Phrase book vs. Grammar book

Spanish Phrase book and grammar book

The books I have been using

In my entry last week, I mentioned that I discovered two ways of learning Spanish – by memorizing phrase books or by understanding grammar books. I guess it applies not only to learning Spanish but also to any language.

Now to explain it, let me make things clearer first. A phrase book will normally be divided into chapters for each occasion that needs a conversation – eating, shopping at the mall, taking the public transport, being sick, asking for directions, etc. Inside each chapter will be a list of commonly used phrases and expressions. It doesn’t include unexpected events or elaborate conversations. In a phrase book, you’d probably see translations of the line:

How much is this shoe?

But you will rarely find a translation for:

Can I get a shoe that is one size larger and of a different color?

A grammar book, on the other hand, will be divided into chapters corresponding to the elements of grammar – nouns, adjectives, adverbs, pronouns, sentence construction, and grammar agreement, among many others. Each chapter will most likely include tables of different verb forms for each verb tense, like present, past, and future tenses. The grammar book works similarly to how we learned English in school – the teachers taught the rules and exercises or exams followed for practice. In school, we learned how to express words that already happened (past tense), are happening now (present tense), and will happen (future tense). Grammar books work the same way. Using a grammar book takes time. It might also confuse you because of the many verb tenses that you have to memorize since only one or two letters change.

So which one is the best method for learning?

I believe it varies, depending on the need and the time frame allotted for learning. If you’re just travelling abroad for a single, short travel, then a small phrase book is already good to bring since you’d probably just be asking the basic questions and speaking the commonly used phrases. But if you’re just plain curious (like me!), I suggest trying the grammar book for a better learning experience. See, I measured my learning progress by my ability to speak in casual conversations or to write short compositions. A phrase book may help at first, but as the conversation goes on, you’ll need more than just the basic “Hi! My name is Hazel. I live in the Philippines.” to keep up with it!

Understanding the grammar books will help you understand the language down to the basic elements that you need so you can make your own sentences. When you’ve already mastered even just the basics (past, present, future tenses), you can already compose just about any sentence you want! That’s more fulfilling than being limited with specific sentences, right? Well, that’s just my opinion though.

A dictionary is also a good companion to the grammar book or phrase book. You can never go wrong with a dictionary in your pocket. In addition, regular practice will always, always help in being good at a new language. When I took Spanish classes, we were asked to listen to Spanish songs and make short skits to practice what we just learned. There’s a Spanish school in the Philippines, Instituto Cervantes Manila, which holds their lessons in pure Spanish too. That’s more challenging but I guess it will help you get used to using the language faster.

(Editor’s note: Singapore has no Cervantes Institute, but an associated centre. We have an exclusive deal with them. Contact them before joining and you’ll get a free dictionary at Las Lilas Spanish Language School )

In the end, it doesn’t matter which method you choose. With a little patience and dedicated practice, you’ll surely go a long way with learning a new language!

About Hazel Fajardo

Based in the Philippines, Hazel is a student of chemical engineering with a broad interest in life around her. She has been teaching English as a Second Language and loves photography and diving.