In the last post I talked about my friend’s “fluency” in Portuguese. While I don’t think it amounted to much more than mine, I’m sure his understanding of grammar was great. Portuguese grammar is pretty similar to English. At least that’s what he told me. In months of speaking foreign tongues, I’d learned to care very little about grammar. It’s very useful if you’re taking an exam, if you’re working as a translator or need to speak with a high level of fluency. For talking to people, it’s largely a waste of time.
Justin asked me some question about Spanish grammar. I can’t remember what it was, something ridiculous like “how do you conjugate the pluperfect past tense?” I don’t even know what that means in English, let alone how to do it in Spanish. Yet, if someone spoke to me in the pluperfect past tense in Spanish, if they spoke slow enough for me to follow, and I understood most of the words, I’d understand what they were saying. Understanding comes from the words. Grammar is a nice finishing touch once you have enough words for a conversation. In terms of learning a language from scratch, grammatical rules just slow you down. I’ll give you an example in English. If someone said – “Yesterday, me and Timmy go to see movie. We eat popcorn and after movie we go dancing in club.” – you understand exactly what happened yesterday, even if the grammar is wrong. If they don’t know the words for movie, popcorn or dancing, but have great grammar, it’s gibberish – “Yesterday, Timmy and I went to see blank. We ate blank and after blank we went blanking in a club.”
This is why most language learning in school is useless. Grammar comes first. People who are good at learning languages in schools are either spending so much time on it that they have to learn, or they’re just naturally gifted as linguists and would probably learn languages fast with any kind of instruction. Sadly, I’m not a naturally gifted linguist, my small ability in any foreign language comes from a lot of hard work and frustration. I like to think that one day I’ll learn Spanish grammar, but the vocabulary must come first.