Dialogues-first vs. grammar-first approach

By Frederik De Vos

Back in the day, when I was still in school, the approach to foreign language teaching was usually a grammar-first approach. We would focus on the grammar topic of the day—conjugations, tenses, clauses, that sort of thing. And then, there would be some exercises, and maybe a story. Most of us students were rather bored (and used to it). At the end of the class, we hadn't really gotten much closer to fluency. In fact, the conversion of all those hours of traditional classroom instruction into fluency was rather disappointing.

It's easy to see that grammar-first language instruction is not very emotionally engaging. Yet, it is very clear that emotional engagement is crucial in the learning process. Are the learners thrilled by what they are learning, or are they struggling to keep paying attention?

Dialogues are key to bringing excitement and emotional engagement to language learning. And they're much more practical than typical grammar book sentences. The learners can relate to what they're learning.

How about an approach without grammar? Such approaches have been tried in the past. Unfortunately, they leave the learners guessing about word order, pronunciation, how to use certain words and so on. People have a natural tendency to look for patterns and define things. Instead of spending a lot of time trying to establish the patterns in the language themselves, the learners can simply consult a grammar reference.

Dialogues and grammar are both necessary in the learning process. Dialogues are needed for the intuitive, cultural, non-verbal and emotional aspects of the language, which also keep the learner engaged, while grammar is needed for structure and clarity. They just need to be combined in a practical way.

Learning Tagalog: Fluency Made Fast and Easy uses the dialogues-first approach. The dialogues are presented one phrase at a time, with their literal (word-for-word) and natural (whole-sentence) translations, an audio recording and pronunciation marks. Where needed, the grammar is briefly explained and illustrated by means of examples. This approach is more likely to keep the learners on board.

We believe a dialogues-first approach is more effective than a grammar-first approach, both in terms of results and in terms of enjoyment.

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