Learning grammar — for many the horror of learning a new language.
But does it have to be this way?
Let’s find out in this second edition of Ask the Experts.
I’ve given you, my readers, the chance to ask the experts the questions. And for this edition, the question that came up most was about grammar.
In my inbox, I found questions like: “How should I learn foreign grammar? I don’t like it at all. It’s so boring!”
So I got to work.
I asked a bunch of language-learning experts, bloggers and translators the following question:
For many people, learning grammar is what they most hate about language learning. So how do YOU recommend they learn grammar?
20 experts replied and this has made for a potent mix of how-to-learn-grammar advice we all can learn from.
You’ll see many familiar faces from the first Ask the Experts. However, I strive to have a varying panel of experts, so there are some new participants as well.
In the first one, I sorted the participants alphabetically by their first name. This time, to prevent having largely the same order in all Ask the Experts posts, I’ve sorted them randomly.
To visit your favorite expert right away, use the quick links below. These ARE sorted alphabetically (by their last name).
Cornelius C. Kubler
Ready? Okay, here we go!
Anne Merritt is an EFL lecturer who’s currently based in South Korea. She writes about language learning for the Telegraph, and her writing has been featured on CNN.
|For starters, I think some learners overestimate the importance of grammar.
If you’re learning a language with the intention to travel, you can get by pretty well with some basic vocabulary, strung together.
I spent some time in Turkey a few years ago and had some trouble getting my head around the grammar structure of the language. However, people were almost always able to understand my ‘Tarzan Turkish’, consisting of basic words I’d picked up: “water please” “where is bus stop?” “this how much money?”.
If fluency is the goal, or if you’re learning the language for professional reasons, I would still advise beginner learners to focus initially on the basic nouns and verbs of everyday vocabulary. Once you build up an arsenal, and get more comfortable with patterns and pronunciation, I think the grammar will be less intimidating. After all, once you’re comfortable with the building blocks of a sentence, parts like articles and conjunctions become more manageable.
Lucas Kern is the founder of Leicht-Deutsch-Lernen.com , where he offers several products to help you learn German while having fun.
This is the answer that you get when you ask students what they think about grammar. I understand this response very well. When I was in school, I hated grammar as well. Well, to be honest, I didn’t hate grammar per se, but rather the learning methods the teachers used.
The way grammar was taught. We did a lot of grammar exercises and had to memorize complicated grammar rules that nobody understood. Many students go mad and finally give up, because they can’t handle the rules. The more grammar they learn the more they get confused, because to any rule there are also exceptions and in many cases, grammar seems to be completely illogical!
Learning a foreign language is more than learning grammar rules by heart. You need to comprehend what you are reading or listening to and you also need to get familiar with the pronunciation. There’s a lot to be done!
So my tip is, if you don’t like grammar, then don’t focus too much on it. It would only frustrate and discourage you. And you will probably give up learning sooner or later.
Instead, try to focus on the other (but also very important) things first.
For example in my story lessons, I tell stories in German and also provide the English translation. In this manner, you can read my stories and listen to them at the same time (I also record them).
If you don’t understand a word or phrase, you can have a quick look at the English translation and then go on with the story. In so doing, you have all you need: The English translation (for understanding), the recorded speaker (for pronunciation), the written words (for spelling), and I also add a question and answer part to every story, which gives you the opportunity for active participation.
If you practice a foreign language in this way, you will not only learn many new words, the correct pronunciation and the spelling but also a great deal of grammar automatically. You will develop a feeling for the correct word order, the correct word endings and much more. As a matter of fact, it is far better to get a feeling for the correct grammar than learn any grammar rules by heart.
If you want to speak a language fluently, there is no time to think about grammar rules before you speak. Being able to feel the correct grammar is the key to fluency. If you are an advanced student you can also improve the feeling for the correct grammar by listening to easy and clearly spoken podcasts, watching movies with subtitles, buying your favorite novel and also buying the unabridged audio book version (read the book and listen to the audio version at the same time).
This way you will acquire a good feeling for the correct grammar. And after some reading and listening, you will see which things come up over and over again that you don’t understand or always mix up. Well, if these things bother you, then you should look them up in a grammar book or ask people to explain these things to you.
If you use this approach, you will probably save a lot of time and you will be much more motivated. Have a try!
Anthony Metivier is a memorization expert who holds a BA and MA in English Literature, an MA in Media & Communications and a PhD in Humanities. He’s the creator of the Magnetic Memory Method and is the man behind the How to Learn and Memorize the Vocabulary of any Language video course, which I’m doing a case study on at this very moment.
“Hate” is the first thing to address.
Why “hate” anything, especially grammar?
It is a living, breathing entity. Take care of it, nurture it, give it a home and grammar will do amazing things for you. It will enable you to understand an entire new world and then communicate with that world, influence it and make amazing things happen, things that go far beyond simple communication.
