Grammar is what I call a “sub-skill”. This post is about how grammar fits into Synergy. My personal grammar experiences. I admit that I have a love-hate relationship with grammar. It’s certainly the hardest of the skills and sub-skills for me. But all the language learning I’ve done over the years has made me a better grammar learner, so I have some recommendations for you. But first let me give you my history with grammar, so you can see how I arrived at these conclusions. I learned Spanish grammar, on and off, starting from age 11 when I lived in Ecuador, continuing when I went to highschool in the US, and finishing when I took a single university course. Learning grammar wasn’t my favorite thing to do, so I tended to be lazy, but when I worked at Spanish grammar I improved quite quickly. After that early learning, I never touched grammar again. I just used the language a lot over many years to reach my current level. I learned very basic Swahili grammar in Tanzania for about 3 months. After that, I just used the language. Although there was much more grammar to be learned, there was no motivation, because most native speakers spoke Swahili as their L2, and stuck to very simple sentence structures. When I started learning Thai, I was pleased to find out that its grammar was not as difficult as my other languages. I’m not saying it’s easy; it’s just easier. It still needs to be studied. Despite my lazy attitude towards it, I was pretty successful in learning grammar up to that point. So it was a big shock when I started learning Japanese. There was tons of grammar that absolutely had to be learned to the point where it was automatic. At first, I found that I could speak fairly well by saying things in a simplified way. I saw early on that a lot of Japanese grammar is repetitive, meaning there are many ways to say the same thing. This is the case in most languages, but it seems to be more so in Japanese. So I concentrated on producing a single structure in this case, and was satisfied to merely understand the remaining structures. But I still had big problems understanding media even if I looked up or knew all the words. After struggling for a long time, I finally admitted to myself that I needed to complete a comprehensive Japanese grammar course. It took a very long time, more than 300 hours if I recall, but the results were much better grammar. Unfortunately, it didn’t sink in as well as I hoped. I blame this on not having a balanced learning plan at the time. Plus, I wasn’t trying very hard to get the grammar I’d learned into my conversation. This donned on me during a 1-month Japanese class I took in Kobe. After learning a new structure in class, one that I’d already learned on my own at home, many of the other students would immediately start using it outside of class. I was shocked that this was so natural for them, and realized that I needed to do the same thing regardless of the discomfort. After Japanese came Mandarin. Mandarin grammar was relatively simple, about the same as Thai, so once again I got into my lazy habits of not worrying about it much. To this day I haven’t done a comprehensive Mandarin grammar course, and this has hurt me. French grammar was similar to Spanish, and there are tons of absolutely superb French learning tools, so I learned French for about a year then stopped because I was happy with my level, thinking it would continue to improve on it’s own. Although I didn’t do a comprehensive French grammar course, I completed a quick grammar course that gave me such an excellent overview that I didn’t worry about doing a bigger one. It was Michel Thomas. I learned an amazing amount of grammar in a very short period of time, so I highly recommend it. In fact, I was so impressed I went back and completed a Michel Thomas course for each of my languages that had one. But even though it’s an excellent course, I still need to do a comprehensive course in French. Not doing one earlier was a mistake. Learning Russian grammar has been one of the most difficult things I’ve done with languages. This is my most recent language, so I’ve done the majority of the things “right” from the beginning, including doing a comprehensive grammar course. Actually I did two, but one was very little help, so I don’t count it. I also did Michel Thomas. Michel Thomas for Russian is pretty good, but far from being complete. Russian grammar is very complicated for me, and sinks in at a much slower rate than any other language, even Japanese. So I completed my grammar course, had what I felt was good understanding at the time, did good on all the exercises and quizzes, but had limited success getting all that grammar into my conversation. Studying 4 other languages, and having to put Russian on hold for big chunks of time was also damaging, of course. But Russian grammar is just tough. It’s the hardest language for me to produce a grammatically correct sentence. On the other hand, it’s quite a bit easier to guess the meaning of a sentence in which I know all the words in Russian than in Japanese. So I take a little comfort in knowing not every aspect of Russian grammar is the hardest, and I continue to dig in and attack it. During my recent trip to Ukraine, I took a private Russian course 10 hours a week for 4 weeks. The first two weeks went fairly smoothly, but then we got into the habit of trying to correct my grammar really hard during conversation. My fairly smooth, albeit full of errors, conversation change into a pausing, struggling nightmare of slightly better grammar. It affected me out of the classroom too, because I was trying too hard to produce correct grammar. Clearly, I needed to strike some sort of a balance. I couldn’t keep talking with so many pauses, so over the next few months I pretended to ignore grammar errors when talking to friends, but often reviewed them later at home to help me improve. So my Russian is much smoother than it