If you have young children in your family, try this experiment:
Ask them what the “plural” of the word “dog” is.
They’ll likely stare at you wide-eyed for a few seconds, not having any idea what you’re talking about.
Now, say this.
“Pretend I have one dog”. “If I get another one, I have two…”
The moment they catch on, I’ll bet you anything that they’ll smile and shout “DOGS!”
So, what happened here? Technically, the two questions had the exact same answer.
How can a child so easily produce a plural noun when he or she has no idea what the heck a “plural” even is?
The answer lies in an often-unnoticed division in the brain’s learning capacities. This division, when you understand it, can help you utilize your brain in the most effective way, so that you'll know how to learn grammar with relative ease.
Today, I’m going to help you do just that.
Let’s dive in.
How Can Children Use Grammar, Without Knowing What Grammar Is?
Let’s return to the question prompted by our initial experiment.
How can children correctly tell you what the plural of “dog” is, if they don’t even understand what a “plural” actually is?
As surprising as it sounds, this is not an anomaly.
Ask a child (verbatim) to “conjugate a verb”, or “identify the direct object of a sentence”, and they’ll be equally at a loss, even though they do both of these things hundreds of times a day.
And even more annoyingly “If a child can speak a language natively without all of this complicated grammar study, then why do I, a functioning adult, struggle with a language after spending countless hours with my head in grammar books?”
The answers to these questions reveal the existence of two completely different forms of grammar learning, one which is highly effective, and another that is highly ineffective, at least in most cases.
The first form, which children use, is called implicit learning. And the second, which adults use (and often suffer through), is called explicit learning.
To learn implicitly means learning through exposure and interaction, engaging in meaningful communication within a positive emotional environment.
This is what children do, and what they do constantly, for years on end.
To learn explicitly means learning through lots of direct instruction, lectures, textbook reading, and convoluted written explanations. This is what young adults and adults do, in high school, college, and beyond.
Explicit learning is practically the exact opposite of implicit learning, and the results show this, especially when learning skills, like languages.
The Man Who Could Learn Skills, But Not Facts
Now, up to this point, you might not be convinced.
“Implicit learning” and “explicit learning” might sound like fancy technical terms used to describe what is essentially the same thing: learning.
But no, trust me. The difference between “implicit learning” and “explicit learning” is huge, and it’s something scientists have directly observed for themselves, in action.
Let me tell you a story:
Back in 1953, A man known to science as H.M. (not to be confused with clothing giant H&M) had much of his brain removed due to health issues. In particular, he lost his amygdala and hippocampus, along with a few other key brain components.
As a result, H.M. had no memory of facts. He could eat breakfast, and then forget it happened five minutes later. He could have a whole conversation with a stranger, and then soon forget that person ever existed.
Despite this, H.M. could remember some things. Not facts, not events, but skills. One could teach him to navigate a maze, or trace a pattern on a page while looking in a mirror, and he’d get better and faster at it, every time.
He wouldn’t remember ever learning that maze, or tracing that pattern, but something in his brain retained the practice. He could still develop skills, just as normal-brained people could, though he wouldn’t consciously be able to recognize that he’s performed those skills before.
To put it succinctly, H.M. could learn implicitly, but not explicitly. He had no mind for facts and events, but ask him to practice a task again and again and he could improve at it, just like you and I would.
The story of H.M. helped scientists learn that implicit and explicit learning are entirely different processes that occur in separate parts of the brain. As human beings, we lean on both at different points, and sometimes together, but they still remain separate from one another.
How To Learn Grammar Through Implicit and Explicit Learning
Ok. Back to the present.
I’ve shared with you the strange-but-true story of H.M. so you can start thinking about your brain in terms of implicit and explicit learning. How you use each defines your language learning results.
So...what does this imply for you and the way you learn grammar?
First, let’s briefly discuss the ways you can use implicit learning to more effectively learn the grammar of your target language.
- 1Massive Exposure. You need to expose yourself to your target language as much as you can. The more exposure you get to texts, audio, and video the better. Read and listen to as much authentic language as you can find.
- 2Comprehensible input. When you choose material for your massive exposure, start with things you can mostly understand. This seems obvious, but it is not. If you engage in content that you understand little and which has no other means of support (like a list of vocabulary at the end, translation, or some grammar notes), then drop it.
