What a Japanese proverb taught me about learning English grammar

Don't learn; absorb

There's a phrase in Japanese that I love: narau yori nareru (習うより慣れる). 

You'll sometimes see this translated to English as "practice makes perfect", but what I like about this is the way that it's phrased. Narau (習う) means "to learn". Yori (より) is "rather than". And nareru (慣れる) means to get used to something. This comes out to mean "to get used to something rather than learning it." Or, in other words, "Don't learn. Absorb."

More than the English phrase "practice makes perfect", narau yori nareru emphasizes that some things can't be learned by learning. Some things you just have to absorb. Language is one of those things. 

Why I hated teaching Grammar

I used to teach an English Grammar course for Japanese "returnee" high school students. These were kids who had lived abroad when they were younger, so they were able to speak and read English pretty well. When I started the course, I was given a big, heavy English Grammar textbook to teach from. It had separate chapters on Articles, Conditionals, Perfect Tense, and so on. It went into precise detail about the rules and exceptions for each.

I hated teaching this course. Why? Because I knew that it was mostly useless for the kids to learn grammar in this way.

What is learning?

Our English word "learn" really includes two very different processes. One is gathering and mentally storing information. Things like historical dates, the names of the planets, economics theories, and so on.  The second process is learning to do something. This is what happens when you learn the violin, learn to shoot a basketball, or learn how to read.

Back to grammar. Grammar has both components: knowledge and practice. What I was being asked to teach my high school students was the first cind of learning: grammar facts. But even if they memorized every rule in that huge textbook, they still wouldn't have learned how to use grammar. For example, they wouldn't have developed a strong feeling for when to use "the" vs. "a".  That's something that only comes with lots of practice.

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