As you may or may not know, a lot of this website is dedicated to teaching people how to learn the different elements of French grammar. However, for this article we will be discussing how to go about learning French grammar in general rather than focusing on any individual element.
The way I look at it there are two main ways to go about acquiring French grammar (or the grammar of whichever language you have chosen). The first way we will refer to as the “textbook method” and the second way we’ll refer to as the “immersion method”. Which way is more efficient? And which way will help you achieve your goal of French fluency? Let’s take a look at what each method entails and the advantages and disadvantages of both.
Learn French Grammar Through the Textbook Method
Most of us with any sort of language-learning experience are likely familiar with the “textbook method”. For the most part language classrooms and grammar books revolve around this approach. What is the “textbook method” exactly? Well to be honest it’s exactly what it sounds like.
It’s when you take the time to learn the ins-and-outs of a language through learning its grammar rules (such as from a textbook). You learn how to conjugate verbs, construct sentences, and which prepositions to use where. Let’s look at the pros and cons of learning a language through using the “textbook method”.
Pro # 1 – One of the main advantages of using the “textbook method’ is that you can often pick up concepts quicker than if you were try to absorb them through simple immersion. For example, if you’re trying to learn French conjugations, instead of trying to naturally absorb the rules through repeated exposure, you can simply learn the rules of conjugation and study the tables.
For some this may seem tedious (and it is), but if you’re looking to learn something quickly then this approach may be exactly what you need. You can easily focus 100% of your attention on learning a given element of a language and really hammer down on learning the rules and when to use it.
Pro # 2 – The second reason the “textbook method” may be beneficial to you is because in many instances you end up having more logic to base your grammar on than just a hunch or feeling. You also end up avoiding certain mistakes that native speakers make. This is because native speakers often form their sentences based on what sounds familiar to them instead of what the grammar rules states is correct.
The problem here is that what sounds familiar to you isn’t always grammatically correct. For example, a common mistake that native speakers of English make is to say “Me and my friend…” instead of “My friend and I…”. Although those who make this mistake likely don’t feel that there is anything wrong with this sort of phrasing, anyone well-versed in English grammar knows that this is incorrect.
Con # 1 – The first disadvantage of the “textbook method” is that it can be quite difficult. One of the hardest and most discouraging parts of the “textbook method” is understanding all the technical and hard-to-understand terms that come along with it. Go read any French grammar book or French learning blog and you’ll encounter terms like subject, object, direct, indirect, preposition, subjunctive and many others.
Wrapping your head around this new set of vocabulary can be hard enough to understand as it is, let alone understanding the actual grammar points. For the most part native speakers don’t understand these terms and yet they speak their language just fine.
Con # 2 – The second disadvantage of using the “textbook method” is that you are at risk of learning what some might consider unnatural French. If you’ve ever practiced with a French friend only to have them tell you that “nobody ever says that” you know exactly what I’m talking about.
Your sentences may be 100% grammatically correct, but it just isn’t something that a native speaker would say. To those of us language learners this can be incredibly frustrating as we may truly feel that what we are saying is correct (and perhaps it is). Unfortunately the truth is that without some sort of real-life exposure you’ll never really know if what you are saying is considered “correct” or “normal” by native speakers.
Learn French Grammar Through the Immersion Method
Now that we’ve established some of the advantages and disadvantages of learning French grammar through the “textbook method”, it’s time to take a look at what we are referring to as the “immersion method”. Much like the “textbook method” the “immersion method’ is exactly what is sounds like.
The “immersion method” to approaching grammar involves getting enough natural exposure to a language through both reading and listening that you start to internalize its grammar. This is primarily how native speakers learn their own language seeing as they are constantly exposed to it since birth.
What we are going for in this method is that internal feeling that a sentence is right or wrong rather than any real logic behind it.
Pro #1 – The first advantage of using the “immersion method” to learn grammar is that it can be a lot more enjoyable than the previous method we discussed. The great thing about simply trying to internalize grammar is that for the most part you can use whatever content you enjoy.
For example if you’ve read the article “How to Improve Your French [The Complete Guide]” you’ll know that anybody can easily find French YouTube videos with subtitles to practice with. By watching and rewatching these videos you can start to naturally absorb when and where to use certain grammar points.
Of course there are countless other resources that you can use including books, movies and just plain old friends, but the overall idea remains the same. Old-fashioned language courses usually come with dialogue that is both uninteresting and boring. If you are able to choose your own content you can easily find something that you are interested in and that you genuinely like consuming. By doing this it shouldn’t be difficult to spend large amounts of time practicing your French.
Pro #2 – The next advantage of using the “immersion method” to learn grammar is that by reading and listening to content that is produced by native speakers you can really get a feel for how they actually speak. The great thing about this is that it is much easier to pick up slang, expressions and to move away from the more formal ways of speaking that are so commonly found in French classes and learning books.
Most people want to avoid sticking out like a sore thumb when speaking to others in a foreign language, and by using the “immersion method” you can try and minimize your foreignness as much as possible. By speaking the way natives do you can also start to gain trust of those around you, which means they are more likely to speak to you the same way they speak with their friends. What you don’t want is for others to assume that you won’t understand slang or informal speak and to never use it with you.
Con #1 – The first disadvantage of the “immersion method” is that it can take a very long time. The problem here is that in order to get enough repetition to truly acquire a given grammar point, you need to to consume a massive amount of content. This is primarily for two reasons:
- You need to be exposed to a given grammar point in several different situations in order for you to truly understand it enough to be able to use it confidently yourself. The amount of exposure you need is going to vary from person to person, but the idea of multiple exposures remains the same.
- You don’t get to control what the content you’re consuming says so you may have to end up waiting a long time for whatever you’re trying to learn to appear (and appear again). For example, you may read 100 pages in a book or watch several hours of television only to come across what you are trying to learn a handful of times. Couple that with the fact that most people don’t have that much time to devote to language learning and you’ll find that getting the right amount of exposure is even harder than you though.
Con #2 – The second disadvantage of the “immersion method” is that you can sometimes learn things incorrectly. One common misconception regarding native speakers of any language is that because they’ve grown up their entire lives speaking their language they must speak it perfectly. This is just simply not true. Whether they realize it or not native speakers constantly make mistakes in their own language.
This goes back to what I said earlier regarding “hunches” and “what seems familiar” not always being correct. The biggest takeaway from this point is that you really need to be careful with the material you use. Whether it be a video, book or just a friend that you speak with, be mindful of where you are getting your content from. Learning informal French is fine, just be careful not to internalize the mistakes that others make. Just because they make them doesn’t mean you have to.
So we’ve explored some of the advantages and disadvantages of these two methods, and now we have to ask ourselves which one is better? The truth is that to reach the goal of fluency you need to incorporate both of these methods into your learning strategy.
Too many people rely on just one or the other and don’t understand that to really speak a language well you have to incorporate both grammar rules and natural exposure into your language-learning routine. Do you have a method that has worked for you that doesn’t involve either of these? Let us know about below in the comments and explain to us how it works!