This the second full article I’ve written about grammar (this was the first). Hopefully I won’t repeat myself :D.
When I tell people how I acquire (acquired) Japanese and Cantonese, the first question many immediately ask is: “but what about grammar”?!?! Yeah, what about that…
At the end of last year, over the holiday season, I was in a car with a Japanese friend, and we got onto the subject of Why Khatzumoto Owns So Hard At Japanese: “Ah never done did study no grammah; jist ah few thowsan sen’ences”, said I. And she was all: “What? But you speak so grammatically! This is madness! ” And then I was like: “Woman, this is SPARTAAAAAAAAAAA!!!!”
All my conversations go like this.
So, how was I able to speak correct Japanese and write correct Cantonese without ever having formally studied their grammar? Indeed, without ever having formally studied either language?
Because grammar doesn’t exist.
I see some of you just choked on your herb tea, so let me say it again slowly: Grammar. Does. Not. Exist.
“HERESY! It does too exist! There are books about it and we learn about it in school and…and…”
There are books about a lot of things, darling. Doesn’t make them real. You see, grammar is an abstraction. Like fixed electronic orbits, the equator, and layers of the protocol stack. None of these things exist; they are make-believe. Or, to put it more gently, they exist because we say they do; they are thought-things, idea-objects…imaginary.
Grammar and all its little babies: conjugations, declensions, endings – it’s all made up. There is no set-in-stone connection between words like 行く (“to go”) and 行った (“went”); they are two separate words that describe two separate things. We only join them together conceptually as conjugated forms of the same verb because we thought it would make things easier.
And this is why we made up the abstraction of grammar. In fact, it’s why any abstraction gets made up – to make things easier. The world is complicated. An abstraction, when used correctly, makes everything simpler; it gives us neat boxes to put everything in.
You wouldn’t want a world without abstraction; you could never, for example, talk about a species of animal or about “chairs” as an overarching type of furniture; you could only talk about…individual animals and seating apparatus.
The problem, kids, is that abstraction can be misunderstood and thereby misused, such that it actually makes the world more complicated. Misunderstanding is the source of all abstraction heartache. Our abstractions are often so powerful and useful that we take them to be literal, physical fact. From here comes misuse.
Misuse. A hammer is good for hitting nails, but when you try to eat food with it…you may end up having a longer day than you ever wished for. Let me go even further – a hammer is good for hitting nails, but if you go up to a star (as in, a celestial object) and try to hit it because “there be iron in thar and I want to get my hits in early, you know, strike it well it’s hot” well, it’s just going to be too hot and your hammer will probably melt – unless you have those magical experimental shields that let you pull a Picard (Riker? Janeway?) Maneuver right the heck through a star.
Similarly, the thing with the abstraction of grammar may be less a matter of intrinsic suckage and more a matter of situational suckage; there is a time and place to learn grammar, and that time and place are not when you don’t know the language and not outside the language in question. Only learn “grammar” in the target language. It will only truly make sense then anyway. And, you’ll have figured almost all of it out through patterns and inference anyway…Remember what Stephen son of Krashen said — learning a language is different from learning about a language.
The abstraction of grammar fails language learners because it’s not abstract enough; it’s not simple enough. Abstraction is supposed to reduce confusion and detail; grammar study tends to only increase these. Perhaps part of the problem is that the thing to be abstracted – human language – is just so…human(?) So alive and fractally complex? So mutable? Reducing it to a few simple rules was probably optimistic at best and arrogant at worst? Perhaps…I don’t know. Anyway, you’re better off just taking the parts of a language as they come. Don’t try to force an ill-fitting, arbitrarily-created, observed-after-the-fact pattern onto a situation that doesn’t merit it.
Back to the verb example: the parts of a verb are only parts of the same verb because we say they are. In my experience, you’re better off more or less treating (learning) them as separate words. After all, they have different meanings, spellings and sounds: that fits any reasonable definition of a separate word that I can think of. Yes, they are connected, but you’re better off figuring out these connections for yourself (which you will) through observation anyway. Learning them before the fact will only hurt you and the forest critters.
The next time you’re speaking the 日本語 Japanese, ask your Japanese friends whether that verb is transitive or not “これ、他動詞？自動詞？早く教えろよ、お前コノヤローお前”; they’ll make uncomfortable faces and kind of shrug and change the subject because they don’t know…and don’t need to; they just use it correctly. One day walking through Paris I want you to be like: “You there! What’s the pluperfect passive subjunctive of…?”
Just one more thing to add. Another problem with having grammar as an entry-point for language study is that it creates possibilities, most of which are possibilities for error. When given a grammatical explanation, it’s often presented as a sort of tree of possibilities with all kinds of node-like things – stems and endings and stuff and some poorly expressed rules to be instantly “programmed” into your brain which will then run computations to churn out sentences like some kind of primitive logic engine…or something like that. Not only is this too freaking slow, but invariably people misuse the tree and make illegal combinations (ungrammatical statements). Again, better to just accept how things are said in a language as-is just because; let a certain way of saying something be right just because it’s right; this leaves far less room for error: there will be no wild misapplication of a “rules” due to simple logical lapses.
Patterns – repetitions of some overarching phenomenon – do exist; grammar tries and fails to abstract these patterns. The way to master the fictional language patterns we refer to as “grammar” is by experiencing them in real life; in their natural habitat, used in sentences and phrases by real native speakers. Anything else is, to borrow the PG-13 words of John “PapaJohn” Biesnecker from Yuehan, “like trying to become an expert in bed by taking sex-ed classes”.
…I guess it could happen…
Next time, instead of getting a description of the taste of durien, why not just eat it…Mmmm…durien all over yo’ clothes.