Modern methods for teaching languages tend to focus more on speaking and listening than reading and writing. The average language teacher has probably lost count of the number of times he or she has heard someone say: “I want to know how to speak the language, I don’t care about grammar.”
One argument used for this approach is that if small children can speak and understand language without knowing grammar, why shouldn’t adults? This is of course nonsense. Children may not know it, but when they start to speak they are in fact applying grammar as they gradually build up their vocabulary.
As with other skills that contain a practical and a theoretical side, the theory is useless to anyone who hasn’t got a handle on the basics. The theory of chess openings is meaningless to someone who hasn’t learned how the pieces move. An academic could define scales, stops, and intervals until the cows come home and be unable to play the simplest tune. Reading about the grammatical rules of Spanish before you can say buenos días can test the patience of most.
Unless the language student is a fan of grammar for grammar’s sake, this is a sure way to make the language boring, and the learning of it intolerable. Hence the kind of outburst mentioned above.
One advantage of learning —perhaps by heart— a basic set of grammar rules is that they can be applied to new vocabulary and situations with a fair amount of success. One rule for conjugating regular verbs, for example, will be applicable to all those verbs.
Most people agree that Spanish grammar is fairly straightforward, so to learn the basic rules as you go along makes more sense than to reject grammar out of hand as some unnecessary obstacle to speaking and understanding.
In the end, it doesn’t matter whether you learn “book Spanish” first and then add conversation and listening comprehension, or take a conversation course first and then begin to synthesize the rules.
To master the language, you will have to do both in the end.
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