So drop the word “hate” from your language learning mindset and replace it with “love.” I’m not talking about George Orwell-esque love of Big Brother, but genuine acceptance of a grouchy brother or sister in the family of language that you simply cannot get along without and who can actually be your friend. And the more you get to know it, the less nasty it seems.
You might even begin to realize as you’re reading these words now that you were the grouchy one all along and that grammar was simply waiting for you to open the door by changing your mindset.
Next, get yourself a big old juicy memorization strategy. Far too many people rely on hit-and-miss index cards and spaced-repetition software. These things can be helpful, but are relatively weak on their own – not to mention deadly boring.
In fact, I like to refer to rote learning as the “blunt force” method in your language learning tool box. I suggest you use rote repetition as a last-ditch effort at best, but most definitely in combination with a dedicated memorization strategy if you must use it at all.
Because when you memorize material using mnemonics, memory techniques, memory tricks (whatever you want to call them), you are literally “inviting” the material into your mind. You’re taking care of it, nurturing it, giving it a home (yes, I’m being intentionally and rhetorically repetitive here).
When you prepare your mind and memory for the absorption of grammar, you’re much more likely to find success with learning and retaining it so that you can use it to understand and create meaning in your target language – or languages. But if you treat your mind like a wall and try to hang the frames of grammar on it using nails and a hammer, your mind will refuse to accept what you’re trying to learn quicker than a woodchuck rejects the cold on Groundhog Day.
Finally, understand that grammar has limited use without vocabulary. You simply can’t get traction with grammar until you have a large enough pool of words that you understand upon sight. Think of grammar as the engine that requires the fuel of vocabulary in order to run the car of your mind and the headlights of your mouth so that you can drive the highway of language. And it is a beautiful highway indeed.
Here’s the good news: the same dedicated memory strategies you use to memorize grammar rules can be used to memorize vocabulary too.
Add the love of grammar to the mix (even if you have to hypnotize yourself into loving it) and you’ll be amazed by what you can achieve in ways that are easy, elegant, efficient and fun.
Ethan Zinho is part of the Real Life English team, a group of people dedicated to helping people learn English through the integration of real life experiences, cultural context, and meaningful relationships.
|First of all, although grammar is important, I think that learners focus way too much on mastering it.
It’s quite backwards if you think about it. How much do we worry about grammar in our native languages?
Most people can’t even explain the grammar of their first language, but they put a ton of importance on it when learning a foreign language, like English.
When we learn our mother tongue, we first spend a lot of time listening. We spend more than two years just listening to our parents and other people around us before we even open our mouths. Then we start speaking, but we make mistakes all the time. Little by little, by listening, mimicking others, and correcting our mistakes, we become fluent in the language.
When we begin school, we learn the alphabet and then how to read and write. And not until we’re ten or older do we even begin to learn our first language’s grammar. So we spend at least 8 years immersed completely in the language before we even consider grammar. However, in foreign languages, we focus first on grammar, on structure, on reading and writing.
Most schools don’t give a lot of opportunities to listen and speak, and a lot of people never get real life experience in these areas, so when they do have the opportunity to use the language, they find it near impossible to communicate.
So I would urge English learners to consider ways to make their English learning a little bit more like they learned their first language: play with it, have fun, and don’t worry so much about making mistakes and having perfect grammar!
That said, let me give you a few tips for learning grammar that I’ve found extremely useful in my language learning.
So to wrap this up, I want to repeat that grammar is important, but it’s not the MOST important part of the language. Try not to worry so much about it. If you hate it, try to find more fun ways to learn English and worry about grammar once you have a higher level of conversational fluency, because being able to communicate is what languages are for!
Cornelius C. Kubler
Cornelius C. Kubler is a Professor of Asian Studies at the William College. He is a former Chinese Language Training Supervisor and Chair of the Department of Asian and African Languages at the Foreign Service Institute. He’s also the author of various Chinese language textbooks.
|Grammar is like the glue that holds the words of an utterance together. It’s essential to learn it well.
If you make grammatical mistakes, you’ll sometimes still be understood and other times you won’t be understood, but for native speakers to enjoy their interactions with you and react positively to you, it’s important that you adhere closely to the grammatical rules of the language, as the language is actually used by native speakers in society (which may or may not be like the formal grammar rules in a grammar book).
But learning grammar does not consist mainly of memorizing lists of verb conjugations or noun declensions; rather, you want to get to the point (from hearing and saying a grammatical structure many, many times) that saying something a certain way “sounds right” and saying it some other way “sounds wrong.”
It’s nice and sometimes useful to know the rule, but what really matters is performance! So how do you get to that point?
Listen and repeat over and over again to audio recordings by native speakers. Drills (repetition drills, substitution drills, transformation drills, etc.) will all be useful in gaining familiarity with the material and achieving fluency in producing the structures.
But you also need lots of practice in using the grammar being learned with native speakers in meaningful contexts.
