Dialogues-first vs. grammar‑first approach

Frederik De Vos

The benefits of a dialogues-first approach to learning languages

By Frederik De Vos

The grammar-first approach

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.

The dialogues-first approach

Dialogues are key to bringing emotional engagement and excitement to language learning.

They’re lively and more realistic than typical grammar book sentences. The learners can relate to what they’re learning. And they can use the sentences in real life.

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.

Instead of spending a lot of time trying to establish the patterns in the language themselves, the learners can simply consult a grammar reference.

The purpose of grammar book sentences is to explain grammar concepts as clearly as possible. However, such sentences do not teach the learner what native speakers say in particular situations.

Dialogues and grammar are both necessary in the learning process. Dialogues are needed for the real-life usage, and the intuitive, cultural, non-verbal and emotional aspects of the language. They keep the learner engaged. On the other hand, grammar is needed for structure and clarity. Dialogues and grammar 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.

We believe a dialogues-first approach is more effective and more enjoyable than a grammar-first approach. At the same time, we do understand that grammar is crucial. It just needs to be introduced at the right time and in the right way.

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