Break the Rules to Succeed Posted by on Aug 22, 2016 in Archived Posts

As language learners, it’s easy to get caught up in the rules: what can be done, what can’t be done, what is and isn’t allowed. But sometimes it helps to remember that in language learning, they’re really more guidelines than actual rules…

Itchy Feet: the System Works

The DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo) is like how I imagine the American frontier was, back in the early 1800s. It’s not entirely lawless, of course, but the further into the jungle you go, the less “the law” seems to matter. Even in the big cities, the rules only seem to exist to benefit the rich and powerful. To thrive in a place like that, you have to learn to play fast and loose. You have to learn to improvise. You quickly realize that rules are an entirely human construction, with no bearing on the natural world – and the sooner you figure that out and take advantage of it, the better you’ll manage. If you wait and hope for the rules to protect you like some kind of safety net, you’re going to find out the net has some rather large holes.

As a language learner, this was tough for me to deal with.

Languages have rules, and they couldn’t be more plain: they’re written down in textbooks, for crying out loud. Many a language course involves first learning the rules of the language, and then learning how to apply them. In some languages, like German, if you internalize the rules, you’re pretty much good to go, as speakers are loathe to break them. In other languages, like English, the rules are just a starting place from which you go on to learn all the myriad exceptions and “ifs” and “buts” and “unless”es that make the language so colorful. But the rulebook is always a comforting thing to have to a language learner, as it provides some reference, some context to what’s being said. The rules are your friend.

However, it’s important to remember that like systems of management in any frontier, language rules are fluid.

Languages are organic, flexible creatures. Like vines, languages are always growing. They extend their tendrils out into the world, seeking something on which to grapple and take hold. This is why we’re blessed with so many incredible dialects, accents, regional variations and language evolution – language is moving, and when it finds someone who will take it in a new direction, it goes gladly along. The rules are in constant motion.

Moreover, to properly learn a language, you’ll have to break its rules. You’ll have to test the boundaries of a language you’re learning. You have to forget why a participle is what it is, or how exactly the noun endings change, and just wing it. If you don’t, you’ll be stuck consulting the rulebook – literally or figuratively – every conversation you have. In fact, you’re much better off reading up on the rules, then throwing the book away when you step out your door. You’ll figure out what works and what doesn’t as you go; you can’t fail to learn from your mistakes, that’s one of the beautiful truths of language learning. You can always go home and puzzle over the rulebook later.

But you will also find that, no matter how hard you study, the rules don’t always apply. In German, for example, the aforementioned rule-loving language, the genitive case is (slowly) disappearing in casual conversation. Rules can be bent permanently; that’s the nature of language. Don’t be too worried about whether you’re getting it “right,” because even native speakers get it wrong, that’s why we take grammar classes in grammar school! So let the rules slide by, and take advantage of that to carve your own way.

If you can’t – if you love the rules too much, or are too afraid to step outside them – that’s totally fine, too. Just don’t go to the Congo.


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About the Author: Malachi Rempen

Malachi Rempen is an American filmmaker, author, photographer, and cartoonist. Born in Switzerland, raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico, he fled Los Angeles after film school and expatted it in France, Morocco, Italy, and now Berlin, Germany, where he lives with his Italian wife and German cat. "Itchy Feet" is his weekly cartoon chronicle of travel, language learning, and life as an expat.


  1. Klaus:

    Nice article, I couldn’t agree more. Just one thing concerning German: “The genitive case is (slowly) disappearing in casual conversation” – that’s just a popular myth, probably originating in Bastian Sick’s catchy book title “Der Dativ ist dem Genitiv sein Tod”. Actually it’s way more complicated than that.

    In fact if you had records of “casual conversations” of 200 years ago, you would probably realize that Genitiv never existed in many or even most dialects, and that it’s now seeping in more and more with an increasing group of people using standard German.

    You could argue that Genitiv is overrated, certainly in the textbooks they make vor learners.

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