May 4, 2010 | Spanish
In Praise of Grammar Books
On language-learning techniques, islands, and loud garbage trucks.
In New York City, it is a pretty common thing to be awoken in the wee hours by garbage trucks. Our apartment is in a quiet, non-street-facing part of our building, so it doesn’t happen to us very often, but today was unfortunately a garbage-truck kind of day, and I was woken up way too early, and I couldn’t go back to sleep.
As a result, I felt tired all day. Through a mental and physical fog, I squeezed in about 40 pages of studying in my new book, The Spanish Subjunctive Up Close, by Eric Vogt. I admit there was some skimming involved.
In the evening, I went to Icahn Stadium on Randall’s Island, located in the East River, for a New York Road Runners Club track meet. I ran the 1500 (meters, that is). At first I was disappointed in my time, but it was 43 seconds faster than a year ago, so I shouldn’t complain.
It is kind of a pain to get to Randall’s Island from where we live, so I took my Spanish VocabuLearn with me for the trip, but then my iPod Shuffle ran out of juice after about half an hour. So no more Spanish. (My language-learning road is filled with such technological potholes, often totally avoidable ones.)
Now I am back home, from which resting place I would like to put in a good word for good old-fashioned grammar books as language-learning tools. I absolutely believe in developing oral skills, and would encourage that above all else, but I am talking about a different issue for the moment: I notice that people who hear I am studying a language often advise me to read this or that newspaper or this or that news site. I don’t have an objection to reading news, but particularly when I am still at a beginning or intermediate level, I personally find grammar books to be a much more efficient way to improve my communication skills.
When you read a newspaper, you learn sort of by osmosis. A whole bunch of stuff comes flying at you and you try to glean what you can from it. Even for advanced students, the experience is often a vocabulary assault, meaning you have to look up many things in the dictionary, and there will generally be constructions you don’t understand, and that you can’t quite process, and for me that is often more frustrating than pleasurable.
Also: just as with oral communication, I find that native English speakers in the U.S. are inclined to have not very high standards for reading comprehension. They will claim to understand what they read in a foreign language when they really don’t. And if they misunderstand, say, two phrases in two sentences, they are likely to have a completely wrong understanding of whatever military crisis or political incident they are reading about.
Now with a good grammar book, you get clarification of each new language point in a structured, logical way, and you get practice and reinforcement. If I can’t actually go live in a country whose language I am learning, which would be far and away the fastest way to learn, I like to build things sturdily, brick by brick, so that I am confident in my skills and not demolishing the language.
One of my biggest challenges in Spanish reading comprehension is all those adverbial expressions. I had trouble remembering a lot of them back in high school, and I still have trouble. I’m talking about things like tal vez (maybe), a no ser que (unless), por mucho que (no matter how much), etc.—I constantly have to remind myself of what they mean. And it is not always easy to find multi-word expressions in a dictionary.
Getting a few of those wrong in one news story, along with a couple of nouns or verbs, could lead you to think that one country blew up another country rather than calling a truce.