“We learn grammar in order that we can forget it.”
Contrary to popular belief, the most efficient way to learn grammar is to actually absorb all the major rules at once after you are familiar with about 600 words. Having an overview of the rules of the language will make you more aware of what’s going on. You are more in control of the information you’re receiving as you know enough of the language to apply it. You would be far less frustrated than if you were asked to digest grammatical rules with little or no knowledge or familiarity of the language.
In the first round of learning grammar, you should aim for a general awareness and comprehension of the characteristics of the language. Don’t get bogged down by the complex rules, exceptions and minor details.
Think of it as a first date with a new acquaintance. Your first impression should be quite general and superficial. You only notice the way they look, what they wear, how they behave and so on. As your relationship develops and you get more involved, you become more familiar with them. You know the little quirks in their behavior and soon you can even start predicting how they will act. Your relationship with grammar is a lot like this, only you can’t dump your grammar as easily.
When you get hold of a grammar book for a particular language, always make sure to read or skim through the front portion of the book. This may be the most boring and mundane part of the book where all the grammatical terms and notations are defined. But it’s very important as it not only makes sure you understand the format that the book follows, it also tells you a lot about the specific grammatical features and characteristics of that language.
The most frequently used concepts in grammar are noun, pronoun, verb, infinitive, tenses, auxiliaries, noun cases, adjective, adverbs, prepositions, definite articles, indefinite article, active, passive, reflexive, imperative, diminutives, comparative and superlative.
I assume that you probably wouldn’t know all the major grammatical terms. If not, check Appendix 3. You need to know these terms because almost any language can be analyzed in this manner. If you can grasp the structure and the building blocks of a particular tongue then you can pick up another language faster.
Grammar is the blueprint of a language. If you know how to read a blue print of one building then you can use those skills to read the blueprints of just about any other building as they are all designed using similar concepts.
One of the best ways to learn grammar is to draw a mind map, such as this:
The advantages to using this method are:
- It gives you an overview of the rules of a language and you know what to expect.
- It’s so much easier to review grammatical rules as you can carry this single grammar mind map anywhere you go.
- It facilitates a hierarchical, step-by-step process of learning grammar. For example, in the Adjective node of the above grammar, I can expand it and draw another mind map:
In fact I can draw them on an even bigger mind-map, and that’s just what I have done.
I have “master mind-maps” for all the languages I’ve learned, and these maps are all quite large and extensive with all the grammatical details included and are definitely easier to digest and refer to when in doubt than a text.
Most people learn grammar rules, especially the brain-benumbing conjugations, declensions, subjunctives, irregular verbs, etc. in a list form.
They will stare at a list of words and rules that aren’t logically related and hope that if they stare long enough their photographic memory will do all the remembering. Even if they do manage to recall some grammatical rules, the rate at which they can recall and apply these rules will never come up to conversational speed.
To make your life you can designate certain words and sentences as “grammar carriers”. Simple objects such as “book” and “table” will stand for a specific rule of grammar. All I need to when I’m writing or speaking then, is to swap the object with a word from the same category.
For example, I designate “der Tisch” as the object representing all German grammatical rules for the use of masculine nouns. If you have learned German cases before you should recognize the following tables detailing the rules of adjective endings:
Now you’d probably have repeatedly reviewing this table without any “grammar carriers”, but if you have the following sentences:
Der Tisch ist rot.
Rot is Die Farbe des Tisches.
Das Buch liegt auf dem Tisch.
Ich lege das Buch auf den Tisch.
You will know what rules to use next time when you want to talk about:
- A certain object of the masculine gender which is or does something
- A certain quality belonging to a certain object of the masculine gender
- Doing something to that object of the masculine gender
- Doing something (to something) using that object of the masculine gender
As you’ve probably noticed, the 4 bullet points above correspond to the 4 cases of German. All you have to do is to substitute the word “Tisch” with the object you talk about next time.
Grammar books nowadays are rarely ever written from scratch and most of them only build on old pre-existing information. The information you get might seem overwhelming and excessively comprehensive. While most language learners drown themselves in a pool of grammatical intricacies, true polyglots choose which rules they need to know.
Grammar books are designed with the mass population in mind and may not accurately capture how the natives actually speak. Authors tend to maintain the formality of Grammatical rules over time and they rarely get updated to reflect popular usage. Grammar books also miss the various tricks of the trade that make language learning a breeze.
Let’s get back to the German adjective and cases agreement again, as we illustrated in the previous chapter.
Previously you faced the daunting task of learning them by heart, and now “grammar carriers” certainly have made your life easier. But the thing is, all you need to remember is that only one case (accusative) needs to change endings. The rest are taken care of by preceding article/adjective/other modifiers and once the gender is indicated, the rest will automatically have an –e (or –en for plural) for the ending.
Let me explain further.
Let’s consider the rationale behind these grammar rules. German is a precise language where we always have to indicate the gender and cases. In order to show the gender we must always attach either -er, – es or -e to the words.
So if we already indicated the genders with the definite articles (der, die, das) we no longer need the adjectives to do so, which is why they end with -e.
What about indefinite article (ein)? Unfortunately, they are not as good as the definite articles in indicating gender, and so the adjectives come in useful in this instance.
You might have noticed that adjectives in the accusative case also end with an -en. In order to explain this, you could formulate a rule yourself. For instance, it could be because -e and -en sound similar and therefore we need to emphasize it by using two consecutive -en. (Although this is not mentioned in grammar books, use it by all means if it helps you remember.)
In this case, you don’t have to dig through the grammar rules in your mind before speaking. Just pay attention to whether you have already indicated the gender before the adjective. If not, mark the gender with an adjective ending; if yes, simply add an -e at the end of the adjective.
Much simpler, isn’t it? Your respective language resources should explain these in greater detail, making it easier for you to identify rules and to remember them.
If there’s a rule, there’s bound to be an exception. Thus the more rules you encounter, the more exceptions you will have to learn. Most people get discouraged by the numerous special cases that exist in grammar. They feel that they’ll never fully grasp all the intricacies of a language. But then again, how many people ever do?
Even the most experienced native speaker is unaware of certain rules and their exceptions. In fact, you’d be surprised to know that despite being native English speakers, we ourselves can be blissfully unaware of all the exceptions and end up making many mistakes on a daily basis.
The critical factor here is the environment in which you learn the language in and the level of exposure you get to the people who speak it. Children pick up languages from merely observing adults around them speak. They can construct simple sentences not by using prescribed rules but by applying what they have heard. For example, how do you suppose the Germans get the 3 genders of nouns correct? They will always use “das Buch” and not “der Buch” or “die Buch” because they have never ever heard it otherwise!
If you are unable to place yourself in a conducive enough environment, then you will have to actively recollect and constantly apply rules systematically. I must again stress upon the usefulness of audio-visual materials to help you along in such situations.