If you're learning a difficult language, you might be wondering how to be better at grammar in that language.
You might have flicked through various textbooks, maybe even done a few of the complex grammar exercises… and felt so overwhelmed that you wanted to throw the book through the window!
Well, fear not! All that fear, frustration and overwhelm is just the grammar villain talking.
This post will show you exactly how to study grammar and how I studied grammar in a notoriously hard language: Arabic.
First, though, let's be clear… You will never find any shortcuts for the study of grammar.
Grammar is hard, yes. But impossible? Absolutely not.
Your success in grammar study of your target language will ultimately come down to one thing: Your ability to stay motivated and keep at it for long enough to get used to it!
Don't take this statement lightly!
Many of us are terrible at taking on large projects and having the emotional intelligence to stick to them, even when it gets tough.
It's not the difficulty of the grammar, but this simple fact that will determine whether you eventually master the grammar of the language or not.
With that in mind, let's get into it!
Differentiate between theory & practice
Why, exactly, is it so bad to learn a bunch of theory without putting it into practice?
After all, this stuff is important! Isn't it? You do need to learn it.
Well, two reasons…
Reason 1: We learn by doing
Firstly, a lot of stuff is best learned by doing.
Not everything is best learned theoretically.
Sometimes the best way to learn something is to roll your sleeves up and work it out by yourself.
When you do something, all your different senses come together to create an “experience”.
And things you learn from experience are infinitely more powerful than learning those same things from the pages of a book.
Reason 2: Sometimes you're just not ready
Now here’s the second reason.
And this is a bit more subtle.
At any point in your learning journey, there are certain things you’re ready to learn, and things you’re not ready for yet.
There’s even a name for this concept in learning theory: the “Zone of Proximal Development”, the idea that things are learnable as long as they fall within this special zone – which is just beyond your current level of knowledge.
If, on the other hand, you try to learn too much, too soon…
You’re unlikely to learn it because you’re not ready for it.
And as a beginner, the stuff you’re not ready to learn yet is…
Why learn grammar?
A staggering 95% of all meaning (by some estimates) in a language is conveyed by the words themselves. That means that grammar falls within the remaining 5%.
This is, of course, an over-simplification, but what I want you to take from this is that grammar is not the most important part of language learning. This often comes as a shock to people, since many of us spent years at high school doing nothing but dull-as-dishwater grammar exercises.
Grammar is important, but not as important as the words themselves for a beginner.
Although I believe that you shouldn't focus on grammar when you're learning a new language, there comes a time when you can't avoid it any longer.
I've reached that point with understanding grammar in Arabic.
I've been learning Egyptian Arabic for a few months since arriving in Cairo, and although I've been making steady progress, I'm now very conscious that my lack of grammar knowledge is holding me back.
How do I know this? Well, my approach to learning a new language involves learning large amounts of vocabulary in complete phrases.
This is great, but now that I'm starting to reach a higher level, I've started to want more flexibility in expressing myself – to say things with more nuance and more accuracy.
And for this, I need more grammar training.
When is the best time to learn grammar?
The best time to learn a particular grammar point, you see, is not when it comes up in your textbook.
The absolute best most helpful most awesome time to learn a bit of grammar is when you've just been into a cafe and tried to order something using a phrase you've learnt…
But something wasn't quite right and the guy understood you… but the message didn't get across quite right.
At the time, you thought it was right but it wasn't quite and something wasn't completely clear…
And the reason why is because you were missing a helpful bit of grammar – a little twist that would have expressed what you wanted to say with perfect clarity.
That piece of grammar right there is something you're ready to learn.
You were very close to getting it right, and it's just that little bit of grammar that scuppered you.
How to get good at grammar
But the relentless focus on grammar that you see in virtually every language curriculum does something poisonous…
It instills in students the belief that they can't start speaking or using the language yet until they've learned that grammar. You shouldn't need to know how to learn grammar to start speaking a language!
Can you imagine applying that logic to the piano?
“I'm only going to start playing the piano when I've mastered music theory.”
You’d never get anywhere!
We need a completely different approach to teaching grammar that is smarter than simply presenting a humongous list of rules that have to be learned.
In my Grammar Hero programme, for example, my way to help you learn grammar naturally is to show you that grammar in the context of really fun stories… so you get to see that grammar in action and learn it naturally from within stories… not through rules. (Learning grammar for adults was never so fun!)
But you – as an independent learner – can break free of this “grammar trap” all by yourself by starting to speak and use the language right now, however good or bad you think your grammar might be.
Waiting to speak until you've learned more grammar will have you on an eternal hamster wheel.
Well, it's quite simple…
Do yourself a favour…
Get out there and speak…
And don’t learn grammar before you really need it.
How to learn grammar easily
As with everything else, there are a number of ways you can use your shiny new grammar book, and the correct way is the one that works for you. There isn’t a ‘best way to learn grammar’ blueprint, it depends on your learning style.
