Theoretical vs Experiential Learning

by David · 2 comments

My recent observations have revealed to me areas where I have failed to recognise the difference between theory and experience. I suspect this is something we all do. I hope my observations will be an eye opener for where you too may confuse the two.

I Accepted Common Beliefs

Over the last few weeks I have been experimenting with ways to approach my language learning. To my surprise, the method that has proven to be most effective (so far) is the same method I have shied away from, because I believed ‘it wasn’t for me’.

In the initial stages of my language learning, I read many blog posts in which bloggers advised their readers not to focus too much on grammar, and iterated how it can stifle one’s flow.  I subscribed to this notion and until recently I have believed in its sentiment. After all, it made sense to me – why not?

I Deceived Myself

I’ve asked myself why I shied away from grammar for so long. The truth is simple. I was unfamiliar with English grammar.

The idea that I could learn a language without having to learn its grammar resonated with me. It spoke to the part of my brain that wanted to stay in its comfort zone. My eyes lit up – this wasn’t going to be as hard as I thought! That was it. From that point forward grammar was a taboo.

I hadn’t given grammar a try, however in my mind I ‘knew’ exactly why it was bad for me. I disposed of it, kicked it to the side and spat on it without even taking it out of the packet!

The truth is I didn’t know, nevertheless, I felt I did. I grew passionate about an approach to learning language without grammar. I warmed to it, defended it and I’ll even go as far as saying I owned it.

I liked the idea of there being a part of language I could ignore. The truth is I subscribed to the ‘grammar is bad’ notion because I didn’t want to learn about something in another language I had not learned in my own. The bloggers who wrote about how bad grammar is for learning a language spoke to my heart’s desire.


I’m a student of linguistics, which is impossible to be a graduate of without touching base with syntax. Guess what? I had to learn English grammar, there’s absolutely no way around it.

I became familiar with terms such as demonstrative, dative and declension.  This was easy. It was interesting. Why had I not learnt this before? Boy did I feel dumb!

My acquisition of English grammar allowed me to question the structure of every sentence I spoke or wrote. I’m extremely analytical – constantly observing the structure of my sentences improved my command of English.

It became clear to me that grammar had its place. In fact, grammar resonated with me, it only made sense that I, with the analytical mind, seek to incorporate grammar into my study of Spanish.

I gave grammar a go and my eyes lit up as the language began to make more sense to me. My command of Spanish continued to improve at a faster rate than it had before.

I now use the language’s structure as a building block for study. (I’ll write a post about this later)

Walk Away With This

My intention is not to persuade you to use my method of learning language. What I hope to have brought to your attention is the fact that we are often covertly irrational. I encourage you to question your beliefs – especially those held with no experience.

It’s extremely easy for us to convince ourselves of something being true, when in fact we have little reason to believe in its sentiment.  In the walls of our minds we are able to manufacture anything we please. Test out your theories. Test the theories of others. Accept no theory as truth.

As humans we are driven by emotions. Every top blogger knows this, and you best believe they play on it!

Next time you’re reading a blogger’s post littered with their opinion concealed behind declarative sentences. Remember, there is no universal truth.

Are your own conclusions based on theory or experience?

I urge you to do everything in your power to seek experience before concluding. I believe theories are often geared towards our desires. Which of course are not always helpful.

I’m here to help you become a better learner. In order for me to assist you it’s important you agree with me on this one.

Theories will never go away. I don’t want them to. What I want is for you to couple theory with an experiment. EVERY TIME!

This is my take on the theoretical vs. experiential learning.

  • I agree – it’s a good idea not to accept everything you hear or read and to test and try things yourself.

    Grammar isn’t something scary that you can ignore completely when learning a language. In fact knowing how the grammar works can help you learn a language more quickly. For me the issue is how to go about learning the grammar. I tend to look for examples of different aspects of grammar in written or spoken materials, and then find out how they work.

  • I may be the odd man out, but I love grammar. I may fight it, dislike it for a while, even hate it, but my relation with it is more a love-hate than a hate-hate. I’m not like Benny the Irish Polyglot in that I want spoken fluency: I want good writing and reading if possible, as such I’m not into (real live) immersion but more about grasping the grammar until the “switch flips” (a metaphor I used in my post The Language Switch) and the grammar gets hard-wired to my brain.



Previous post:

Next post: