Rules? What Rules?

A few days ago, I watched a video of an English lesson for foreign students. Observing other teachers working with real students is a part of the Teaching English as Second Language certification, so I watched a young lady explaining to her students how to add the ending -(e)s to English verbs in the Present tense. Of course, I knew that the ending -(e)s is used to form the third person, singular (she, he, it). What I didn’t know was the existence of the rules prescribing when it should be -s, and when it is -es; and when -y changes to -i(es); and when -y remains unchanged. Probably, my English teacher explained the rules to me, and, it is very likely I learned them once, but I forgot them completely. I simply don’t need them anymore.

My English is still not so perfect, and sometimes, I can forget to add the third person ending altogether, but if I remember about the ending, I add it correctly, never having second thoughts about the spelling. I do it automatically. My eyes have seen many different verbs in the third, singular, and each time I saw this form, my brain absorbed the correct spelling. The fact that the rules exist shocked me for a moment, but then I thought, why bother? Why should a student spend her mental energy and finite memory resources on memorizing spelling rules instead of doing something useful in her target language?

Some linguists believe that grammar rules can be learned inductively. A student can figure out what rules are by comparing different words and sentences, and finding patterns how this or that word changes. It works perfectly for children – after all, we learned our mother-tongue knowing nothing about grammar. As for adult learners, it may be not the best way to learn a new language. Not the fastest, for sure. Remember, children spend years doing nothing but learning their native language. I learned from my teaching experience that in many cases, an adult student can benefit from an explicit explanation of grammar rules. However, memorizing rules is one thing, using them is another.

You as a language learner may have experienced that awkward moment when you put a word in a wrong form when you speak despite all those grammar exercises in the class. You knew that rule, but still made a mistake, because the rule hadn’t become your habit. The only way to turn your rational knowledge into an automatic reaction is to use your new language practically. Meaningful and authentic practice is the key. In other words, do something interesting and important in your new language. Grammar exercises are neither meaningful nor authentic – our life would be like an absurdist play if we were to communicate with each other using phrases from grammar books. Make the language you learn your new tool. Discover new articles, meet new people, watch new videos – whatever would keep you truly engaged in the content rather than the language.

Does it mean that language students should not learn grammar rules? Not at all. As I said before, it is often quite helpful to be aware of the rules. Grammar books may be your guides to the language; they may help you to understand where exactly your mother-tongue and your new language are different. It would be too naive, however, to think that you learn a language by studying grammar rules. It doesn’t make much sense to dedicate too much time to grammar. Find the content that motivates you. If you like books, or any specific writers, read books. If you are into quantum computing, watch videos and talk to your colleagues on the forums online. Rules will come to you after some time (have you heard about the 10000 hours rule? Yep, that’s right).

The last note. I noticed that when I bring authentic materials to my students, and those materials are interesting to them or at least relevant, they perform remarkably better than when they have to deal with texts and records that are not in their field of interest. This works all the time, for all my students. Be very picky choosing materials for your language practice and remember that boredom kills, while curiosity pushes you forward.