was in Ukraine, and I’m very slowly improving my grammar too. The most recent occurrence in my grammar learning that’s worth noting here is something I finally proved to myself several months ago writing Chinese in Taiwan. Although I was there for only a short time, and only wrote 10 lines a day for 10 days, it gave me a noticeable improvement in grammar. I’d experimented with it a little in Russian, and eventually in all my other languages, and always assumed the it was a good way to improve grammar, but that short stint in Taiwan was the first time I really proved it to myself. So I’m writing in Russian these days, and I’m going to start writing in all my languages. Based on those experiences, here are some recommendations about grammar: Intentionally learn grammar. In step 3 of Synergy you are to complete a grammar course. This is right after finishing pronunciation, and in parallel with reading, writing and conversation. During your pronunciation study you will have learned some basic sentence patterns, so you will be ready for a thorough grammar program. This is an important step, and despite the urging of some language pundits, it shouldn’t be skipped. There are several well known polyglots who think it’s best not to study grammar formally, and just “glean” it from your other studies instead. This isn’t a good idea. In my post about vocabulary, I urged you to try to go without isolated vocabulary study and see how it goes. This is because many people absolutely don’t require it, and the potential time savings are enormous. On the other hand, it’s usually easy to tell if a person hasn’t studied grammar, and the potential time savings of skipping grammar, while not trivial, are considerably less that skipping isolated vocabulary study. The time and effort it takes to learn grammar is a small fraction of the overall study hours required to learn a language to a high level, and it’s just about impossible to reach a high level without doing it. Also, delaying grammar a long time isn’t a good idea. You need to learn the rules early so you can enforce them throughout your language program, and avoid fossilization of bad habits. Use quick grammar courses. There are short grammar overview courses, available in many languages, that can quickly improve your understanding. I recommend doing one of these right after, or even during, Pimsleur. This isn’t a substitute for your main grammar course. Your main course should be done after the short course. The short course is just to give you a good overview, and an additional angle of attacking grammar. It’s always good to have more than one source. I normally do Michel Thomas right after Pimsleur. Although some Michel Thomas courses are more thorough than others, it always gives me a lot of grammar in a very short period of time. It’s quite amazing, and highly recommended. Try to use your grammar right away. As soon as you learn some new structure, try to start using it. This is often easier said than done, but you need to make a real effort to speak the “correct” way. With writing you will have more time, so you can be stricter about it. If it helps, remember that there are often several ways to say the exact same thing using different grammar. You need to be able to understand all of those, but you only need to produce one. It’s ok to produce more than one, but not required, so this might work to your advantage when you are a beginner. Don't let struggling with grammar stop your fluidity. There is a delicate balance between trying to have good grammar and trying to speak smoothly. If you are talking to a language partner or a native speaker, it’s usually better to err on the side of fluid in my experience. Very few friends are patient enough to listen to me pausing and grasping for correct structure every other sentence. And I often end up making mistakes when I do this anyway, so what’s the point? It’s different with a teacher or tutor. They are supposed to be patient, they know how to correct you, and often you will be working on specific grammar structures with them, which increases your chance for success. So although I want both fluidity and good grammar, with friends I focus on smooth speech, and with teachers I focus on good grammar. Care about mistakes. Everybody makes mistakes; the important thing is how we deal with them. I have heard many polyglots say they don’t care about mistakes. And while I believe we should never feel guilty about mistakes, and never let mistakes affect us negatively in conversation, I also believe we should try to pay attention to our mistakes and use this information to help us improve. For example, I had a conversation with my Russian language partner today on Skype. I told her I went on a vacation to 5 countries. She said, “oh, you mean in 5 countries” using the grammar for in which is different from to. I said “Yeah, and the first one was…” and continued the conversation as if no correction had taken place. So the conversation wasn’t disrupted, but I paid attention to the mistake, and after the conversation I wrote the phrase “I went on a vacation in 5 countries” and put in my SRS. I believe there’s a time in your studies when you’ll want to occasionally stop conversations to discuss grammar mistakes, and a time in your studies where you should just blow past them. This is not a black and white situation. But you should use your mistakes to help you improve. Use writing to help assimilate grammar. In my post about writing, I said writing is great for slow, thoughtful production. There is no time constraint like there is in conversation, where you have a partner needing a response in a timely manner. You can carefully think through each sentence, and check the grammar thoroughly if necessary. Writing consistently should improve your written grammar, which should help your grammar in conversation and the other skills as well. So follow Synergy and write a decent amount.