Some guidelines are as follows:
- As a rule, refer to the book for grammar explanations as and when something interesting appears naturally during your studies. Don't let grammar dictate your learning – look things up when you are interested and ready to do so.
- In other words, keep it as a reference book and refer to it whenever you are ready. You will invariably feel the need to look up certain things before long.
- You could look at the chapters on basic verb conjugations straight away – present, past and future tenses. There's no getting away from the fact that you will need these and the sooner you learn them the better.
- You might be the type of person who can plough through the book (I confess I have done this!). This is certainly not considered ‘good practice’, but if you can, and you enjoy it, it may serve as a useful primer. The object would not be to try to remember everything – that would be insane. However, when you are trying to make sense of language out in the real world, you will start to form connections with things you’ve read about.
Here's my personal approach on how to get good at grammar:
How to study grammar using grammar sprints
My favourite language learning strategy of all is something I call “Sprints”.
This is where I set aside around 3 weeks and focus all my attention on one thing. I do it well, and I go into depth. (You can read more about that here.)
My mindset when learning grammar rules:
“OK, I've been putting off studying grammar until this point, because I knew that it's difficult and that it would hold me back from starting to speak the language. However, now that I've decided to start studying it, I'm going to do it properly and I'm going to do it thoroughly – no half measures!”
Given how complex it is to learn grammar rules, and I want to take my learning seriously, for some languages, I take lessons with a tutor. When you take lessons with a tutor, you not only learn grammar concepts, but you practice your conversation skills.
How to learn grammar rules for a complex language
First things first.
The enemy of progress is trying to take on too much at once.
I have a philosophy in everything I do, whether it's language learning, writing, or habit formation, that is this:
Choose one thing that's manageable, and do it to completion. Enjoy the feeling of success for a moment, then move swiftly on to the next step.
Taking this philosophy and applying it to learning Arabic grammar, I decided to choose to focus on one tense (or verb pattern) only, and aim to master it.
Here's what I did:
- Decided to learn and master the present simple, because it's a logical starting point
- Not to try to attempt anything else until I could confidently use the present simple, in any conjugation, with any verb
So, I was psyched up. But I couldn't do it on my own. Egyptian Arabic textbooks are few and far between and often difficult to use.
Get a tutor
Here's the process we followed in our lessons:
- She taught me the rules of the present simple in Egyptian Arabic. Logistically, this was done using mostly English, and writing out examples on a Google Doc as we went. Google Docs are great because both sides can see and update them live – great for Skype lessons.
- I went away, looked back through my notes and wrote a list of all the verbs I knew in Arabic
- Next, I systematically went through and conjugated every verb I knew in the present tense, writing it all in the Arabic script, filling up dozens of pages of my notebook as I went!
- I sent photos of what I'd written to Mona so she could check it
- In the subsequent class, after troubleshooting some errors (there were quite a few!), we spent the time having a conversation in Arabic entirely in the present tense! It's pretty simple really – she would ask me questions and I would answer them, using the present simple all the way. (e.g. What time do you start work? I start work at 9am.)
- We then continued this pattern for about 2-3 weeks (the length of a Sprint). My homework was learning grammar through writing out verb tables and our 2 lessons a week were spent practising them in conversation.
So, as you're reading this you might react in a number of ways. You might think it's overly-simple, or you might think it sounds too much like hard work.
Take a direct approach
If you're tempted to try something like this, here are some points to bear in mind:
- When your aim is to understand something thoroughly, try not to confuse it with anything else. Although you might be tempted to look at other tenses and “learn more”… don't! When dealing with complex areas of language, learn one thing properly, then move on.
- There are lots of fancy, modern ways to learn grammar that try to make it feel “easy” to learn grammar, but don't lose sight of the fact that a direct approach is better. In this case, I've simply done three things, which are very logical, and will work well for most people:
1) Learnt to form the present simple
2) Systematically written out every verb I know
3) Practised using it in conversation
- Although we did start to practise it in speaking, there's no hurry to do so. Things in Arabic get much harder than the present simple, and when I tackle those I will be content to just “learn” it for 2-3 weeks without feeling the need to use it in speaking. Take your time, but do it thoroughly.
- Once you've gone through this fairly mechanical process of learning one bit of grammar, the next step is to start to really listen. You need to pay close attention to everything you hear and try to notice when it's being used. This is how it starts to become familiar, and you can start to really “know it”.
This is how to study grammar with the process I used to learn Arabic grammar.
Make a plan and get started
The method outlined here is a very systematic approach to grammar in a difficult language.
If you're learning a more familiar language, such as Spanish or German (for an English speaker), you might not need to go to such lengths.
Once you have a system in place, you'll be able to master the grammar in no time and focus on the most important part of language learning – speaking!