Is grammar important to learn Italian?
Well, that’s the big question, isn’t it? Is grammar important in learning languages? And, specifically, is grammar important in learning Italian? Luinguists, tutors and professors have been discussing around the matter for decades. I’ve read books, articles and academic papers about it and the ideas that have been proposed are rather discordant.
I have a BA in Italian Linguitics, an MA in Applied Linguistics, I’m currently doing an MPhil in General and Italian Linguistics at Oxford, I’m qualified to teach Italian as a Foreign Language, I have more than 5 years of teaching experience plus almost 500 hours of online teaching and this is my take on the question!
Grammar is insanely important in learning a new language!
What? Why? When? How? You may wonder. And yes, I know this probably contraddicts most of what you’ve heard around about it. Traditional schooling placed grammar at the core of language acquisition and the system is considered to be a big failure. Who hasn’t been stuck in school, learning some ‘useless’ rules and defintions for years and years only to come out of school without being able to actually speak the language? Me, that’s definitely me! After years and years of studying English, around 7 years ago, I went to the UK for the first time as an adult and couldn’t understand a word, let alone speak. Very sad. Then why, you may still wonder, after saying that studying grammar was useless for me, I consider it to be ‘insanely important to learn a new language’?
Because grammar is, indeed, at the core of a language but the approach to grammar teaching and learning is completely wrong (more often than not).
If I taught my students all the possible grammar there is to know in Italian without teaching them how to put it into practice, that would be utterly useless! No doubts about it. On the other hand, if I only taught them how to speak Italian without any grammatical foundation, they would probably just learn things by heart, only to forget them unless constantly repeated. Do you get what I mean?
People have been arguing that learning grammar is only useful to improve the literacy in a language (reading and writing). However, if taught appropriately, grammar is the most powerful tool you can use to learn a language.
Because by learning the grammar you also know how a language works! If you know how the language works, you will eventually learn how to think in that language! And that is the ultimate goal!
It’s as simple as that. I personally believe that when you learn a new language, you don’t just want to be able to use a handful of phrases and expressions just for the sake of saying you can a speak a second (or third, fourth, etc.) language. You want to get into the mechanism of that language, you want to know how native speakers use the language, how they think and convey messages through that language. Do you agree? You can’t do that without studying grammar, without analysing how the language is structured. And if you can take anything away from this article is that when you approach a new language you need to be hungry, you need to want to know more, you need to want to know the nitty-gritty of the language.
It goes without saying that you necessarily need to practice your speaking and listening skills. You absolutely want to listen and replicate what you hear. Making mistakes is totally fine. What’s important, ultimately, is to get the message across. Native speakers won’t correct you if they can understand you. Knowing how a language works is for you to better grow in your language learning journey. But please, hesitate when they tell you that grammar is not important, that they will teach you how to speak the language without teaching you the grammar. Try to understand what do they mean with that and what is their ultimate approach to grammar.
So, how do I approach grammar teaching and learning?
I personally value what is called ‘language in use’. I first show my students how the language is used by native speakers, using texts, recordings, dialogues, videos, movie excerpts and so forth, and then we go into details about the gramamar to see the whys and hows. At that point the students don’t just parrot back the sentences they have heard but they elaborate and then replicate because they understand how it all works.
I live and breathe Italian grammar so I may be biased but I truly believe in its power, if taught well, with purpose.
LET ME GIVE YOU AN EXAMPLE
If I tell you that the passato prossimo is the tense used to express a punctual action in the past (this is just one of the current uses but I won’t go into details here for the sake of this example) and then show you how it is formed (present tense of the auxiliary verb plus the past participle) with a final example like: ‘ieri ho mangiato carne’ (=yesterday I ate meat), would you be able to actually acquire the tense and put it into practice? Probably not. You may be able to tell me the rule and the uses, maybe give me a couple of example on the spot and that’s about it. The next day you may try to use it in a conversation and wouldn’t know how. This is grammar taught badly. And, unfortunately, this is how grammar is mostly taught. And, ultimately, this is why people think it’s useless. What you need to know is how and when we use the tense. The comparison with other tenses in the language. What are the situations and contexts in which we use that tense. You need to know what and how the native speakers think when using that tense. If a teacher is able to pass that kind of knowledge onto you ‘allora sei a cavallo‘ as we say in Italian! Meaning, you’re good to go. You’ll be able to use your second language as if it was your first.
In conclusion, to answer the question on whether grammar is important to learn Italian or not, my answer is a big YES! If grammar is taught con cognizione di causa, with purpose, then it’ll be one of the most powerful tool there is to acquire the language.
I’d be happy to know what you think about it and what your experience has been with language learning with respect to grammar (in Italian or in other languages). The debate is definitely open and what I think on the subect is due to my personal experience as a language student (first) and teacher (then). But maybe you think differently and that is perfectly fine and I would love to hear your thoughts and have a discussion about it!