Welcome to another week of Dear Duolingo, an advice column just for language learners. Catch up on past installments here.
Hi there! My name is Elizabeth Onstwedder and I'm filling in for Dr. Cindy Blanco today. A little about me: I'm a curriculum designer here at Duolingo and I work on our features that teach grammar. One thing I love about my job is that I get to work on several courses, including our French and Spanish courses for English speakers, and our English courses for Spanish, Portuguese, and Chinese speakers. It's a lot of fun thinking about all of these different languages and their grammar!
So let's jump into today's topic:
Great question! Learning the grammar of a new language can feel overwhelming at times, because there are so many different grammar concepts to try to remember at once. But I have some good news for you! Not all grammar rules are equally important for communicating.
Wait, what?! Yes, it’s true! For example, in the language(s) you're studying, you probably do want to learn grammar rules concerning how to ask questions, or how to use tenses to talk about things that happened last week, or will happen tomorrow, so that you can talk with others more easily. But if you occasionally use the wrong gender for a noun, for instance, people will usually still understand you. So you can start by focusing your attention on the things that matter most, and just keep practicing to help get a handle on the more finicky stuff!
Today, we'll talk about some ways you can make grammar stick by practicing strategically. This doesn't mean you have to memorize everything though—there are lots of ways you can practice grammar! And you'll also pick up a lot of grammar through exposure and interacting with the language— in fact, this exposure and interaction is how you learned your first language as a young child!
Let's talk briefly about some practice principles to help you with studying grammar and beyond. In fact, you can apply these to anything you're learning, not just language!
First, practice is most effective when it targets something you haven't fully mastered yet. For example, choose just a few verbs from a single verb group to practice the ending patterns.
Duolingo lessons are designed to focus on one grammar topic, like Spanish present tense -ar verbs, and to give you lots of examples of part of the pattern (maybe just two of the many forms), so if you're practicing on Duolingo, we've already taken care of this for you!
Second, keep it active. Practice applying the grammar rule you're focusing on, rather than simply reading about it. When you try to remember and apply a rule yourself, it strengthens the connections in your brain that are involved in remembering that rule, and makes it easier to use it in future. For example, don't just read about how you can add the question particle 吗 ("ma") to the end of a Chinese statement to turn it into a yes/no question, try asking some questions yourself! Duolingo lessons use interactive exercises that are designed to get you actively engaging with the language. (It's in the name: interactive… I'll see myself out.)
Third, make sure you're getting feedback on that active practice. For example, if you're practicing in Duolingo, we'll tell you if you answered each exercise correctly as soon as you finish it. An important part of learning is making mistakes, noticing where you weren't quite right (that's where the feedback comes in!), and trying again. The next time you practice that topic, you'll get a bit closer, and eventually, it'll be easy!
Fourth, practice concepts separately first, and together second. When you're using language in the real world, you'll have to use lots of grammar in every sentence! When you first start learning new grammar concepts, make your practice more focused and specific (like I mentioned earlier). Once you start getting more comfortable with some of the grammar concepts you're learning, you can start practicing them together, which is more similar to how you'll eventually use them. For example, you could practice two different verb groups separately, and then practice them together!
Last, practice things slowly first, and get faster later. For example, you could start with some slower reading or writing grammar practice, and build up to some faster listening or speaking practice.
A few examples of grammar practice in action
There are so many endings to remember!
It often feels that way if you're learning a language with lots of endings for verbs, adjectives, nouns… some languages even have many forms for words like "the"! Remember, not all grammar rules are equally important for actually communicating. So take things slow and don't worry about learning everything at once.
And also remember that grammar is about patterns and rules, and once you pick up on the pattern, you can use it again and again. Your effort will be worth it when you realize how many things you can say! Suppose that you're learning the set of 6 verb endings for the future in French - once you know them, you can use them on all verbs to talk about the future! (Okay, it's true that some of those verbs have a slight change in the future in the middle of the word, even though the endings are the same. We'll talk about irregular forms soon!)
Duolingo helps you master grammar in a few different ways. First, all our lessons are designed to focus on one grammar topic, and to give you lots of examples of part of the pattern (maybe just two of the many forms). In some Duolingo courses, you can also find specific lessons focusing on particular topics. They help you get plenty of targeted practice with the whole pattern!
Wait, case systems? I’ve never heard of these, even in my language!
Sometimes you'll encounter grammar concepts in the language you're learning that don't exist in your first language. If you're an English speaker encountering for the first time measure words in Chinese, cases in Russian, particles in Japanese, or gender in a wide variety of languages, you might be a little confused at first!
It's helpful to study a lot of examples and see if you can spot any patterns. What's similar and different between examples? Does one word always change in a predictable way when another word changes? You're basically figuring out the rule yourself, like a detective! Imagine you see the Spanish phrases un gato (one cat) and dos gatos (two cats), and form the theory that to make things plural, you add -s to the end of the word like in English.
Figuring out the rule yourself and seeing the grammar used in a variety of situations helps it stick in your brain. When you study lots of examples, you form a theory about how a rule works, and when you make a mistake and get some feedback (remember our practice principles above!), it helps draw your attention to specific aspects of the language so you can refine your theory. This can feel difficult and even frustrating at times, but it's okay if you can’t quite identify the whole pattern right away, and it's also okay to find an explanation to supplement this process! Duolingo makes sure you interact with lots of examples in lessons, and in some courses you can also read short grammar explanations to reinforce what you're learning!
There are all these “exceptions” and “irregularities” that I just can’t remember!
Okay… you might have to memorize a little, especially the exceptions. Rules were made to be broken! For example, in English, we can usually add -ed to a verb to make it in the past (I talk today, I talked yesterday), but there are many verbs – including some of the most common ones! – that change in some other way, like with a different vowel (write → wrote), or maybe even a totally different word (go → went). Unfortunately there's no easy way to remember these exceptions all at once, and instead you have to learn them as facts. Let's talk about some strategies for memorizing them!
First, prioritize! Earlier we saw that not all grammar is equally important for communication. Focus on the most important and commonly used irregular forms. For example, eat/ate is a really common and useful verb to know, while you might use some other irregular form much less, like break/broke – so work on eat/ate first.
Also, irregular forms is a case where getting lots of exposure to the language helps these stick in your mind. In Duolingo, try to identify examples of the forms you're studying in your other practice: Did you hear it in a Duolingo Podcast or audio lessons? Did someone use an irregular form in your latest Story? Outside of Duolingo, you can do the same while watching TV in the language you're learning (seriously, watching TV can help you learn sometimes!), reading a news article, and listening to music.
Find what works for you!
These suggestions are just a starting point. As with many things, the best type of grammar practice is one that you're going to do regularly! So try out different options in and out of Duolingo to find something that you enjoy and that works with your particular language learning situation. And keep in mind that at the end of the day, grammar is about communicating in a language, and you can still communicate even if you don't know every grammar rule perfectly yet!