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Acquisition of grammar - charlmartell

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 Message 1 of 28
30 June 2008 at 6:31am | IP Logged 
In another thread, the following was written:

charlmartell wrote:

I learn grammar (of a specific language, not of a family) mainly through examples, make up my own rules, check their validity in reference books (called grammars), forget about the technical jargon but concentrate on meaning. When learning a new language I always compare ways, theirs and ours, of expressing the same ideas, and try to find similarities in other languages, if I run into problems. I never learn grammar (theory, terminology) but usage, i.e. practical application, simplification to rules needing only the most basic terms: dative yes, but not dative of reference, no hortatory subjunctive, no inchoative suffixes etc.. And as a result I make few mistakes as far as syntax is concerned. Because I've made it mine, not some unknown grammarian's.
Morphology is a different kettle of fish, some of those forms are not all that self-evident. But even they can be made less forbidding. I look for the basic pattern and learn deviations as I meet them, not in a list in a grammar book (though I might check that list later on, when I'm ready) but in my readings, just like lexical items. I always use texts, not loose sentences on offer in most Latin and ancient Greek textbooks. I do occasionally use some of those for practice, the Assimil exercises for instance. As consolidation of previously encountered material.
To prevent this from becoming too long I won't go into any detail as to why I find syntax easy with only a minimum amount of technical jargon. And why I don't find morphology (even ancient Greek horrendous verbs) too forbidding. If needs be I'll do that in a different post, preferably a different thread, relating to acquisition of grammar in general.

I'd like to request more information on how you acquire grammar.

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Super Polyglot
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 Message 3 of 28
01 July 2008 at 9:51am | IP Logged 
Easier said than done. What on earth have I let myself in for? I'll do it in bits, it'd take too long as I'll have to start from scratch. And explaining is proving far more difficult than I'd imagined. Wish I had kept my big mouth shut. Oh well....

My grammar is all about: "This way it sounds right (in the language I'm trying to learn)" even if in English/French/German it would sound strange. When I started learning Spanish there was very little audio material and what there was cost a fortune, for a student on a very meagre allowance. So "sounding right" was neither here nor there, especially when I wasn't even sure of the pronunciation of a language I'd never even heard spoken.
But the seed had been planted in 2nd year Latin (in the equivalent of American 8th grade). Weekly tests were "Translate into Latin" and when going over the draft one would always find bits that "didn't sound right", easy to correct in the case of verbs, because those principal parts had been drilled to such an extent that you just had to take the first part and reel them off till you got to the part you needed. And corrected your mistake.
Syntax was not quite as simple. Because of all those 'sort of' understood rules. Most of us couldn't decide which sounded right, because none of it did, for a good reason: we'd never been taught, we'd only been made to learn the rules.
Rule: The indicative in direct questions is replaced by the subjunctive in indirect questions. Fine, easy enough. And what happened in every test thereafter, for the next 2 years? All but 2 of us (36) would use the wrong mood at least once. Because that sounded right to us in our own language and we'd never really bothered to internalise the Latin way of using language. It was boring crap anyway and we were only doing it because we'd stand a better chance of getting into a good university.

Then came pattern drills that were supposed to make our output automatic, fluent and correct. Didn't work, because too mechanical. You could do most of those drills standing on your head and thinking woolly thoughts. I tried it out on myself, it sort of worked but it was a struggle to keep concentration going. I thought it might work better with the kids in class, because I was good at keeping them awake, but the result was still far from ideal. They got the structures right in drills, but still made a mess of them when talking to me directly (we only spoke Spanish, except for explanations).
Every new method that came out, I tried it. First on myself, that's how I acquired bits and pieces of quite a few languages, then, if it seemed to work better than what went before, on the kids. But the results were never quite what I had in mind.
Then I came across the Birkenbihl "Nichts als Stroh im Kopf" which was an eye-opener. Learning has to come from within ourselves, not dictated from outside, as set out by someone else!! I don't really care about the theory, I don't care whether the brain has 2 halves or 60, the main thing is: use all of it/them. Whereas in school we'd only been taught to use the intellectual component and that not even very well!