To sum up, LISTEN, REPEAT, MEMORIZE, and then USE the new grammar — not as isolated verb endings or particles, but rather as meaningful chunks (sentences, dialogs, mini-speeches) in context and in society (if possible). This will not only make your language learning more efficient, but also make it more practical and interesting!
Susanna Zaraysky is the author of Language is Music and Travel Happy, Budget Low. She has studied 11 languages and traveled to over 50 countries. She has been featured on CBS, CNN and NBC.
|Find grammatical patterns in songs that you like and it will be easier to remember the rules.
For example, if you’re learning Spanish and you struggle with the imperfect subjunctive, find songs with verbs conjugated in the imperfect subjunctive, like in the verse from Bésame Mucho: “Bésame, bésame mucho, como si fuera esta noche la última vez“.
Benny Lewis runs the biggest language-learning blog on the web: Fluent in 3 Months. He’s also the guy behind the Speak from Day 1 package, and the author of a brand new book: Fluent in 3 Months: How Anyone at Any Age Can Learn to Speak Any Language from Anywhere in the World.
|I see grammar as the rules of how to tidy up your language.
In my mind, they are simply not useful if you don’t have something to tidy up. As such, I highly recommend avoiding grammar (except in tiny doses) as a beginner learner, and focusing on speaking even with mistakes. Tarzen-ese is understandable and gets your point across quite fine if you are a beginner learner. This helps you gain momentum and not lose out on confidence.
When I have started learning grammar from the start, knowing too many rules makes me think too much and feel nervous about daring to speak because of all the mistakes I know I’m making.
However, I do highly recommend that from the intermediate stage you get a good grammar book and start tidying up what you may have learned to stumble to your current level. I like the Harrap’s series because of how in-depth and technical it gets, but I’ve learned enough languages to be able to handle grammatical terminology and the dry examples used. Many other courses incorporate grammar into them between implementation exercises, or devote sections or chapters to it. It really depends on the language.
But when you learn grammar at the right time, it’s a fascinating journey that starts to fill missing pieces of the puzzle. You have many “Aha!” moments, and it becomes fun! They aren’t rules but explanations. They give me a new wind and help me enjoy the language from a new perspective.
Retno Sofyaniek (Ms. Neno) is an English teacher from Denpasar, Bali and the founder of Indonesia’s first and only Twiter-based English learning portal at @EnglishTips4U.
|It really depends on your level.
If you just started learning a language, I do not think it’s necessary to learn grammar separately from other language skills, such as listening, speaking, reading, and writing.
What I would suggest for beginner language learners is to expose themselves to as much target language as possible, especially through input such as listening and reading.
I started acquiring English when I was a kid, and I did not start with learning the grammar. Grammar is an integral part of a language, and it’s there whether we realize it or not. When a beginner language learner is presented with grammar, it can only confuse them because most of the time the lack of language mastery makes them not ready to make sense of it.
Being exposed to a language and acquire it naturally is the first and most important part of mastering the grammar of a language. And later if we have enough input and able to produce the language on our own by being able to speak and write in the target language, then I guess it’s the right time to start learning grammar consciously and separately from other skills. 🙂
Jared Romey is the man behind Speaking Latino, the place where you can learn about real Spanish and Spanish slang. Speaking Latino has published 11 books to help you learn the Spanish of a specific country.
|About learning grammar, my first recommendation is don’t learn it.
Avoid the traditional process of learning it in a classroom or textbook. It’s boring, miserable and makes language learning unpleasant. Instead, listen to the language, speak it and then do a lot more of both of those.
Once you are using and living with the language then maybe take some time to improve your knowledge of the grammar. Grammar needs to be something you look at, if at all, well along in your language learning process, not at the beginning.
Olle Linge, a Swede living in Taiwan, runs Hacking Chinese, a website dedicated to unveiling the mysteries of learning a language in general and about learning Chinese in particular. He speaks three languages.
|In my opinion, grammar is quite interesting, but it all depends on your perspective.
I think the reason many people dislike grammar is that they have bad experiences from learning a foreign language in school, where force feeding grammar rules and vocabulary seemed to take precedence over actually learning to use the language.
Thus, what people dislike is probably how grammar is taught rather than grammar itself. This is important, because there’s no quicker way of killing motivation that being forced to do something that is boring and feels meaningless. The question, then, is not if we should learn grammar, but how we should learn it.
Anyone who says grammar isn’t important is most likely confusing grammar with how grammar is taught; it’s simply not possible to learn a foreign language without attending to grammar in some form.
The role of grammar varies on different proficiency levels and probably also between different languages. Beginners don’t really need to focus on grammar explicitly and will learn the basics from studying simple sentences in the target language. This should give them a grasp of word order and word formation more or less intuitively if the sentences are carefully selected.
