Language learning gets easier when we lighten up on the grammar terms

In a comment to my recent post about how the first foreign language is the hardest to learn, Randy had this to say.

“Wow, for once I actually agree with you.

Indeed, in my experience with languages, Spanish is among the absolute easiest to learn. However, as it was my first, it was also one of the most difficult, and it took the longest.

I think the introduction of new concepts is the reason why the first language is so hard — learning to think of things like “subjunctive”, and “imperfective”, and “noun gender”, and a whole array of grammatical concepts which we aren’t even aware of in English.

Now, though, I am ready to say that the number of new concepts I’ve had to learn for Russian, even as a seasoned language learner, are more than what was new to me when I first learned Spanish. By that measure, I would say that Russian “is harder”, even as much as I despise that phrase.”


My experience has been the opposite. In all the years of learning French at school I could never really figure out what the subjunctive and the conditional were all about, even though I got good marks. Once I just dove into reading about French history and culture, reading the French language press in Montreal,?? finding people to talk to in French, I was on my way. This liberated me from the grammar focused approach to language learning that I had in school. My French improved dramatically. I studied Political Science in France and had no trouble keeping up and never worried about a grammar term.

I do not think I know one grammatical term for Chinese or Japanese. I just know that they say “this” “this way” and “that” “that way”.


I admit that knowing a number of Romance languages, I can just look at verb tables for Italian, or Portuguese and get the picture, although only exposure will enable me to get the endings right, but this is based on my familiarity with this family of languages.

In Russian I know the cases by whether we are doing something “to” something, or”by” something or “with” something, rather than by the names of the cases. The only one I know for sure is the genitive and I know that a lot of prepositions take the genitive.That is about it except for the curious, yet straight forward, and easy rule to learn; one of something takes the nominative, 2, 3 or 4 of something takes the genitive singular and 5 or more takes the genitive plural.I am not kidding!

Now if I could just remember the endings I would be home free, but I am improving. Certain forms of the nouns and verbs just start to seem natural because I have heard them and seen them so often in context. But by putting most of my effort into listening, reading and vocabulary acquisition, every time I leaf through my short grammar book, I identify something that I am already aware of. But I keep the grammar terms to a minimum.??

I suspect that Randy and I again disagree.

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