Ah, grammar. How dry. How boring. Right up there with those tedious times tables and those soul-sapping algorithms of arithmetic.
But then here's David Sedaris in the latest New Yorker reflecting on the Pimsleur language program:
Thanks to Japanese I and II, I’m able to buy train tickets, count to nine hundred and ninety-nine thousand, and say, whenever someone is giving me change, “Now you are giving me change.” I can manage in a restaurant, take a cab, and even make small talk with the driver. “Do you have children?” I ask. “Will you take a vacation this year?” “Where to?” When he turns it around, as Japanese cabdrivers are inclined to do, I tell him that I have three children, a big boy and two little girls. If Pimsleur included “I am a middle-aged homosexual and thus make do with a niece I never see and a very small godson,” I’d say that. In the meantime, I work with what I have.
The problem is that Pimsleur is all about mimicry:
Pimsleur's a big help when it comes to pronunciation. The actors are native speakers, and they don't slow down for your benefit. The drawbacks are that they never explain anything or teach you to think for yourself. Instead of being provided with building-blocks which would allow you to construct a sentence of your own, you're left using the hundreds or thousands of sentences you have memorized. That means waiting for a particular situation to arise in order to comment on it; either that or becoming one of those weird non-sequitur people, the kind who, when asked a question about paint color, answer, "There is a bank in front of the train station,"or, "Mrs. Yamada Ito has been playing tennis for fifteen years."
What are those "building-blocks which would allow you to construct a sentence of your own," and, equally importantly, the rules that tell you how to put those building blocks together? That dry, tedious, soul-sapping entity known (or sort of known) as Grammar.
However tedious and soul-sapping it is to do so, mastering a language's grammar rules is the only way to move beyond mimicry and use the language creatively: the only way to move from "I have three children, a big boy and two little girls" to “I am a middle-aged homosexual and thus make do with a niece I never see and a very small godson.”
Pimsleur isn't alone in presuming that you can master a language without learning its grammar; the biggest seller of this fiction is Rosetta Stone (whose slogan, ironically, is "More than Words. Understanding.") Other grammar-denialists (as I discuss here) are k12 foreign language curriculum developers, as well as (as I discuss here) autism therapists and the general American public. It's a vicious cycle that worsens with each succeeding generation of mis-educated students, more of whom need to spend time attempting to converse with Japanese cabbies before foisting their language lessons on the rest of us. Thank you, David Sedaris, for yours!
(Cross-posted at Out in Left Field)