This is quite enough at this stage, it’s fine to learn large chunks of the language without actually understanding exactly why these chunks are constructed the way they are. It gives you something immediately useful and makes language learning more meaningful.
Once the student has learned basic phrases and words, it becomes a lot more important to understand the structure of the chunks, because without grammatical knowledge, it’s impossible to construct new sentences. Up to a point, it might be fine to simply reproduce what you have heard other people say and substitute a few words here and there to get your meaning across, but since words tend to influence each other quite a lot, this method has its limitations.
The beauty of language is that it can be used to express an unlimited set of ideas and concepts, something that requires grammatical knowledge. Thus, the more advanced the learner become, the more emphasis can be placed on understanding rather than just reproducing.
Still, I believe that even at an advanced level, implicit learning of grammar through extensive reading in listening works best, especially when combined with limited explicit instruction or learning.
In other words, this means that inductive learning is great, but it works best with some deductive help. What does this mean? It means that learning from exposure to the target language is great, but that it works best when combined with some explicit knowledge of the grammar you’re trying to learn. This helps you notice and focus on the key aspects and stops you being distracted by things that seem relevant but in fact are not.
For instance, if you learn Chinese without spending any time on explicit grammar, it’s very easy to form incorrect mental models of several common and important particles (such as 了), relying on tense in your native language, which is not an appropriate way of understanding these particles (they mark aspect, not tense). A competent teacher or textbook can explain this to you in five minutes and will thereby save you a lot of trouble later.
To summarize, learning grammar is important, but it needn’t and shouldn’t be a chore. It shouldn’t be a set of formulae to be memorized for your next exam.
Instead, it should be used as a key to unlock and understand the language you here and see around you. Limiting the role of rote learning of rules is the first step towards making grammar fun. Making grammar a tool to understand meaning is the first step to making it interesting.
George Trombley is a technical Japanese interpreter and the owner of YesJapan.com, an online platfrom to learn Japanese. He is also the author (together with his Japanese wife) of the Japanese from Zero! book series.
|I actually disagree with the idea that people dislike grammar.
I love grammar more than anything. It’s the central pillar in language learning.
Knowing the grammar patterns is the quickest way to achieving fluency. Learning one new grammar pattern can instantly add 100s of possibilities to what is available for you to say. For example, if you have learned 100 verbs, then learn the “I want to” and “I wanted to” pattern, you can now say 200 more things.
People actually spend way too much time learning SRS vocabulary lists. They learn words without context then have no way to use them, or use them at the wrong time. My approach is to focus on learning the words I actually have a need to know. This method means I don’t waste my time and I don’t end up forgetting half of what I have learned.
I am studying Korean now and in a very short time I feel fairly confident in my ability as I am not learning anything just to learn. I learn what I need to know and just slightly above my threshold of understanding.
Camille (together with her husband Olivier) runs the website French Today where she blogs and offers a series of products and services to help you learn French. She has been teaching French for 19 years.
|Grammar is a vast term, especially in French…
Most people hate grammar because they don’t understand it. Methods and teachers usually grammar terms such as “pronouns, adjectives, adverbs” without even checking that their students understand what these terms mean.
In French, in school, we spend a lot of time learning the language structure. But it is not so for English cultures, and so the first thing is to make sure you work with a method that explains what these terms mean, so that you can in turn understand the lesson. I recommend to all my English speaking students that they read:
Then there are tenses, and memorizing the various verb forms. This is a real pain in French, and for that, there is only one solution. Repetition. But repetition with an audio support which teaches the modern glidings, elision, liaison etc…
Most students spend hours learning verbs but butcher their pronunciation, it’s really too bad. I suggest you check out my French verb drills.
Tim Bewer has written or co-written over two dozen guidebooks for Lonely Planet, Moon Handbooks, and other publishers. He lives in Khon Kaen, Thailand where he runs a tour company called Isan Explorer.
|I highly recommend people learn and use formal grammar, rather than trying to speak casually the way people do amongst their friends – at least until your language ability gets to a relatively high level.
You may sound a little stiff (I know I often do when speaking Thai), but formal grammar helps native speakers to understand you, especially those who have little experience talking with foreigners.
The structure in formal grammar provide extra clues to the meaning of your sentences, which can help overcome problems caused by accents and mistakes. And this goes both ways; hearing people speak formal grammar helps me understand them too.
Olly Richards is the polyglot behind the I Will Teach You a Language blog. He speaks seven languages and was, just recently, the first experienced language learner to be interviewed in our Language Learning Gets Personal interview series.
|You can apply Parkinson’s Law to studying grammar.
In other words, the more time you spend studying it, the more things you will find you need to learn.
The first thing I’d say is that, yes, you need to study grammar. However, probably not in the way you think.
I’ve found that, as a beginner, you will start to learn grammar naturally, providing you always maintain your focus on communication. Try to remember that you can always get your message across with words only, no grammar.
For example: “I go bank yesterday.” Good grammar? No. Clear message? Yes.