First realisation: Babies have to learn it all, concepts and corresponding labels (words), we don't, we know the concepts, so why do we learn foreign-English, English-foreign, instead of considering, for a given concept, the foreign word as a synonym of the English one. By doing that I've started using more of my brain, I've added visualisation instead of purely intellectual translation.
First words, easy to visualise ones (horse, roof, sea, waves...), verbs in action (singing, jumping, flying....), then abstract in situation (love, hatred, disagreement, reconciliation, government...). Some are more difficult, either to visualise (they can wait till we're ready for them) or to remember, use mnemonics combining both sound and meaning.
Next whole expressions. A little more advanced, but still same method. Just imagine the situation. From the start, then you never have to translate what you hear (foreign-English) or what you want to say (English-foreign), except very occasionally.
Nota bene: By visualisation I don't mean look at pictures or actual objects, I mean imagine them, see the with your inner eyes, from within. That way you are not distracted, you're really focusing on what you're doing.

But I'm supposed to write about grammar and sounding right. The method is still sort of the same, but, instead of words as labels stuck on concepts, we consider the different forms they take according to their function, dealt with in grammar books under the heading: "Morphology" and the way those words interact to create meaningful speech dealt with in "Syntax".
Morphology has got to be learnt, I won't go into that at the moment, but syntax has to be understood and then applied. Not like someone once told me on a Latin list: "How can we understand rules if we don't learn them first?" Most people agreed with her, didn't like my "by using your head to think".
      1. Compare their way of using language to ours
      2. Simplify the rules to practical usage
      3. Find good examples of that usage, visualise the situation in which this particular structure or pattern is used and tell yourself: this sounds right in.....
      4. The more alien their way of expressing themselves, the more creative we'll have to be.
I'll elaborate on these points next time, giving practical examples of what I mean. Tomorrow maybe, I've had enough for one day. This has already taken up half of my language learning time. I must have been mad!
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Super Polyglot
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 Message 4 of 28
02 July 2008 at 10:33am | IP Logged 

As said before, if I want to be properly able to use a language I've got to first understand how it works and then make it sound right by making it mine through relating everything I learn to me. Like Kati Lomb who said that she always used first person
singular, much to the surprise of the interviewer. I wasn't surprised because I too had found out that that is the best way for me too. Anything new (words, forms, expressions, structures), to really make sense and become usable has to be interesting for me, applicable to myself (my person, people I know in real life or in fiction, events seen in life or on TV, read about in books etc.).
I'm talking about really learning something.
It all depends of course on our purpose. A one-week challenge for a quick superficial introduction to a new language, a 6-week-30mns a day challenge, a 6-week challenge, learning a language purely for passive reading, all will be approached differently, but
the core method doesn't change: understand how it basically works and recognise, decode some, according to the amount of time at my disposal. And then, if time allows it and such is my desire, actively apply all of it to me and my life. Passive is easy, active
requires a lot more dedication.

Step One: Compare their way of using the language to ours.

Prepositions English-Hungarian. I was very surprised when someone said Hungarian had 23 cases, I only knew of 2, direct and indirect object. So I looked them up and, surprise surprise, I know and can use all 23 of them. I had thought they were shortened forms of prepositions attached to the end of nouns. And changing the vowel sound to harmoniously ring with that noun. But not cases. I haven't bothered to learn their names, though.
We say: in the house, they say: the house-in.
So now I just have to get used to saying: the garden-in, the book-in etc....
Next I'll learn how to say: the house into, the house-out of
       then: the table-onto, the table on, the table-off of
        and: the doctor-to, the doctor-at, the doctor-from
Most of those forms are easy to recognise passively but will require quite a bit of active, meaningful practice to become automatic.

