Grammar can be the stuff of nightmares! Imagine strict, uniformed schools where a teacher puts you on the spot, and dozing off in the dusty haze of tables and rules…and all of this takes hours upon hours.
Does it have to be that way? Could it be that a modern language learner has a use for rules too? I say yes, yes, yes!
So How Can You Make Your Grammar Study More Effective?
Let’s be real: If you’re a creative language learner wanting to express your own thoughts instead of rattling off a phrasebook, you’re going to benefit from grammar study.
I’ve got 7 tips to help you learn grammar without having to spend hours numbing your mind.
1) Adopt a Needs-Based Process
Some people want to study grammar first, following dialogues in the textbook and working through each stage of a text book. This is an old-school approach: meet a rule, learn the rule, practice the rule.
As an independent language learner, you are not bound to the rule-led approach. You can wait and explore based on need.
So for example, you may want to say “this is the most expensive house I’ve ever seen” in month 2 of your learning journey. At month 2, most books won’t be teaching you the “superlative” (grammar term for “how to say most”) yet. But if that’s what you need right now in order to communicate, your independent study advantage means you can go ahead and learn it anyway.
I call this the exploring approach, because it works only when you’re driven by curiosity. The key is to ask good questions, meaning you want to be as specific as possible about what you’re trying to communicate and where you’re getting stuck.
When you get it right, you will find that needs-based grammar study is the most efficient way of becoming fluent.
2) Don’t Ignore That Grammar Exists
If you feel that “immersion learning” means that you put yourself into an environment where all the input is in another language (“like a child!”), you risk the pitfalls of this approach. Adults are analysers, organisers, thinkers, and they are also a lot more valuable about making mistakes. So if there’s a question in your mind, why withhold the answer?
Allow yourself look up and practice a rule when it’s needed. Once you know what rule you’re missing, you’ll feel ever more confident about learning more and attaining a higher level.
Related article: The 5 Golden Rules of Adult Learning
3) Learn Your Own Grammar
The ways in which people express themselves tend to follow a very similar patterns, and most of the world’s languages adhere to patterns involving subject, verb, and object. In fact, this is the structure that exists in all the human languages found so far.
The more you know how language works to describe the world, the easier it can become to see those patterns in any new language. So understanding how your native language works is a huge head start.
4) Mindmap and Teach It
The first step of making sense of a grammar rule for yourself is to draw it out in your own notebook. Use colourful pens, write example sentences, mind map, draw connections. I prefer to write grammar rules on paper, but in my German grammar course you can also see a big student-generated mind map made in a Mindmap software.
Once you’ve taken your own notes, stage 2 of understanding grammar is to explain it to someone else.
I experienced this myself when I jobbed as a French tutor in my teens. As I tried my best to explain the different French past tenses to my tutee, a lightbulb came on in my head. These structures of passé this and passé that are actually the same as in German! Soon, I was beginning to see patterns everywhere. Explaining what I had learnt to other people was an incredible confidence booster, and helped me learn it twice.
5) Use Your Language Tutor
It’s okay for the tutor to let you make mistakes in conversation practice, but when it comes down to finding a problem and fixing it with you, they should be able to articulate what you need to know.
One great way of making use of your tutor time is to explain to them how you understood a certain rule and ask whether you’ve got it right. After all, two smart people are better than one! So never be shy, and don’t accept “we just do it this way” as an answer from a language tutor.
6) Don’t Learn Too Much At Once
Sometimes, your conversation partners and your books will ask a little too much of you. There’s so much useful information out there, but you might need more time to process it. I’ve found it helpful to learn the word for “too much” here, so I can make use of it in lessons when I need to.
It’s not a failure to know your own limitations, and in fact you will be more productive and effective if you respect the times when you’re overloaded. Better to focus small bits, and to learn those really well before moving on.
7) Look It Up
When a question comes up in your mind, make sure that you look it up! In my own routine, I like to keep a little list of things that I want to learn later. This is so helpful when I come across a weird construction in a news article, or when I realise there’s something I want to say but cannot. The Habit Tracker in the Language Habit Toolkit has this question built in, and it’s my own reminder to learn what I need.
When you keep a list and only look up what’s required, you are able to build a flexible, independent, and interesting grammar study method. No more need to follow a book - you can simply react to what’s required at the right time.
Where to Find Grammar Resources
Obviously, you can buy a straightforward book of grammar explanations. My favourites here are the books written for a teenage audience, perhaps even teenage native speakers, because these books tend to simplify their explanations and cut the word count right down. For example, I love BBC Bitesize for the languages on the British curriculum.
Related courses by me:
Both of these courses are for beginners, and feature explanations and exercises in English, and in simple terms. And as you’re working with these courses, remember that they are designed to be your reference points. Each lesson answers a question, and it will be there for you when the question comes up in your own individual, needs-based curriculum.
So there you have it. I don’t believe that adults learning a new language should completely avoid grammar, and believe they have to act like children to get the most effective results. Instead, adopt your needs-based approach and let curiosity lead you on your own language learning journey!
What are your experiences with grammar study? Do you follow a set path, or allow yourself to explore on the way? Share your comments below!