Once you stop worrying about the accuracy of your grammar and start focusing on the message itself, you free up part of your brain, which you can then use for one of the most important tasks of all: noticing.
And this is my main strategy for learning grammar. Whether you’re reading a book or talking with a friend, focus on the message that’s being communicated and simply ‘notice’ the grammar that’s being used to get that message across.
I rarely do grammar exercises or drills, but I do always actively notice the grammar that’s being used and question why it’s being used in that case. Over time, an understanding of how grammar works will grow in direct proportion to your ability to communicate and understand basic messages.
That’s the engine. Once you get curious about a certain grammar point, you should find yourself naturally looking it up in a grammar dictionary or asking a native speaker about it.
What people often do is the opposite, i.e. they seek to understand a grammar point first, as an abstract set of rules out of context, and then try to use that to communicate a message. That’s a tough way to go about it!
Start with the message, and let the grammar come later.
Aaron Knight is the founder of PhraseMix which aims to help you speak English more naturally and confidently. He also taught English in Japan.
|Abstract rules are too hard to remember and recall quickly. Memorize examples instead.
For each grammar rule, find one or two sentences to represent it. For example, if you’re trying to remember past perfect tense, you could remember this sentence, which you would use when telling a story about eating at a restaurant:
“My friend asked me if I’d ever eaten there before.”
Make sure that you understand the example well. Then repeat it over and over until it’s completely stuck in your memory. Repeat it 30 times today, 20 times tomorrow, 10 more times the day after that, and so on until you know every word.
After that, it’s just a matter of comparing what you want to say with the example. The language part of your brain is good at this – much better than it is at remembering and applying rules.
Tae Kim is the founder of A Guide to Japanese, a website that helps you learn Japanese for free. He’s also the author of A Guide to Japanese Grammar: A Japanese approach to learning Japanese grammar.
|The answer is simple, it all depends on the language.
For example, Japanese grammar is very systematic, consistent (not a lot of exceptions), and almost mathematical so it’s simply most effective to learn the rules for example on how create relative clauses or chain conjugations together.
Korean is similar in many ways to Japanese but due to the many complex ways sounds are conjugated in hangul, I would suggest a very audio-centric approach as the changes are easier to process when you hear it.
As for Chinese, since characters have many grammatical functions that are highly contextual and based on placement order, and context, I would suggest learning by lots of examples for each character/character combination patterns without going into any grammar rules.
As you can see, the best way to learn grammar is heavily based on the language. However, it goes without saying, a lot of practice with tons of input from real world examples is a technique that’s needed not just for grammar but for everything else.
Òscar is the founder of Unlimited Spanish, a system that aims to help you speak Spanish with confidence. He lives in Barcelona, Spain.
This is a word that when you say out loud, it can scare even the most committed student. From my personal experience as a Spanish tutor, I have seen what I call “grammar trauma”. Some students become so obsessed with grammar, that they forget that learning a language is much more than a bunch of rules.
But first…what is grammar? In short, grammar is a set of rules that explains how to use a language. Grammar has many complicated concepts like: prepositions, tenses, conditionals, third person, subjunctive, passive form… and rules which try to tell us how to use the language.
In theory, if you learned all the grammar rules, you could speak a language, but grammar rules:
• Are usually too complicated and even confusing.
• There are too many of them (thousands), plus exceptions.
• It’s almost impossible to speak fluently, without interrupting your flow, while trying to apply the grammar rules.
Despite this, many language schools force their students to learn grammar most of the time. The result of this is frustrated students who after years of effort can’t speak a language fluently.
So, my advice is: do not base your language learning on mastering grammar, especially if you want to speak fluently. You’ll waste money, energy and time. It doesn’t work at all. I’ve seen it with many people. I’ve seen it with many students. I myself was convinced that learning grammar intensively would allow me to speak English effortlessly, but it didn’t help me.
Instead, spend most of the time reading and listening. You will naturally pick up the grammar structures by seeing them over and over again in their natural context. For example, If you see the past-tense form of a certain verb thousands of times, you’ll end up using it correctly.
I said “do not base your language learning on mastering grammar”, but I didn’t say “avoid grammar”! Grammar can be useful when you begin learning a new language totally from scratch; it’s good to take a look at a very basic grammar book to see what the language is like. It is also useful when you have a very good level in speaking and writing, and then you want to refine your skills and avoid minor mistakes, but you definitely won’t be fluent only because you know many grammar rules.
This content is a short extract of “The 5 pillars for learning Spanish”. You can get the mini-course for free here.
Catherine Christaki has been a full-time English-Greek translator since 2001 and co-owner of Athens-based Lingua Greca Translations since 2012. Her specializations include IT, medical and technical texts. She writes a translation blog called Adventures in Freelance Translation and she is active on social media, especially Twitter @LinguaGreca.
|Grammar is my favorite part of language learning.
