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Don’t Learn Grammar, Learn Phrases

So, I was learning some new words in Mandarin the other day. And, as I’ve mentioned in the past, I like to do things like use the materials that Taiwanese people would use to learn English or Japanese. It’s “working backwards” in a way, that is, not quite using books in the way their authors originally intended them. Hacking the system, as it were.

In case you’re curious, here are two of the books 1 I was using:

Anyway, in the course of doing all this language hacking, it came to my attention that “I/my/me/mine” are taught to Chinese (and probably other) ESL learners as permutations of the same word. Like, there’s some kind of logical grammar tree, and this word can, depending on the situation, take one of these four forms.

So, you know how, in English, people like to tell ghost stories about how “Cantonese has eleven billion tones!!!” and “you can offer someone tea in Chinese or threaten to rape them, and it’s all the exact same sentence; the only difference is how you intone it!!!”?

Well, the Chinese version of that probably goes something like: “Dude, OMG, did you know English has FOUR WORDS for ‘我’ and you need to figure out which one is right depending on the situation and isn’t that so crazy and complicated?! It’s so illogical, because we only have the one word for ‘我’. That’s why all the English-speaking countries are in political turmoil with constant identity crises…too many words for the same thing, dawg. It’s crazy and complicated and sick and wrong amiright?”.

It is. It’s sick and wrong and crazy and complicated.

But, as a native speaker of ‘our magnificent bastard tongue‘, albeit one with poor diction and an airport accent, I have never once gotten I, my, me and mine mixed up. Never. Not ever. Not even once.


Because I have never thought of them as the same word. It literally never occurred to me to group them together; they never even felt “connected” to me. And I don’t know if that makes me smart or un-smart or unobservant. Probably none of those things. Maybe I’m just a bumblebee, unaware of the (incorrect) aerodynamic calculations that should have rendered me unable to fly (lol).

And yet, when it comes to high school German, suddenly we’re reciting “der die das die, den die das die, des der des der, dem der den den” and “mein, meine, mir, mich” and memorizing all these ridiculous, context-free noun and verb tables and we wonder why we’re bored and confused!?

Frustrating complexity is not an inherent quality any natural language. Rather, it is a quality of the tools — in this case, the mental model — being used to observe, analyze and describe the language. Steak is hard to cut…with a wooden spoon. Not so much with a sharp, serrated blade. The fault lies in the spoon; steak isn’t anywhere on the Mohs scale — and neither is Japanese.

Don’t fix the language, fix the tools.

Don’t learn grammar. Learn phrases. They’re not the same word. If the meaning changes, then even if the word is related, it’s a different word.


  1. (Mercifully, neither book contains stupid grammatical explanations (at least, not that I’ve noticed), but in the process of using the books in conjunction with reference materials elsewhere I, you know…stepped in a warm, steaming pile of grammar.)

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