Swedish Language Blog

To Learn Grammar or Not? That is the Question! Posted by on Jul 15, 2009 in Swedish Language

Recently I’ve been having quite a lot of discussions about grammar. I don’t know why – it just simply started to come up in conversations all of a sudden. And you’d think that grammar would be a sure conversation killer, right? After all, who wants to discuss the finer points of subordinate clauses in a social setting? But guess what? People don’t really mind talking about grammar and such conversations can get quite heated actually. Especially so when it comes to foreign languages.

Lately, I’ve participated in several such discussion, and inevitably the topic, regardless of what it was at the beginning of the conversation, always morphs into something like: “Why do we need to learn all this stupid grammar when studying foreign languages?” and “Do babies learn grammar when THEY learn to speak?” and “Speaking is more important than proper grammatical constructions.” And so on… You get the idea.

Such discussions are giving me a headache. Really. You see, I’m not a fan of grammar. In fact, I quite despise the whole issue, and frankly, if I could I would never even open a single grammar textbook in my life.

But I also understand that grammar is important. Whether we like it or not, having at least some basic idea of the quirks and rules of the foreign language one is learning is essential. Otherwise, we end up speaking that language like a bunch of idiots.

And the questions of: “what is more important – speaking or grammar?” and “why should we study grammar if babies learning to speak never have to deal with stuff like possessive pronouns or passive voice?” are quite pointless. At least they are to me.

I’m no linguist, but even I have enough common sense to see that we, as adults, are do not learn foreign languages the way babies learn their native language. And hence, speaking without any grammatical backbone whatsoever can only get us so far (and it won’t be very far – trust me, I’ve been there and done that). I think the post about “sin, sitt, sina” kind of illustrates what I’m talking about here.

So yes, if you are just interested in the most basic communication skills, then sure – you can survive those two weeks in a foreign country while butchering the local lingo. But if you want to get to know the language and the whole mentality that comes with speaking it on a daily basis, then unfortunately, you have no choice but to grab a grammar book and study it every so often.

Otherwise how would you know that a possessive pronoun in English often corresponds to the definite article in Swedish, huh?

  • Jag måste tavätta håret. – I must wash my hair.
  • Han stoppade handen i fickan. – He put his hand in his pocket.
  • Hon tappade balansen. – She lost her balance.

Now that you know what I think about it, please tell me your opinion – is grammar important or not? And what are some of your best ways to learn Swedish grammar?

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  1. Peter:

    I’ve spent lots of classroom time on grammar and also enjoyed reading your articles on grammar. Keep up the excellent work! For beginners without a swedish speaking spouse learn the grammar in school, but after 30 or 40 hours, hire a tutor and just talk på svenska, its the only way in my opinion.

  2. John Eastlund:

    The worst part of learning grammar is that you have to learn an additional language, the language of grammar. What the hej is a definitive pluperperfect subjunctive participle?

    The grammar terms need to be more self-explanatory.

  3. Suleman:

    Completely agree.

    And I love the way you teach Grammar. 🙂

  4. BM:

    “I’m no linguist, but even I have enough common sense to see that we, as adults, are do not learn foreign languages the way babies learn their native language.”
    The question then is, why don’t we? Why don’t we try to learn a language the same way we did as babies? We don’t we listen a lot more and write and speak less?

    I learnt French in school, and we covered grammar in a systematic, open-your-books-and-write-down-this-table kind-of-way. I could reproduce the table for you now, but what I couldn’t do is actually use the correct form in a sentence. However, by listening to more Swedish than I produce, the correct form is second-nature, even for irregular or strong verbs.

    My biggest problem when it comes to producing Swedish is not knowing either the correct word or the correct grammatical construction. I could look the word up in a dictionary, or find the correct construction in a book, but I’ll forget it the next time I need to use it, even if it’s just in the next sentence. If I want to learn any part of a language, I need to hear it or read it loads and loads of times so that it becomes second nature.

    Of course, that doesn’t mean one can’t crack open a grammar book, especially if it is in Swedish. Just don’t expect anything you learn to stick for particularly long.

  5. Luke (Sydney):

    A language without grammar is not any easier to learn.

  6. Michael Boyd:

    The form and structure of any language is a record of the values and the world view of the people. The richness of one’s everyday conversation is dependent on ones understanding of the language being spoken, but also the language as a reflection of the world, as it is internalized.