I think it’s the foundation and the starting point of learning any language. Plus, I think it’s fun! If you find it hard, here are 5 tips on how to make grammar learning easier and more effective.
1. Make a connection with other languages, preferably your native.
2. Read lots of books and watch many films in your target language
3. Do grammar exercises.
4. Learn the irregular verbs.
5. If you find it boring, skip it till later.
Kerstin Hammes, a native German speaker, is a language tutor currently teaching German, French and English — both on and offline. She’s also the woman behind the Fluent Language Blog.
|To me, learning grammar is THE BEST!
Is that controversial? I don’t know! But it’s bloody useful! The thing about grammar is that we’re just unable to communicate without it, but it doesn’t ever become visible in conversation. So it’s theory, not practice.
My recommendation would be to start by looking at yourself which one of these 2 types of learner you are:
1) An intrepid learner, ready to jump in and make that conversation right away – no matter if it’s correct? In that case, go light on the grammar until you find your curious spot. That’s when you feel the question “Why is this always doing xyz?” In German for example, you might end up wondering why the verbs go all over the place. Well, there’s a rule for that. Look it up when you are ready and receptive, and you’ll have your real-life application straight away.
2) An introverted perfectionist, who prepares full sentences in your mind because you worry about accidentally saying something that means something else, or just looking stupid. For you, my friend, grammar is a godsend because it’s the full on roadmap of where you’re going! Start by making sure you understand the concepts – those 17 endings can wait until you understand which end they actually serve. Make sure you understand your own language, and then look at what you are actually doing. This technique has worked with many of my students and produced some real “Aha” moments.
Lizzie Fane studied Italian and History of Art at The University of Edinburgh and is the founder of ThirdYearAbroad.com, the UK’s biggest network of students who study or work abroad during their degree.
|I think when it comes to grammar – the most boring and confusing part of a language – it’s all about making it more fun.
Rhymes, games, mnemonic devices.
I was taught Italian past participles to the tune of chopsticks: ho parlato, hai parlato, ha parlato, ha parlato, a-a-abbiamo parlato, a-a-avete parlato, haaaaaaannoooooooo parlato la la la…
And French ‘-er verb’ endings were -e, -es, -e, -ons, ez, ent, which I can proudly say in under 3 seconds 🙂
There are all sorts of free apps and websites that make grammar more fun too – the best languages ones I can think of are Memrise and Duolingo, but there are heaps of others for every taste. Shop around and have a play, and see what you can find!
John Fotheringham is the man behind the blog Language Mastery. He’s also the author of various guides on how to master a new language.
It may as well be a four-letter word given how much resentment the term can instill. If you are one of the many who look upon grammar with fear or hatred, I have good news for you: you don’t have to “study” grammar to “acquire” grammar. You do, however, need to give your brain the input it needs to get used to a language’s structures (through heaps and heaps of listening and reading) and the practice it needs to master these patterns (through heaps and heaps of speaking and writing).
But let me be clear: I am not encouraging laziness or broken, Tarzan-like speech. You should of course strive to continually improve your language skills until you reach a level of fluency where you can produce flowing, grammatical utterances and understand most of what you hear and read.
What I am saying is that to get that point, you don’t need to spend hours and hours with your nose in a grammar book. The ability to understand and produce grammatical sentences is based on “procedural memories”, which can only be created with messy, real world interaction with other Homo sapiens.
Reading about grammar rules in a textbook may lay down some “declarative memories” in your noggin (which some people may find helpful), but these are no replacement for the robust procedural memories needed for spontaneous, on-the-fly human speech.
Don’t let grammar scare you. And more importantly, don’t let the fear of not understanding someone or being misunderstood prevent you from getting the practice you need to internalize a language’s structures.
André Klein is the founder of Learn Out Live, an independent publisher of creative language learning materials. He was born in Germany and has lived in many different places like Israel, Sweden and Thailand.
|As a German teacher I have a two-fold approach to grammar instruction.
On the one hand, it’s impossible to get anywhere in one’s German studies without a solid foundation of (at least) basic grammar, declension and conjugation rules, etc.
On the other hand, I never fail to remind students that grammar is just a map. It’s an invaluable tool to navigate the jungles of intricate sentences and expressions, but it’s not the territory! Grammar alone does not a language make.
One needs to experience these phenomena in the wild, so to speak. This is why learning grammar should always go hand in hand with immersing oneself in authentic materials like movies, novels and short stories.
You’ve Made It Down Here!
A big thank you once again to the participants! I think you’ve made this Ask the Experts even better than the first!
Why I Almost Didn’t Publish This Post
I’ve got to admit something. I almost didn’t publish this post.
While I was busy collecting all the answers from the experts, I found out that Hacking-Chinese just recently posted a very similar post, except that it’s about Chinese grammar.
So when I was alerted to it by Olle Linge himself (founder of Hacking Chinese), I thought to drop this question for another.
