“Grammar is the greatest joy in life, don't you find?”― Lemony Snicket, The Wide Window
Thank you for grabbing this action guide on improving your grammar learning in languages!
The first thing to say is: You're definitely not alone. Most people struggle with grammar, especially when it comes to languages that are very different from their own.
If you're a native speaker of English the most common grammar-nightmare examples are Hungarian/Finnish, Russian, and German – although other languages might also pose grammar difficulties of various kinds.
My personal belief is that spending active energy on studying grammar is not a good way to spend your time. Especially if you don't enjoy it.
(And if you do enjoy studying grammar – why did you select it as your biggest challenge?)
So, in this action guide I'm offering a few ideas for why you don't need to worry as much about grammar as you might think.
Is it even necessary to study the grammar separately?
The first thing I want to touch on, is that the old-fashioned way of drilling grammar tables and deeply memorising every ending or conjugation is a very time-inefficient way to learn a language.
To take verbs, as an example, the vast majority of speech, especially in the beginning of your language learning challenge, is heavily weighted towards sentences with I or you as the subject.
“I am from the United States”
“You are American”
So, while the other forms do come up, they are not nearly as common – and might be delayed a bit to build some working language before spending significant time memorising their endings and conjugations.
Or, take a complex verb form like the subjunctive (you might have heard about this for German and Spanish) – it's just not a very common form and you can often get across a similar meaning by using simpler forms.
Grammar is learned naturally by pattern recognition
So, Kris, you might ask – if you don't NEED to study grammar independently, then how can we speak foreign languages correctly?
Here's the thing.
You're already learning grammar in a natural way, when you learn from other sources and methods.
If you hear someone say: “He drinks coffee” it's very easy to build the pattern that it would be the same setup for “He eats a banana” etc.
This goes for any grammar rule, for any language.
The more time you spend on the language, the more the grammatical patterns will become apparent.
You won't have time to scroll through your grammar tables in normal conversation
The final argument for not worrying too much about grammar study, especially in the beginning, is that you simply don't have time to implement it mid-sentence.
I found out about this the hard way, when I was trying to use my rusty German in the city of Lübeck. As I was trying to form a sentence in my head (this is also not great) I kept imagining each word with a thought process like this:
- Okay, what gender is this word?
- Okay, what case is the word in the sentence?
- Okay, what's the ending for akkusative?
- Running through all the options to land at the final choice
By the time I run through this script multiple times per sentence, my conversational partner has already walked off or switched to English to rescue me.
Plus, I might not know the answer to all these questions.
Foreign language learning is really about building up language patterns early on which makes you able to substitute words to create new sentences on the fly.
Controversial: When is correct grammar even important?
There's a time and a place for speaking with a near-100% grammar accuracy. If you are at the upper echelons of the language you're learning you might need to iron out some bad habits, or perfect some of the most complicated parts of the language.
But, if you're just starting out, and/or your priority is to communicate in the target language then having bad grammar is not the end of the world by any means.
Don't let it hold you back from trying to say something.
You can make loads of mistakes and still be perfectly understood, which will help you practice and improve going forward.
So, with that in mind let's go into a few action steps of how you might progress with the grammar of your target language.
Plus, at the end I've included a few resources that may be perfect for you to continue with afterwards.
To your success,
Assess your level
The grammar action plan heavily depends on what level you are. So, be sure to do an assessment of your own skills.
Decide how important grammar is for you right now
If you're a beginner or lower intermediate – don't worry about it at all*! You will pick it up naturally from all the learning resources, and it's better to get out and use the language imperfectly at this stage.
*Unless you really like to study it. Then you can have fun with it! (most people don't feel this way.)
Generally, the same as for beginners but – if you have any specific grammar points causing you trouble, you can address with a tutor, or a grammar-specific resource. You still want to prioritise progress at this stage, and not get bogged down too much with nuance and complexity.
Advanced or Pre-Advanced
This is where I would start to get really hardcore about perfecting my grammar.
The best way is to get a tutor from a website like italki – that way you can get instant feedback and suggestions of improvement.
You might also pick up books or other resources intended to teach native speakers the grammar, to fully understand how everything is supposed to work.
The key at this stage is to find the holes in your knowledge and plug them.
Have fun with it
The last step is to fully enjoy the process.
Don't bore yourself to death with grammar drills and routines if you don't like them.
One day you will use and understand grammar to a very high level.
Plus, if you don't worry about it you will learn faster and more efficiently. Trying to cram, or worrying if you'll remember some of the grammar will only lead to problems and inefficiency.
Recommended Resources for Further Study
There you have it.
A very quick look at grammar, which I hope will have helped you to get a more nuanced perspective at grammar learning in foreign languages.
Here's a recommended resources that you might find interesting.
If you're an intermediate learner of Spanish, German, Italian, French, Portuguese, or Russian and you want to improve your grammar skills specifically, then check out Olly Richards' Grammar Hero series, which teaches some of the most tricky grammar points through the use of story.
Hope that helped you out!
Founder, Actual Fluency
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