30 to 40 students, but you can do a written exam, but the fact that I would write a sentence correctly in the exam doesn’t mean I would be able to say that sentence fluently when speaking.
    And for grammar, I think it’s very important to learn it, but not to study it. You see, you have to be able to put words together to express yourself, but you have to learn how to do it by practice, that is, listening and reading a lot to well-formed sentences, with something that can give you the meaning of what you hear or read. Assimil courses would be fine for that because it shows you the sentence in the language you are learning, and the same sentence in your own language, with only a few explanations when needed. Right now I’m using Michel Thomas German course (I’ve listened to Foundation, Advanced and the first Builder, and I’m listening to first Vocabulary, after this one I will listen to the second Builder and the remainder Vocabulary), I will begin soon with Assimil and to try to read German Wikipedia articles of my interest while I listen to the Review CDs.

    • Carlos, you’re right about grammar being easy to evaluate, but I disagree with the point. The fundamental principle of assessment is to encourage the kind of behaviour/learning that you want to occur. The fact that speaking is difficult to assess should not mean that we just assess other things instead. Assessing grammar only leads to students obsessing over learning correct grammar, and teachers obsessing over teaching correct grammar. This is disastrous for children. If you want proof of this, simply wander into any high school in Japan and witness incredibly dedicated kids who have been studying English for years, and who also attend juku (cram schools) at night, but who are barely able to mutter a word in the language. Assessment needs to encourage good learning above all else.

      • Carlos Javier

        It should do it, but it usually doesn’t do it. I began to study English when I was 11 (it was a subject at school) and not only at school, but also at high school the exams were always written, and we had very few spoken practice. Little listening and little speaking. So, it’s no wonder that many people get high grades at school in languages, but they cannot speak.

        • Yes, absolutely. The state of assessment in language learning in general is terrible. Things are changing, I think, but slowly.

  • RevBill

    Olly, I think you are misleading about grammar. Speaking is primary, but you cannot speak and be understood without using grammar. Learning a language is much more than memorizing lists of vocabulary words. Each language puts together words in its own way. That’s what grammar is all about.

    • Except, of course, that I’m not talking about memorising lists of words. When I talk about learning vocabulary, what I’m referring to are “lexical chunks” – complete phrases, if you like. These complete phrases contain correct grammar, and when you use them, you in turn then use that correct grammar. Whether you have explicitly studied that grammar or not is neither here nor there. But in the process of using it, you gradually begin to become familiar with the natural usage of that grammar, which in my opinion is the best way to learn it. I’m also talking about the beginning stages of language learning. When you progress beyond the beginner stage and start to study grammar more formally, the process of learning grammar “rules” is made much much easier by the fact that you’ve been using them all along.

  • Jorn van Schaïk

    Hey Olly, long-time language learner here. I find this post very interesting, but I would like to add one caveat – grammar becomes more important at the higher levels of your learning when the time has come for you to express your ideas correctly. In the beginning I don’t care about grammar either, but once I get pretty good – grammar can be essential to understand the fine nuances of a language.

    However I would only recommend it from about B1-B2 and up, because in the beginning it’s not important. The reason I say it is that when you’re using the language at those higher levels, more complicated routes of use become available where correct language use is expected, and there the knowledge of grammar really helps to sort out the wheat from the chaff.

    However I think that’s roundabout the last 20% of the learning that you talk about in your article, so I fully agree with you.

    • Hi Jorn. Yes, I fully agree with you. The importance of grammar really starts to kick in once you’ve built up a vocabulary core and can express yourself reasonably well in the language.

      The problems are all around that delicate beginner stage where the game is all about motivation and progress …and grammar helps very little with that for most people.

      • Jorn van Schaïk

        Which is why I actually try and change my iTalki tutors once I get better at a certain language! Some people have this very relaxed, encouraging demeanour, and don’t focus on grammar much at all (that’s usually the cheap informal tutors), so I tend to book classes with them. I want them to motivate me to speak more and do more work.

        When I’m good, I want them to be really mean and nasty and point out every little detail.

        • I certainly know a few who can be mean and nasty about grammar… 😉

  • Mark Haferkamp

    My target language is Lojban, a constructed language engineered to have an extremely regular, logical, and flexible grammar. As an example of its grammar-over-vocabulary style, Lojban has around 1,400 root content words and about 1,000 grammar words. So Lojban’s core vocabulary (ignoring compound and borrowed words) is about 40% grammar words. Thus grammar is much more than 20% of clear communication in Lojban.

    So when I started learning Lojban I focused on the grammar, the thing that sold me on the language in the first place. I lasted about three weeks before getting frustrated with looking up every word in a dictionary. So I gave up on Lojban for a couple months and brushed up on my Spanish on DuoLingo.

    Then I found Memrise’s list of Lojban vocabulary courses, made an account, explored the courses, and settled into Lojban-learning routine that feels like I’m actually learning something. Two months later, I’ve learned about 10% of the language. There are clear gaps in my understanding and I feel like I need to switch up courses again (in particular, systematically learning a few small sections of grammar), but I can actually say some things in Lojban.

    It’s much better for my motivation having the picture-with-gaps that the vocabulary-based approach produces than the blueprints-without-construction that I had from diving head-first into grammar. Grammar may increase expressiveness exponentially, but zero vocabulary raised to any power is still zero.

    From this experience starting to learn one of the most grammar-focused languages out there, I think your advice is in the right direction of mainstream language-teaching, but it goes too far. While vocabulary pays dividends faster in the beginning, /some/ grammar is still essential. Initial grammar shouldn’t get fancy, but it should explain how the vocabulary fits together to form the example sentences.

    For example, knowing that English sentences use the Subject+Verb+Object formula makes sentences like “the dog chases the ball” that much clearer. More advanced things like adjectives, adverbs, and inflection can wait until the vocabulary has painted the picture that they fit gaps in, but the grammar should be introduced as soon as the gaps are apparent.

  • Matt

    This is why I learn Chinese… I don’t have to worry about these grammar debates! 😀

  • William Buchanan

    I got myself a book on the Anunnaki language and apparently it has no grammar, because of who and what they are I can say primitive is not them in any way. Without grammar I know it’s going to make it more difficult to learn but I intend to do just that, languages aren’t my strong point but we often find ourselves in that situation in a number ways in life. “Can a language be usable without grammar?” Apparently so.

    • Interesting! I’ve never heard of Anunnaki, but I’ll be heading over to Google later!

      • William Buchanan

        I got a book not long ago, they were extraterrestrials who came to earth a long time ago and lived openly amongst our ancestors. At first it seems the stuff of fantasy but their influence is definitely solid proof of their existence in this case the proof is their influence on the ancient languages.

  • Mondejar Martín

    Hi everyone!!!
    I can’t remember listening to my parents teaching me grammar at the age of six. Instead, they focused their attention and took pride in seeing how I connected words and expressed myself in different contexts showing an incipient competence in the language. I think that mere exposition to the language either as a second or foreign language suffices the time spent on grammar. The key issue is how to provide plenty of opportunities for learners to interact with the language, input. Needless to say that the input should be varied and students’ motivation is vital to succeed.
    I learnt English as a foreign language for many years and I now see that I should have done more on reading and listening comprehensive materials…
    It’s true that we can use grammar to assess our students’ progress in mastering the structure of the target language, but is that what language mastery actually is, not likely. Students end up being conversant with language, but are unable to communicate their thoughts. In the end, they usually are frustrated and disoriented after so much grammar and structure.