But after giving it a bit of reflection, I decided to go on with it. As you can see above, for Mr. Linge himself it was no problem to participate. And most importantly, “how should one learn grammar?” was the question you asked most. It would be disrespectful of me to you not to go through with it.
In the meantime, be sure to check out Hacking Chinese’ version which you can find here:
There’s a lot of useful information there, especially if you’re learning Chinese.
Just One More Thing
No you’re up to date on the different schools of thought on learning foreign grammar, there’s just one thing left to ask you:
How do you recommend people learn foreign grammar?
Please share your views in the comments.
p.s.: If you think this post was helpful, please share it with your friends by using the share buttons below. Thanks!
Great article! I think the answers matter more than the question. There is 0% overlap between responders in this article and the one I published earlier (I did’t participate in my own expert panel), so I would have been very sad if you hadn’t published this article. Thanks for mentioning my article, though, I’m sure some of your readers will find some interesting ideas there, just as my readers will find something interesting here. Keep up the good work with the expert questions!
Thanks for the support, Olle. Much appreciated!
Yes, I’m sure they find some interesting ideas in your article, as you have a truly great site.
Thanks for participating!
Great tips….there were really some very interesting ideas which we can adapt to learn the grammar portion of a language.
Getting advice about how to learn a new language by polyglots and experts on this subject is, of course, a great deal. However, I realized that sometimes it might be misleading to take into account a lot of them, especially at a certain point of one’s learning process. It takes a lot of time not only trying a new method, but also understanding if it works for you. Not to mention the many conflicting ideas. it often happens that you may feel frustrated because it seems that you are not improving. So you start worrying about that, you start thinking that there is something wrong with your method, and everything you have been doing to reach fluency till then. But I think that this mood is often the “dark side” of any learning process. I’m not telling you that it’s useless trying a new tip every once in a while, nor that is a completely a waste of time reading about what other people do in order to learn a new foreign language, but that it’s better to understand how make your learning process something exciting…and above all motivation!
More, ask yourself why you want to learn a new language, what your knowledge of the language still lacks ( it’s not as easy as it might seem!) and working on it.
I think that what I have been doing to learn English grammar suits me quite well, and you know, it has something to do with what Lucas Kern said above! I’m perfectly aware that my method might not be “the best of them all”, and that there might be other ones which are more effective, but…I like it :-)…and also, I no longer feels like trying anything else. I’ll only continue searching for few techniques (e.g. memory palace) in order to, say, complete it.
I hope I got my point of view across as …hey I’m still learning 🙂
Those are great points.
Without doubt, these are articles for language learners with a sense of responsibility. You have to use your common sense. If you are easily swayed by what people say, it’s better not to read them.
I sometimes even go as far as telling people to decide on their methodology and then stop visiting language-learning blogs for a few months!
The idea behind the articles is that people quickly get an overview of the popular methods and then decide which one (or a personal mix of them) are most suitable for them. If someone visit one language-learning blog after the other they are exposed to the same mixture of methods, except that it takes them weeks to find and consume all that information. I think you agree with me that reading an Ask-the-Expert post is a bit more convenient. 🙂
Remember that even if you use a supposedly less effective method, you never really waste your time. Sure, there are slightly better and faster ways to learn a language but even so, you’re learning about language learning from direct experience. You can use what you learn for future language learning.
Also, forget about the best method. It doesn’t exist… There good and bad methods, of course, but one method that outperforms all others by 500%? Not a chance… Well, until they invent the language chip you can insert into your brain, at least 🙂
Thanks for your thoughtful comment,
I just wanted to post on here and compliment all of the insightful and smart comments you guys are making. I agree with you on the language learning methods. DO NOT feel obliged to learn grammar in 25 new ways just because 25 of us other language learners have given some ideas. Instead, I would encourage anyone reading this to go with Noel’s advice and go one further: Just pick whichever sounds fun. If none of them do, come back next week. Your language isn’t going to run away….in fact, grammar’s going to catch up and kick your butt one day 😀
Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Kerstin!
I agree, of course. 🙂
Grammar is the structure of the language but you don’t see it. Think of the beams n a building. They are absolutely necessary to hold the building but it’s the windows, the balconies, roof, etc., what you see in reality. I.e., words and their meanings.
As a learner of many languages, my point is that we need grammar but don’t have to be obsessed with it. The best approach is a balance of grammar and wordpower.
Thanks for sharing!
It partly depends on what language you are studying. If it is a “first-focus” language such as English and Spanish, in which it is easy to start but more difficult as you progress to advanced levels, you can largely ignore grammar to begin with and speak as though you had been reared in the jungle by apes and this was your first contact with humans. If it is a “final-focus” language such as German or Finnish, in which several grammatical elements need to be coordinated in order make any sentence work, you may find it difficult to make yourself understood without some preliminary study of its grammar. I am of course speaking about the study of grammar as a part of language learning, not the study of grammar as a subject in itself, which some of us find interesting, but which has nothing to do with learning to communicate .
