Todo cabe pero no todo vale

I'm noticing a troubling theme in the language-learning and language-blogging community: people who are looked to as subject matter experts, time and time again, encouraging their readers and followers to forego grammar.

I'm deeply troubled by this.

A common piece of advice I see from many sources is, "Don't waste your time on all that frustrating grammar, just learn the words and the grammar will work itself out. Besides, you don't have to speak perfectly... people will understand you."

I'll ignore the massive sense of arrogance in statements like that, because I think that's obvious enough that you can all see just how offensive it is. Instead, I'll just point out exactly how wrong that statement and advice really is.

How important is grammar?

If you're speaking one of the trendy European Romance languages (Spanish / Italian / French / Portuguese / etc.), the risk is moderate to low. The two most troublesome grammatical features are noun gender and verb conjugation, though there are occasionally other details to consider.

For example, the Italian word fico is of the masculine gender, and refers to that delicious fruit we know as a fig, but if you accidentally use a feminine ending on that word, you will have used a very vulgar term for a certain part of a female's anatomy.

In Spanish, you might think you can say ¿Cómo te llamo? if you want to ask What do I call you?, but the person to whom you say that is going to hear Oh, how much I love you!. The grammatically correct question is ¿Cómo te llamas?

Also, in case you think it's okay to leave off tildes, you might want to reconsider. If you say Tengo veinticuatro anos, you're telling people you have 24 assholes. Año means year, but ano means anus.

Sharpen your reflexes?

Reflexive verbs can occasionally have a very unexpected and different meaning than their non-reflexive counterparts.

The German word ausziehen means to move out, but if you slip up and say Sie mussen sich ausziehen, you won't be advising them to move out, you'll be asking them to undress.

Baltic and Slavic languages also have a special possessive pronoun that must be used when referring to the subject: savo (Lithuanian), swój (Polish), свой (Russian), svůj (Czech), etc. If you use this adjective incorrectly, bad things can happen. When talking about your friend in Polish, if you say on kocha jego żonę, you're likely to get some raised eyebrows, and questions about just exactly whose wife he loves!

Cases make it worse!

In noun-declined languages, the endings of words change to indicate their role in the sentence. This is often a very difficult and strange concept for native English speakers, so it's no surprise that they use the nominative case for everything, depending on word order as they would in English. But this isn't as easy for natives to understand as you might expect. The ending of a word tells its role, and when the ending is wrong, bad things can happen!

For example, in spite of how it looks, Ивана съел doesn't mean Ivana ate, it means I ate Ivan! A tiny mistake with one letter changes everything. Instead of saying кто-то ест еду, you're saying кто-то есть еда. (Instead of saying someone eats food, you're saying someone is food!)

Of course it works in English, too

I have often had foreign friends pop up on my chat window and ask me if I'm "working hardly". Technically, their grammar is more correct here, and it's English whose grammar is wrong, but nonetheless, I'm being asked if I'm slacking.

And then there is the classic example of the difference one comma can make: Let's eat, grandpa! is a much different statement than Let's eat grandpa!

Grammar matters

The bottom line is that grammar is important. It's not something you can just ignore, and hope to "pick up along the way". You may think people will understand you even when you make mistakes, but you'll be surprised to learn that quite often they don't. Most of the time, when people don't understand a foreigner, they just nod their head and pretend to understand, because it's easier.

In most cases, the meanings probably wont be as entertaining as the examples I've given above, but they will often have enough difference in meaning to make it very hard to understand you. And frankly, even if you can be understood, do you really want to make other people work so hard all the time? Why not just learn to speak properly so you can be a pleasure to be around, rather than a burden?

The truth is, grammar isn't nearly as bad as people make it out to be. What's important is your attitude. If you allow yourself to get sucked into that "grammar is boring, I hate grammar" mindset, then you will have a miserable time. But if you remember to stay positive and excited about learning a new language, grammar is an easy thing to get excited about... like when you're assembling a jigsaw puzzle and you can start to see the image.

When you're learning about masculine and feminine nouns, don't say, "aw, gosh, why do they have to have different genders on the nouns?" Instead, say to yourself, "wow, it's really interesting the way you can use gender to refer to different members of a sentence." And instead of complaining about how hard noun cases are, just think of how amazing and efficient a language can be when you don't need a bunch of extra noise words to tell you what a noun is doing.

Grammar is as fun or as painful as you make it. Just remember, if you don't make it fun while you're learning, others will be having all the fun later when you're trying to talk.



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