SHOULD YOU LEARN GRAMMAR TO SPEAK AMAZING RUSSIAN?
Some people say:
“If your goal is communication, throw out your grammar books and dive into speaking!”
Grammar is not sexy. Yet it’s a topic that causes hot discussions on the Internet.
Does learning grammar impede or boost your progress at speaking Russian?
- to be able to clearly express your thoughts in Russian, even the complex ones, and come across as a smart and educated person;
- to learn Russian as quickly as possible and start using it soon, not after 10 years of study!
…and you’d prefer not to stuff your brain with endless memorized rules and other abstract linguistic information. Right?
So, does learning grammar fit into this picture or is it better to avoid it by all means?
I’d say, it can be both – depends on how you approach it!
Read on to find out how learning Russian grammar can destroy or boost your speaking and what may happen if you ignore grammar.
People who recommend throwing away your books, actually protest against the practice which is quite common at universities and schools.
It is something I experienced when helping my Turkish nephew with his English lessons. Apparently, what they do at school is: studying grammar topics and then doing grammar exercises and occasionally reading a little text and translating it into Turkish. No wonder he couldn’t speak at all and didn’t understand basic questions after several years of studying. They didn’t practice speaking! But what he could do well is grammar tests.
This same thing happened to some of my clients who had been trying to learn Russian using this approach.
Here’s what happens when learners of Russian ignore speaking practice and only do grammar exercises
- they become masters of doing grammar exercises
- they know many rules and can have a conversation about them (in English – because speaking Russian is a pain)
- they speak slowly because each time they want to say something they have to mentally revisit all the rules and figure out which endings to choose, which verb of motion would suit the context, etc.
- if they have to speak under time pressure, they give up on these endless calculations, let it go and “dive into speaking” just like someone who never learned any grammar – and then they feel guilty because they know they’ve probably broken all the rules they had so carefully studied!
- or they just avoid speaking whatsoever because they can’t tolerate making a mistake. They think they just need to study a little more!
OF COURSE, you need to practice speaking if you want to become a fluent Russian speaker.
But when people say that we should ignore grammar and ONLY focus on speaking, aren’t they throwing the baby out with the bathwater?
WHAT IS GRAMMAR, ANYWAY?
Let’s make it clear.
When I say “learning grammar”, I don’t mean:
- learning rules of spelling and punctuation (it’s orthography);
- memorizing long and complicated rules with numerous exceptions;
- juggling linguistic terms.
You don’t need that to speak Russian.
For linguists, grammar refers to cognitive information underlying language use. Speakers of a language have a set of internalized rules for using that language. These rules constitute grammar.
The key word is internalized. That means your end goal is not being able to cite the rules. It is being able to speak using the same grammar patterns that the speech of natives is based on.
When I say “learning grammar”, I mean:
- learning the grammar patterns typical for the Russian language,
- practicing to use them in speech,
- making them your second nature so that you can eventually speak correctly on autopilot.
You’re lucky if you can successfully pick up grammar structures from the input, but what if not?
When I worked in a language school in Moscow, I met a man who had been living in Russia for several years. All this time he could successfully get by, meet his basic needs and survive in Russia without caring about the grammar. He was married to a Russian woman (who also spoke English). His children were growing in a Russian speaking environment.
When his children got about 5 and 7 years old and their speech became more complex, he realised he and them often weren’t able to understand each other! This new communication gap meant a real pain. The memorized phrases and random endings took him only as far as solving his basic needs. Now he needed grammar and a deeper approach in order to stay connected with his loved ones.
BUT in his case, it was sooo hard! He had been speaking carelessly for several years and his mistakes became fossilized. He was struggling to learn to pay attention to details and change his speaking patterns.
Unfortunately, I don’t know how this story ended. I hope he succeeded to improve.
But in general, some people succeed and most people fail and/or give up. It’s because you’d need much more motivation, time and hard work to unlearn the bad habits compared to someone learning Russian grammar patterns from scratch.
Here’s what may happen when people don’t pay attention to grammar patterns and only practice conversation
- They have a repertoire of memorized phrases that they can confidently use.
- When they want to go beyond that and improvise, they:
- either speak slowly and not confidently, fail and rephrase, fail and rephrase, always question the forms they are using,
- or are hard or impossible to understand because they speak Russian with English grammar or their grammar is random. Sometimes this leads to misunderstandings.
- Even though they might know lots of words, they don’t sound like educated people they are – more like a shop assistant in a tourist area who picked up some phrases.
- It’s hard for them to talk about complex matters. When they want to express a complicated idea, mistake builds upon mistake and the message gets lost.
- The person speaking to them must be really patient and willing to spend the time to listen and decipher their speech or wait while they rephrase an incomprehensible sentence. Otherwise, their speaking partner will want to switch to English or try to avoid them.
“Just because you do not take an interest in grammar doesn’t mean grammar won’t take an interest in you”.
THE MINDFUL APPROACH TO SPEAKING
People often compare learning a language with learning to ride a bicycle. This is reasonable because both are skills.
Some people say that learning grammar is similar to learning all the abstract information about your bicycle: what parts it is build of, how they function together, etc.
I say learning grammar should be similar to getting short tips and information bits from your instructor about how to ride – and then learning to implement them in practice.
For example, you’re learning to ride a mountain bike and your instructor says:
“When it’s time to descend, drop your seat about 2 or 3 inches from the height you set it at for climbing hills”.
You don’t need to memorize this! You need to internalize it by practicing it again and again.
(Of course, you can learn mountain biking by immersing yourself in the process and figure out the right techniques on your own based on trial and error. But it might be faster and safer to learn and practice the techniques one by one with the instructor.)
It’s the same with your Russian. You can take a practical and mindful approach.
You can learn grammar patterns one by one. You can go through a process of understanding how they work to being able to use them in speech correctly on autopilot.
What happens when you take a mindful approach to building your speaking skills
- Your sentences have a natural Russian structure and logic: you speak clearly. Even when you talk about complex matters.
- You can improvise confidently, creating an infinite amount of original and coherent sentences based on the patterns you’ve learned.
- You sound like a smart and educated person.
- You develop a language intuition, can predict things or easily understand new patterns based on the principles you know.
- You rarely think about the rules when you speak – you just automatically speak correctly (in most cases)
- Occasionally you make mistakes but they don’t cause misunderstanding.
- People don’t switch to English when they hear you speaking Russian.
- You speak fluently.
- You can speak to ANY native speaker of Russian, not only your teacher or your super patient friend. You can easily express any thoughts that come to your mind and connect with the person on a deeper level.
LET’S SUM IT UP
Learning grammar doesn’t help you develop speaking skills if all you do is grammar exercises and memorizing case charts and if you never or rarely speak Russian.
If you ignore grammar and immerse yourself in speaking, you’ll probably learn to handle simple everyday situations (even though not speaking elegantly). But the more complex a task, the harder it’ll be to get your point across. If one day you decide to brush up on your grammar, your success will depend on your motivation and persistence – it’s going to be harder than for someone starting from scratch.
There are people who can catch up on speaking after years of doing grammar exercises. There’re people who can successfully pick up grammar structures from the language they hear or read – and speak naturally and clearly. But it’s not like this with everybody who takes the “grammar only” or the “speaking only” approach.
If your goal is ambitious and you don’t want to give it up to chance, it’s worth including both grammar and speaking in your learning process.
Get tips on how to do that by downloading the Beginner Russian Grammar and Speaking Roadmap.
P.S. The photo was made in Cherepovets, Russia by Ant Rozetsky