- 3Meaningful interaction with human beings. Just as the early experiences of children are filled with countless interactions with parents and loved ones, you should try to fill your language learning with meaningful time spent with friends, tutors, and language partners. Nowadays, it’s not too difficult to make new connections online, so even if you can’t hang out in person, you have the option to connect on Skype or Zoom.
- 4Live as many experiences as possible. If you want to learn a language in a natural way, you need to live the language. This means that after you’ve spent a while “hitting the books”, you should go out and try to use and experience the language in the real world. Travel, attend meetups, go hiking, go to the movies. Try to experience as much of life as you can, but through your target language.
- 5Get emotional. Emotions play a key role in the way we remember things, even grammar rules. Make sure that most of what you do in your target language consists of things that you find fun, interesting, and emotionally impactful.
Now, let’s take a look at what you can do when it comes to explicit learning:
- 1Use grammar books, but only as a reference. Grammar books are not meant to be read cover to cover. Consult them rarely, and only for quick clarification. Don’t let yourself get bogged down by technical details, and if you can, take notes in your own words for increased memorization of finer details.
- 2Practice language awareness. Most people are not aware of how they speak, the words they choose, the mistakes they make, and even their facial features or body language when speaking. Developing awareness of the grammar mistakes you make while you produce language is key if you want to improve.
- 3Get feedback. While you can figure out a lot for yourself through practice and occasional glances at a grammar book, our capacity to notice things has its limits. It is critical to consult native speakers for feedback on your mistakes—because there are even mistakes you don’t know you’re making!
- 4Implement the feedback. Receiving feedback is not enough. You need to implement it in order to improve. How many times have you received some correction and then continued to make the same mistake over and over? That’s because your will to hone your grammar was not strong enough. You need to constantly strive to avoid repeating the same mistakes. You’ll fail at that often, sure, but the more you practice implementing feedback, the better you’ll speak.
Why Do We Need Explicit Learning, When Implicit Learning is So Much Better?
A final important note.
Some people think that you don’t need to learn grammar at all. Throw the books away, stay away from any grammar explanation. Just rely on comprehensible input.
I don’t believe this is the best way to go about things.
I think that, as an adult, you need a certain amount of explicit grammar explanations. An amount that depends primarily on the “language distance” between your native language and your target language.
The closer two languages are, the more features they have in common. An Italian learning Spanish might learn the language without needing to crack open a grammar book, simply because Spanish and Italian are so similar.
An Italian learning Japanese, on the other hand, might need to spend considerably more time learning both implicitly and explicitly about how Japanese grammar works, considering the languages differ greatly in terms of syntax, vocabulary, and morphology.
And one more observation: the longer the distance between your mother tongue and the target language, the longer it will take for you to assimilate those grammar patterns in a reliable way.
No matter how smart and diligent you are, there will be many many times when you'll forget a grammar pattern, or two, or ten. This is inevitable. Even if you read and reread your notes a dozen times. As a language learner, it is extremely important to understand that THIS is the moment in the marathon where you have to show great endurance to succeed. Otherwise, you can easily lose motivation.
The reality is, as an adult, you need both implicit and explicit learning. You need to know the rules of the game and you need to practice and play the game. Both things mutually interact and reinforce each other.
And come to think of it, the arc of your learning should follow that of a child, too. All educated native speakers have gone through a phase of implicit learning at home and then a phase of explicit learning at school. They first learn to speak the language, and then they learn about the language in school.
As a rule of thumb, try to divide your implicit and explicit learning time according to the Pareto Principle: 80% of time should be spent learning implicitly, while the other 20% should be spent learning explicitly.
Time for a Change in Strategy
So, to wrap up, it's important to stress that human beings absorb language most effectively through a process called implicit learning. The opposite process, called explicit learning, is effective for memorizing facts and events, but less so for developing skills, like language.
As adults, we should strive to learn grammar mostly implicitly, but we should also use your explicit learning tools to help us bridge the gap when necessary.
Focus on learning from raw, authentic language for the bulk of your learning, but then crack open a grammar book in those rare moments when you need a small push to help you understand a concept. This will help you learn in a way which makes the most of your brain’s miraculous learning capacities!