Next easy step: How to say: In this case? You couldn't possibly have guessed, it is: this-in the case-in. Cute, isn't it?
So what will in that case be in Hungarian?
And out of those caves?
But in this case, to make matters a little stranger still, this (ez) and that (az) will change their final letter according to the postposition for flowing sound:
ezben becomes ebben, ezre becomes erre, ezhez becomes ehhez etc. Easy-peasy.

The preposition with (val or vel according to vowel harmony)is a little trickier:
With Joe becomes Joewith=Joeval, but with John Johnwith becomes Johnnal
with the doctor would be doctorral, is in fact orvossal etc. ...
That isn't quite the end of the story yet.
What if we want to say: in front of, behind, next to..... ? As I already know that Hungarian uses postposition rather than preposition and these are full words we just place them unattached after demonstrative pronouns and nouns. I've only got to learn the words, how to use them is easy:
this before the day before,
that behind the mountain behind etc.
It's not actually the end of the story yet, but it is enough to show how amusing comparing the different ways of expressing the same ideas can be.

Mechanical drills are only going to make pronouncing the forms faster but will not advance my freely speaking skills significantly. I now have to find real examples in my own life for meaningful practice. And once understood how it is supposed to be done, I've then got to get it to sound right and therefore good in Hungarian.

I also found the Japanese way of saying: I'm dancing with my brother's Japanese girl-friend in the school-hall rather fun.
Using particles: wa (as for), no (of), de (in/at with action, not just place where). I'll use their sort-of English equivalents:
I as for, I of, brother of, America-person of, girl-friend with, school-hall at, dancing am. Sounds great in Japanese (doesn't really need the initial boku wa though) even if weird in English. I wonder what they make of our way of handling sentences.
I first learnt a little Japanese in a group of French speakers who made a horrible mess of that kind of sentence. Because word-order in French kept tripping them up:
We say: my   father's car , word-order: I + father + car.
                  No problem in Japanese: I of father of car
But the French say: the car of my father,
        word-order: car + I + father which made them want to say:
                      car of I of father (= my car's father).
The teacher would laugh but couldn't explain because her French was abysmal and her English worse.

I like word-order but I think I'll do a little subjunctive tomorrow. I've had it for today.
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 Message 6 of 28
03 July 2008 at 4:03am | IP Logged 
I love your analysis of the Hungarian language. Your approach reminds me of Michel Thomas' method, in how he taught languages, breaking them into much simpler components compared to standard grammars, and spotting patterns. You should consider writing a book, or a course script, about your approach.
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Super Polyglot
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 Message 7 of 28
03 July 2008 at 10:30am | IP Logged 
Thanks for the encouragement. I was getting a little dissatisfied with myself, thinking I was making a mess of it all.
Explaining points one by one, face to face is one thing and I have no problem with that, whether I'm at the giving or the receiving end. But I personally often find it very difficult to understand other people's explanations, even if they are crystal clear - as I realise after the penny has finally dropped. That's why I end up tying myself in knots when trying too hard to explain what to me is obvious, but to others might seem much less so.
As for Michael Thomas, you're quite right. I'd never really thought of him till today, when reading Mark0704's excellent posts here. I think I really should have a look at his method. So I'm now in the process of downloading his Mandarin course, even though it is not strictly speaking his and I know Mandarin grammar well enough to not need an introduction to it. But the course might still teach me some more about tones, a very weak spot of mine. Besides letting me find out about his method. It does sound like he was already doing a long time ago what I worked out for myself piecemeal over the years and only properly patched together very recently, when getting totally lost in the confused and confusing intricacies of ancient Greek grammar. That's when I really had to do something, either give up (not my style) or try and find a better way of coping.

As for the subjunctive, I haven't quite finished. I'm afraid it'll have to wait till tomorrow, I have other things waiting to be dealt with.
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 Message 8 of 28
04 July 2008 at 11:44am | IP Logged 
How would you recommend applying your method to ancient Greek? All the material available will feature at least some traditional grammar instruction, there's no way to get around that unless you move straight to parallel texts.

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