Grammar is a construct that doesn't love you. She'll let you take her out, listen to what she has to say, lull you into a false sense of security, and make you feel like everything is good to go. Then, when it's time to seal the deal and tell your friends about your new relationship, she'll say you're “just friends” and leave you for the next poor schmuck looking to get a quick foreign language fix. Grammar won't call you back after the first date and she'll get your hopes up only to drop you, hurt and broken on the floor.
But it's not entirely Grammar's fault. When trying to start a relationship with a partner who isn't completely whole or real themselves is setting yourself up for failure (and yes, I'm still talking about grammar and foreign language learning). While I not advocate against the explicit teaching of grammar entirely, I will say that it's not all it's cracked up to be.
Well if that's the case, what is it about grammar exercises that isn’t effective?
1. Proficiency in grammar has a direct, positive correlation to how much input you put in.
nput is anything that is read or heard in the target language, and can be found all over the internet or television (depending on where you live). Many cloze deletion exercises are used to “learn” grammar and test proficiency. While this is a good idea, the “language sense” that enables us to complete these exercises is built on a large amount of input and consumption of media. It is the equivalent to trying to do a dynamic push (the jumping kinds) without first working on doing regular ones, you just end up flopping around and falling onto the floor due to a lack of strength and coordination – a lack of experience. You have to be at a higher comprehension level than the exercise is testing you on. If you can't even understand language or articles to the exercise level, how will you be able to reproduce the correct answers on tests?
2. Grammatical proficiency can not be taught. Sure, we can all complete exercises and read grammar charts out loud in the traditional, rote memorization fashion, but once we take off those Floaties and are thrust into the deep blue sea that is immersion and interaction with native speakers we gasp and struggle for air. If you are not challenging yourself to think, speak, act, and interact like a native in practice, then when you are actually in a native situation you will not be able to perform. Native speakers of Chinese or any language don't sit around all day spouting grammar patterns in each others' direction while smiling and taking notes. If they did, I know I wouldn't want to hang out with them.
3. Finally, don't jump on the "learning any grammar is bad" bandwagon. I've been there, done that, and didn’t even get a T-shirt. Bruce Lee once said, "Adapt what is useful, reject what is useless, and add what is specifically your own." In context, this means you need to absorb as much target language media and information as possible. If you are attending a language class, focus more on the sentences than the “rules.” Don't panic, just find some Chinese video games, watch Chinese television, read crazy articles and Chinese manga, and do as many things as Chinese people do in Chinese. The grammar will come, and it will become a part of you in such an organic and natural way that you probably won't even realize it.
So fret not. There is a Chinese paper lantern at the end of the tunnel. Just keep on keeping on (in Chinese, of course).