Great points, Mr. Fisk!
Thanks for the insights!
I’m also a keen language learner. When I learn a new language, I listen to it as I would music. If I listen to the radio, I don’t try to pick out meaning, I listen for lilt, pronunciation, for emphasis, for voice placement and sounds that occur between sentences.
Before learning grammar rules in a new language, learn grammar OBJECTS in ENGLISH. Start with the most obvious items in a sentence and work from the surface to the more abstract things. Start parsing simple sentences:
John bought a book.
Noun Verb ? Noun.
What’s an ‘a’ ? It doesn’t matter right now, don’t worry about it. (It’s a function-word, for one thing, and function-words aren’t really important at the start.)
Depending on how far you want to get into it, ‘a’ is an indefinite article, grammatically, and pragmatic-semantically it’s commonly a new-topic marker:
John bought ‘a’ book. (‘book’ is a new topic. INdefinite article)
‘The’ book was expensive (‘book’ is now a familiar topic; the DEfinite article signals that shift.)
I agree with the experts who say you shouldn’t get too involved with grammar at the outset. However, full understanding of the example above will illustrate the pitfalls of trying to have a native-like fluency without understanding what some morphemes actually do.
In Korean, the post-positive particle ‘neun/eun’ is a sort of subject-marker, but with (among other things) the common pragmatic nuance of marking previously mentioned items. Not only would it take years to stumble over this realization on your own, but Western teachers without advanced training can, and do, misinform learners of Korean what ‘neun’ does, and I’ve seen some who actually get it backwards and confuse it with the normal subject marker. If you can pick up a linguistically informed text, such as King/Yeon’s Elementary Korean, and you know a bit of grammar, you can start to use the particle correctly from the get-go, and not fall into the dreaded fossilized error trap, with this and many other grammatical and pronunciation problems.
If you want native speakers to compliment your ability, then you probably want them to actually mean it. With a wickedly difficult language (for anglophones), such as Korean or Japanese, you’re likely to be complimented just for trying to learn, whether you’re doing poorly or well. But you don’t want to be a drain on their patience.
Many Koreans might not know the technicalities of their own grammar, and mixing up -neun and -ga/-i markers won’t make a terrible difference, but they will perceive that your speaking is vaguely crappy in a hard-to-define way. And although they commonly leave off subject or object markers, if you happen to leave off both, you’re in danger of speaking nearly unintelligible garbage. So you better take care of these things nearer the start, rather than the end, and understand what they do and why they do it. That’s hard to do without explicit understanding of grammar.
It’s another reason why starting to speak (real life conversations) from the get-go isn’t always the best option.
This is a very amusing article on how to easily learn grammar! Thank you for sharing, guys!Communication is definitely hard without clear and explicit understanding of grammar.
I’ve enjoyed reading this article so much:) Sometimes you think that grammar really sucks but then I’ve realized that not knowing it also not an option. I’m learning French and can’t tell you that I’m good at grammar. There’re so many rules in French that from time to time I just want to give up. But on the next day, feeling motivated I usually watch films, TV series in French as well as cartoons (I’m a grown-up but keen on cartoons:), read articles, listen to French music. It helps me and I feel the progress.
Good luck to all who’re learning foreign language!
…and all the best to you, Caroline.
Thanks for stopping by!
At 60 years old, I am learning a foreign language for the first time and have been struggling terribly. Studying grammar from the start didn’t get me very far. Reversing course and focusing on usage didn’t get me very far. A combination of both didn’t get me very far. After four years of trying to learn Italian, I haven’t been able to progress beyond a very basic level. I don’t understand what I hear, and I don’t understand the structure of the language. I live in Italy and am surrounded by the language on a daily basis, and have made very little progress; I just don’t understand what I hear. I’ve tried language schools, private tutors, online courses, language programs, language books, all of which use a different approach and method. Nothing seems to be working. While many people insist that everyone can learn a second language, I think I’d have to disagree. I am stuck at A1 level and I am near to completely giving up. I guess 60 years of operating in only one language is too many years for me to assimilate a second language. I don’t understand physics beyond the basics, and I don’t understand Italian beyond the basics.
Thanks for sharing your story!
It’s definitely harder to learn a new language when you’re a bit older, especially if all you’ve ever been talking is a single language. There’s a lot of positive talk going on some blogs and most of it’s good I guess but just as with anything there’s talent level. For some it’s simply easier to learn another language than for others. On the other hand, it could be dangerous to believe you’re not as talented as someone else. In many cases it probably isn’t even true.
Unfortunately, if you have tried everything, there’s not much I can do ;-). The only thing I can say is not to give up. Keep at it. Consider it a marathon, not a sprint. You may experience a breakthrough in the near future.
I wish you all the best,
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