Making your skeleton stand up...
We spoke about vocabulary last time. Without vocabulary you have no words to convey anything. Even if you are using no grammar, you can be understood in basic terms with just words. However, moving beyond sounding like Tarzan, we do need some structure to our language to make it all fit together and focus in on the right way to use language to convey the meaning in our head.
I often think of grammar as the skeleton of the language on which we attach the vocabulary, which I think of as the flesh. There is more flesh than bone, so grammar is something we can only really consider for a certain amount of time usually to express pretty much everything we'd like to. Naturally, we can continue to talk about nuances in grammatical structures until the cows come home, but the core of it is learnable relatively quickly compared to the vocabulary that we need to attach it too.
Grammar helps to define the meaning of what we want to say. You can say ‘cat table’, but we are not clear what that means without some additional words or grammar to explain it properly. In some languages the words ‘cat’ and ‘table’ change depending on what we want to say. Is the cat on the table, under it, moving towards it or is the table falling on the cat? We also don't know when the cat and table are doing what they are doing from just the two words. We may also need to indicate which cat and which table. All of this additional information is carried through the way we use and arrange the words according to the rules of grammar of the language.
Grammar is just patterns
I am often told that people find grammar scary, hard or confusing. I can identify with this when I think of tables of endings that we should learn off by heart. However, I don't prescribe this way of learning a language for everyone. Sometimes people enjoy memorising these tables like the old images we have of Latin class from days of old, but that is not how it needs to be for every language all the time. Sure there is some memorisation needed, but it can be done in context.
Learning grammar in context
When you learn your first language, you learn it by copying the patterns that the people around you use. Usually, this starts with your immediate family and then people outside the home. The crucial point to this is that you go to school as a child able to communicate in the language without ever having studied grammar. How is this possible? Well, you have simply learnt the patterns you need to express what you need on the topics you need it all in.
Getting it wrong is fine
As a native English speaker, I first learnt how to say ‘I play’ becomes ‘I played’ when I am talking about something that happened in the past. Then I see that ‘ed’ is added to the end of words to say what happened in the past, so I start saying ‘I runned’, ‘I seed’, ‘I goed’ and so on. This is all understandable for people because it follows the regular pattern. As I got older, I was corrected and slowly started learning the exception, ‘I ran’, ‘I saw’ and ‘I went’ and this is how it can work for the learner too.
Studying grammar is useful
Looking at a grammar book and particularly explanations of grammar and examples of how the language is used is really helpful in order to get under the skin of the language more quickly than just by accident like a child. This major advantage of being able to read and speak at least one language fluently before we start another is a huge advantage we have over children in learning a new language. We already have one language's grammatical structure in our head and we know how things work to a degree too. We have a point of comparison for explanations too. Use this to your advantage and build on it from there.
Use the new structures you learn
When you learn a new way of expressing something in a language, use it as often as you can to get it ingrained in your brain. This is the same deal as vocabulary learning: you need to use it so you don't lose it!
When you are talking with your italki teacher, get in as much of the grammar as possible by:
1) Talking about lots of people you know and using many different forms of words and verbs. I do this, my brother does that, they like this, we like that and so on and so forth
2) Focusing on using the standard form of a grammatical aspect of the language, like my past tenses in English above and then try to throw in some irregulars that you've learnt to really solidify them in your brain
3) Talking about this in number to practise plural forms or to use your measure words (if you are using Asian languages)
4) Swinging from tense to tense by mixing things up in your speech. Try talking about what you do now, what you used to do or did yesterday, what you would like to do if you won the lottery and what you plan to do tomorrow, next year or some other time in the future
Sometimes these activities feel forced and can be mentally tiring to get through too, but they can also give you a huge buzz when you get them right and you are building up your brain muscle by treading a path in your brain to create these linguistic patterns more easily in the future as you move forward with the language and use it with natives.
Richard works as the Languages Director at Emoderation. He also has a website and Facebook page about language learning. You can reach out to find out about his learning techniques, which he explores in workshops online and in person for anyone interested in learning how to succeed in their language studies.
Image by MichaelGaida (CC0)