    Young children do learn about all the nagging aspects of their language by being repeatedly corrected, and a child’s willingness to parrot what they hear in the world. Native English speakers are sometimes like the young adults in Moberg’s saga who believed that they would know how to speak English when they landed. To believe that we have somehow learned our own language simply by osmosis only makes it harder when trying to learn another language.

    Whether it is our first or second, etc. language, it is learned bit by bit and rule by rule. The better it is understood, the more beautifully and fully we can think and speak.

    I have studied Swedish formally in classes and intensively in Sweden, and your gentle approach presents a wonderful way to think about the language.

  7. Darcy:

    I’ve been trying to keep learning Swedish even after coming home (I was an exchange student); I find it helpful to find some Swedish music that I enjoy listening to. From time to time I look up lyrics to a new song, and then I get a little Swedish practice every time I hear that song.

    It can be challenging to figure out colloquial language, but that makes it more rewarding too! I prefer hip-hop (like Timbuktu) or happy pop (like Säkert!).

  8. BM:

    Michael Boyd:
    But we do learn our native languages primarily by osmosis. No-one sat down and told you when to use the progressive and when not to. No-one sat down at told you how to make a adjective out of ‘Yemen’, we learned the rules through example over example over example, and applied them to new sentences and new words, all without being aware of it. We can even show this to be true on foreign-language learners. Find a non-native English speaker who as exceptionally good English, and ask them the rules for when you use the progressive or rules governing preposition. They shouldn’t have a clue, and neither should you!

    Even when we were being corrected as children, we were never learning the correct form beyond adding another example to our stack (for evidence of this, see The Language Instinct p. 281).

    What children do have as an advantage (and what most adult learners aren’t willing to do) is full-time study, 24hrs/day, 365/year for years on end without any other kind of input except in the target language.

    Of course, adults learn languages faster than children (Language Acquisition p. 94-106), so we can do it in a fewer number of years (i.e., less than the ten or so that every native speaker tends to take). We have the advantage that we can focus our input on things which are important to us, we can force repetitions using SRS systems, we don’t need to learn all the sounds of the language from scratch, we already know innately how a human language works.

    Take a look at AJATT, anitmoon, and The Linguist on Language for more information, often better presented, explained, and supported than I can do.

  9. Minty:

    I do not mind learning about the grammar of a language, because I do like to sound correct! I think that hearing it and (when you have a grasp of the basics) reading it is the best way, and learning slowly like you do when a child and learning your first language is inevitable.

    I totally agree with the fact that to learn grammar we must also learn the language of grammar to understand what Annas blogs mean. I considered myself quite good at english and while I know what a noun, verb past participle, possesive pronoun and tense all are, I wouldnt have a clue what half her grammatical terms are. I feel I would understand the grammar blogs and be more enticed to read them if she had the correct grammatical term and an explanation of what the hell that long winded word means 😉

    P.S. too much grammar, not enough culture lately! I also had a question, that maybe you can answer- are the swedish language courses once you arrive part time by choice, and how long do they run for? I heard a rumour it was 6 months.

  10. Darlene:

    Grammar is very important once you are past the “two-week butchering” stage. Think of all the nuances you have at your disposal in your native language and how limiting present tense can be. And, after all, Swedish grammar is not so different from English. I have found that careful “practice-reading” in Swedish (books, magazines, even childrens’ readers) is great reinforcement!

  11. Darlene:

    By the way, could you explain the connection between possessive pronouns and definite articles from this post? How do you know it’s possessive? Is it contextual or something else?
    Thanks for the grammar posts, by the way!

  12. Phoneticus:

    My favorite way to get started with new language, especially speaking it, is with Dr. Pimsleur’s methodology. His life’s work involved understanding how we learn language. Unfortunately, the company that holds the copyright to his work has only produced 10 lessons, all audio, in Swedish. Still, they were a great way to get started.

  13. Kenia:

    How can someone even think of learning how to speak a language without studying the grammar first? Well, unless they want to sound like Tarzan! =D.

  14. john eastlund:

    I liked thosse Pinsleur CDs. It got me thinking in Swedish and building on how it works. Unfortunately they stopped just when you were getting a feel for it. They should follow up with more lessons. You learned the language by doing it. You didn’t learn much vocabulary or grammar it just made you more confident to continue with your studies.

  15. Venem:

    Hello. Could you recommend a comprehensive dictionary of Swedish? Something really big like Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English for English…

  16. Steve Kaufmann:

    I do fine in Swedish and have not a clue about the grammar. In my view the brain learns best from exposure. Occasionally reading a grammar book can help us notice things but it should not be the focus of learning. Try a non-grammatical approach to Swedish at LingQ.