10 Secrets for Learning Grammar in a Foreign Language
Grammar. It’s a love-hate dynamic for many people.
Mostly, it’s more hate than love.
If most of us were asked to give a talk titled “Grammar Tips 101″—using our native language as the focus—we’d probably try to find a way out of giving the speech. We’d wrack our brains for something—anything—else to do.
Root canal, anyone?
Let’s face it, many of us can’t explain the ins and outs of every grammar rule in our native language. It’s the truth, right?
So why would we get excited over dealing with grammar in a second language? It can even be a scary topic—an excuse, even, for considering not to attempt to learn a new foreign language.
But wait right there! Giving grammar that much weight—the ability to dissuade us even the tiniest bit from learning a language—is definitely not a good idea.
Remember, when you learned your first language as a child, you knew nothing of grammar. You just started speaking and putting newly-learned words into use and eventually, you intuitively figured out the rest along the way.
At least at the beginning, you should start to learn a second language in much the same way. Language learning is an interactive, social endeavor and when you approach it that way, all things, including grammar, eventually fall into place.
First, let’s quickly define grammar and consider how important it really is. After that, I’ll give you 10 great hints to help you get a grip on the ever-challenging grammar issue!
Download: This blog post is available as a convenient and portable PDF that you can take anywhere. Click here to get a copy. (Download)
Grammar, Defined for the Language Learner
Most of us have a vague idea of what exactly constitutes “grammar,” but do you really know what it is?
Fortunately, it’s pretty simple: Grammar is the system and framework of a language. Basically, it’s the way sentences are structured.
It includes morphology and syntax.
A bit fuzzy about those terms?
Morphology is just the study of the forms of words.
It’s a fancy name for the way we arrange words and phrases in order to construct concise, well-formed sentences.
If that all sounds simple and straightforward, that’s the idea. Don’t lose yourself in complex, linguistic definitions when it comes to grammar and its many nuances.
For the language learner, a simple understanding of what grammar is, and what its main function is, should be more than enough.
When to Address the Grammatical Elephant in the Room
It has been suggested that grammar shouldn’t be the top priority when learning a language. That school of thought suggests that we should invest time in speaking, reading and learning before putting energy into memorizing grammar rules.
In other words: Learn, converse and make mistakes first, and then address any grammar issues as they arise.
Even when you use the hints in this post, you’ll still have a few grammar bumps. Take them as they come and look for a hint that will help get you over the bumpy parts!
Most issues sort themselves out naturally, so just keep at it!
How, then, to sufficiently master grammar without losing hope and giving up?
10 Hints to Take the Mystery Out of Learning Grammar in a Foreign Language
1. Master the Basics Before Grammar
Your first hint?
A simple one: When basic skills are mastered, address grammar. But not before then.
Get your feet under you and feel comfortable with this new adventure. Don’t stress about grammar until you’ve got a grip on the so-called basic skills of listening, repeating and understanding some of the new language.
How to get the basics under your belt? Time and effort. Put in time to listen, pause, repeat and listen some more. If you don’t understand something, go back and either redo a lesson, read a chapter over again or find another method (like a video or graded reader) to reinforce the rudimentary aspects of the new language.
2. Come to Order
Pay attention to word order.
By speaking, reading and listening, language construction will become moderately apparent. For example, word order, gender assignations and article placement can all be gleaned through basic study without particular attention to “grammar” per se.
At first, just make mental notes of how words appear in sentences. Try to pick up on general patterns, without consulting a grammar book for the specific rules that dictate them. You’ll be surprised by how much you’re learning, without busting your brain cells.
3. Grab Your Gear!
The third hint is almost too obvious, but it’s important.
Assemble your grammar gear.
You wouldn’t try to fix a leaky pipe without a wrench, would you?
Getting any job done requires the right tools!
So don’t try to learn a language without a good dictionary and conjugation resources. All are readily available online or for free in libraries so there’s no excuse for not having what you need.
For example, ECTACO is a free online multi-language dictionary that’s very handy for a quick reference in any of more than two dozen languages!
If you’re into e-books, which can be super convenient for language learners and eliminate the tedium of flipping through endless pages to find what you’re looking for, check out the quality (and less expensive) grammar books and dictionaries available for a variety of languages on VitalSource. Their Bookshelf app is a convenient way to access and read any of your learning material whenever you need it.
4. Keep Materials Handy
Number four goes along with number three in that you should always have your resources at hand! It’s easy to find the answer to a question when everything is at your fingertips.
Use a mobile translation app and you’ll never wonder what something means or if you’re using a phrase correctly. Some of them can demystify text, websites and conversations in over 100 languages.
5. Settle In and Watch Videos
The fifth hint is one of my favorites: Watch videos!
That’s right, videos are part of your grammar demystification kit. There’s definitely no need to tell me twice to do this one!
Hearing a language gives a learner the ability to catch the cadence and nuances of the spoken word. Also, hearing morphology and syntax in action definitely beats reading about it in a book! In fact, FluentU is designed specifically for learning languages with videos.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
You can try FluentU for free for 2 weeks. Click here to check out the website or download the iOS app or Android app.
Videos about verb conjugation and other grammar topics are also available on YouTube in many languages. It’s well worth your time to check out what’s available in your language, such as:
- Spanish — The Spanish Dude uses his channel to dig deep into Spanish verb conjugations and other vital grammar topics, and he does so with personality, engaging visuals, real-world topics and loads of humor.
- French — Learn French with Vincent is a channel designed for learners at all levels, from beginner to advanced. Vincent is a fun host but the lessons are often demanding and set up in a progressive manner that brings skills to new levels in a logical order.
- German — Deutsch für Euch is geared toward native English speakers. Its focus is on explaining grammar so this one is a huge asset to the grammar learning kit.
