Grammar and memorization are the keys that unlock the joy of language

Rote learning gets a bad rap. I get it — in my eight years as a homeschooler, I was immersed in the world of explorative, self-directed learning. There’s something about grammar and memorization that seems tyrannical or unnecessary from within that framework, in which the joy of learning is the goal. But in my experience, grammar and memorization are an essential foundation that prepares a learner for the joy of language later on.

Grammar is a transferable skill. Mastering it in any language can make someone a better writer in English, makes learning one’s next language much easier and improves one’s ability to represent oneself well in professional settings, such as on resumes, cover letters or emails with bosses or professors.

Just as great Impressionist and Cubist artists had to master the old-fashioned rules of art on their way to the groundbreaking expressions people are familiar with today, so too anyone who wants to be able to express themself in writing — to be able to refine, wield, understand and perhaps even elevate an idea with language — must first master the aggravating but necessary rules of grammar.

Mastering grammar sets people free to immerse themselves in a language without getting lost in the paths of sentences, confusing subjects for objects or frustrating one’s conversation partners or pen pals with misunderstandings on when things happened or who they happened to. While studying grammar can be a slog, the feeling of closing in on that freedom which comes with mastering it is pure joy.

It is unfortunate that many students get to college without having had a robust introduction to grammar in any language. Not understanding the grammar of one’s own language makes trying to learn another language twice as hard. Instead of just trying to learn, say, Spanish, many are essentially trying to learn Spanish and the basics of grammar at the same time.

In elementary, middle and high schools, immersion programs and language learning via conversation and storytelling have good intentions: introducing young people to a new language in a way that will be fun and engaging. The problem is that studying languages without attention to grammar is asymptotic: It can only get one so far. When those students get to college or start to study a language in a more rigorous environment, they are unprepared to understand and wield the framework of the language upon which all other parts (vocabulary, syntax, etc.) depend. This, I suspect, is why college language courses focus so much on grammar.

Perhaps in an exceptional immersion environment where a second language can be picked up similarly to a first language, it’s possible to learn it without much specific attention to grammar or memorization. But if one wants to seriously pursue the art and craft of any language — first or new — grammar (the structure of the language) and memorization (the substance) are necessary.