- Italian — Torre di Babele has been in operation since 1984 and is a language school authorized by the Italian Ministry of Education. Its Italian language courses are filled with informative culture tidbits, reviews about events in and around Rome and wine-tasting tips. There’s something for everyone on this channel.
- Japanese — Learn Japanese From Zero! is a YouTube channel that can either be used in conjunction with the online “Japanese From Zero!” books and course or on its own. The host is a guy named George who’s witty and engaging and who explains the language in small steps that make it easy to learn. He even brings his cat to some of the lessons!
- Chinese — AskBenny is not a new series but it’s still very useful. Benny tackles necessary subjects including food, weather and other basic concepts. His sense of humor translates well and the videos are short, entertaining clips.
- English — Anglo-Link covers all aspects of English language learning and puts an emphasis on building confidence through increased fluency. The 650-million-plus views say it all: This channel does a good job and keeps learners coming back.
And it’s a snap to locate similar resources for almost any other language, too.
6. Fit Practice into Every Part of Your Day
Sorry, but the sixth hint isn’t as exciting as number five was—although it is essential.
Practice. That’s it. The hint is practice, practice, practice!
In the car or at home alone? Speak aloud. Or sing. No one can hear you, so don’t keep the volume down, either!
Waiting in line at the grocery store? Whip out your phone, pull up a translation app and pop in a few words. Memorize them before it’s your turn to check out.
Challenge yourself to recall the last lesson you worked on without referring back to it. Practice pulling the information from your mind. It’s in there, you just have to work on getting it front and center.
There’s no substitute for a good practice session. Use the language daily. Repetition simply drills the basic rules into our heads through usage.
7. Don’t Forget the Written Word
Hint number seven is found on the written page. You guessed it—reading is a perfect way to conquer grammar.
Why? Quite simply, reading gives you examples of grammar rules in action. Seeing the rules used in black and white really puts the focus on what you’ve already absorbed.
There are books in all genres and with something to appeal to every taste, available online and through libraries.
Have you always wanted to read the classics? Download a few and give it a go.
Looking for something less taxing to your brain? Why not start with some children’s literature? This site has a wide array of children’s literature in many languages. An added bonus is seeing translation on the same screen as the English version, so if you’re stuck on a word all you’ve got to do is glance over to see its meaning.
Find something that interests you, find a quiet corner and start reading. You’ll be glad you did when you realize you’ve absorbed a great deal with very little effort.
8. Cinema, Anyone?
The eighth hint is another one that I love!
Go to the movies! Grab some popcorn and your beverage of choice, and sit in a movie theater for a couple of hours. Hearing a language spoken illustrates proper word placement. We learn by example!
9. Grab Your Paper and Pencil
Number nine may seem tough for some but if you apply yourself, this one gets easier.
What is it?
I can’t emphasize the importance of this hint enough! This one goes along with the speaking and reading hints—writing is one of the best ways to reinforce what we’re learning!
Implementing all the skills you’ve already learned will solidify rules. Writing helps so much so even if you struggle in the beginning, keep at it. Eventually it will become second nature, as it did with your native language.
Something I do on a regular basis is to keep a journal in a foreign language. I know it sounds daunting but honestly it isn’t. It’s great practice and I often surprise myself by knowing more vocabulary than I realized. Why not give it a try? You’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain. And hey, you’ll end up with a journal that reads like a foreign novel!
If journaling isn’t your thing, why not start a blog? Blogs can either be private or public, but I suggest going public. After all, you probably have a lot to offer readers. And knowing that other sets of eyes will be perusing your words is a built-in incentive to do your best work.
Make a commitment to post every day, or at least every other day, and you’re almost guaranteed to step up those grammar and writing skills.
10. Time to Play!
Think you’re on the grammar trail and gaining momentum, but maybe you’ve still got some grammar jitters? That’s fine because we’ve got a final hint that’s sure to get you past any lingering doubts.
Now for the biggie, the tenth hint to taking the mystery out of a foreign language. Ready?
Drum roll, please…
Make grammar a game.
Yes, a game!
It’s almost inevitable that when we have fun, we learn more easily. Without the pressure of “needing to learn,” playtime becomes one of the best teaching devices.
So bring some excitement to the language learning table! Laugh, compete and play like you’re a kid! It’s all good because when you learn, you win—there’s no losing here, friends!
Download some apps or games—even if they’re not designed to teach grammar skills, playing and seeing language in motion reinforces the lessons you’ve learned.
Two of my favorites are the FluentU app for iOS and Android and Duolingo. I have—and use—both.
Final Words on Grammar: A Necessary Part of Any Language Learning Endeavor
Admit it, we all have things we’d rather not do. For some of us, grammar is on that list.
But without learning grammar rules and being able to apply them, it’s unlikely we’ll become fully fluent in a language—and fluency is really what we’re all looking for, isn’t it?
Communication without grammatical correctness is possible, but is it optimal? No, it’s not!
We all want to hit the top of our abilities in a new language, and it takes some work to reach that goal.
Remember, grammar does come eventually when your language skills deepen.
Don’t sweat it if you don’t get the right verb tense every single time—language learning is a process and a journey that’s meant to be enjoyed. It’s OK to make mistakes—just try to learn from them.
Hopefully these hints have dispelled most of the mystery and difficulties most often attributed to grammar.
Follow the tips and before you realize it, the only mystery surrounding your language learning will be deciding which language to tackle next.
After all, now that you’ve got these 10 terrific hints to solving the grammar mystery, there’s no reason you can’t learn any language, is there?
Download: This blog post is available as a convenient and portable PDF that you can take anywhere. Click here to get a copy. (Download)