Category Archives: Becoming bilingual

Learning grammar proactively – deduce the rules yourself

learning-grammarI decided to study Spanish. Why? I think this language can come very useful to me in a not so distant future, and also because I simply LOVE learning a new language and I especially look forward to learning its grammar! For me it is like embarking on a pleasant journey of the most fascinating discoveries. You can find out that the languages can be very similar to each other, or you can discover how many various modes there are to say the same thing. It is absolutely amazing in how many ways people can translate their thoughts into words and how immensely rich the structure of a language can be!

But enough exultation. We already talked about how you can study pronunciation with a help of a song. Today I would like to show you how you can start learning grammar of a foreign language, even if you are on a beginner’s level. This method lets you be proactive and discover grammar rules for yourself, without waiting passively that someone will show and explain them to you. I think it is a very empowering process that brings you satisfaction of being a “creator” of a language.  So how does it work?

A short guide to learning grammar by deducing its rules

Probably the best text sample for these kind of exercise would be a dialogue. Dialogues are preferable as they usually are constructed with short sentences and phrases with linear, easy grammar. Or you can use a book for children, for the same reason. Once you find a sample of 4-5 sentences, you can work on that.

Step 1

Look at the text as a whole. Are there any words that appear very often? There should be, and they should be the so-called function words. These can be (examples for English):

  • Articles (the, a, those)
  • Plurality markers (suffix –s)
  • Tense markers (will – future, have – perfect tenses, suffix –ing – continuos tenses)
  • Negation markers (not)

Step 2

Again, look at the text as a whole. Are there affirmative sentences, questions, exclamations? Are there any longer, complex sentences? You should be able to distinguish how questions are constructed. Do they use a function word, e.g. I like cats. Do you like cats? Do they use inversion, e.g. You are tired. Are you tired? Which element connects two phrases when they appear in a complex sentence (e.g. which, that)?

Step 3

Once you were able to identify the function words of a given language, you are probably ready to tell me also which word in a phrase is a verb. Look at the verbs now. Do you notice in how many forms they appear? They may differ depending on a person (e.g. suffix –s for 3rd person singular), or on the tense used (e.g. –ed for past tense). Try to figure out what rules the form of the verb.

Step 4

So we looked for the function words so far. Are there any words that seem familiar to you? Proper names (written with a capital letter), numbers? If so, use them to deduce other parts of the sentence – there should be a verb, a subject, some pronouns and objects, etc. Example:

Joe            showed     his                    sister                            his                      new                  shoes.

Subject     verb         possessive      indirect object        possessive        adjective         direct object

Do you notice the order of the sentence? Does the subject go first followed by the verb? Or maybe the verb appears only at the end of a sentence?

Test your grammar deducing skills

I prepared a short test for you. It is a dialogue between John and Mette. Let’s see if you can discover the rules of this language for yourselves.

John: Hej, Jeg hedder John.

Mette: Hej, Mette.

John: Fed fest, hva’?

Mette: Ja, det er det. Hvor kender du Mads fra?

John: Vi arbejder sammen.

Mette: Er du også lærer?

John: Ja, det er jeg. Jeg arbejder som vikar her i København.

Mette: Kommer du fra København?

John: Nej, jeg er faktisk ikke dansker. Jeg kommer fra Namibia.

Mette: Virkelig? Hvor spændende! Hvor længe har du været i Danmark?

John: Jeg har været her næsten 3 måneder.

Mette: Men du taler da flot dansk!

Well, how did it go? Were you able to deduce some grammar rules? Below you will find some questions for volunteers, write your answers in the comments!

  • Which proper names did you find?
  • Does this language use articles?
  • Does it use inversion for the questions?
  • Which are the words for yes and no?
  • Which is the word for I?
  • How is the past tense formed?

If you find this test easy, try the one below. And remember: learning grammar can be fun!

a Swahili: Habari gani?

a tourist: Nzuri.

a Swahili: Karibu!

a tourist: Ahsante sana!

a Swahili: Jina lako nani?

a tourist: Jina langu Mary Williams. Na wewe, je?

a Swahili: Ah! Jina langu John Alipo. Unatoka wapi?

a tourist: Natoka Marekani.

a Swahili: Unakaa wapi?

a tourist: Nakaa hotelini. Wewe unakaa wapi?

a Swahili: Mimi nakaa Kilindini.

How to study pronunciation with a song

In the first post Learn a new language with a song we were talking about the advantages of singing as a method of studying a foreign language. Besides the fact that songs are original products of the culture you wish to learn, and the fact that they evoke pleasant emotions on your part, we pointed out how a song’s structure – rhyme and rhythm – helps us master the difficult art of correct pronunciation. 

I just came across an interesting study on how singing helps patients after stroke to start speaking again. Research showed that while singing and speech are processed by different areas of the brain, one can influence the other in terms of improved breath control, concentration, and speech production.

So there is hope for us as well! Ok, in Part 1 I asked you to prepare the songs you wish to study and to find their original lyrics and translations. Now all you need is TIME to practice .

Guide to improving your pronunciation with a song – step by step

Step 1

First, listen to the song. What emotions do you get from it? Do you like it? What does it remind you of? Try to match the song to some personal experience. If you are having trouble here, you can start with reading the lyrics’ translation – what is the song about? Love troubles? Happy summer days? Some disturbing memory? Anger and jealousy? Can you relate to these emotions?

Once we created an emotional link to the song, we can focus on the contents.

Step 2

Read the translation.  Which part is the chorus? Is it a story narrated over time or is it more like loose observations? Would you use the phrases from the song in everyday life? Listen to the song a few times and try to follow the lyrics while looking at the translation. Can you tell which part of the song corresponds to which content?

You can repeat each part of the exercise as many times as you feel necessary, it is important though to follow the correct order. So first listen to the song, then listen to it while looking at the translation, and only then move on to Step 3.

Step 3

Listen to the song and read the original lyrics. See? At this point you already know which bit of the text corresponds to which bit of the song, and you are already able to follow what the singer sings about.

Songs are great to study from, because you immediately hear how words are pronounced, where the accents fall and how the whole phrases follow their internal rhythm. So, very quickly you can now move on to Step 4.

Step 4

Try to read the lyrics aloud, always checking if your pronunciation is close to the original. You can correct yourself easily, listening to the song bit by bit. Focus first on single words, remember to check if you put the accent on the correct syllable and notice the length of the syllables in a complete phrase.

Step 5

Try to read the text fluently, with the same speed and rhythm as the singer – it does not mean that you need to sing it! No, just try to follow the singer and try to make it sound natural – you will need to check your breath’s length, otherwise you risk suffocating yourself in the process.

An example of a well-prepared material for Polish-Italian study:

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It is best to repeat this part many times, till you feel comfortable with it. It may take hours or days, depending on how much time you can devote to the practice. But in the end, you should be able to sing along with the singer, most probably having learned the lyrics by heart. And this is the first scope of our exercise.

The second goal is to use the lyrics to study grammar and to learn new words. But this is the topic for another story. Keep tuned!

This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series Sing to speak a foreign language

Learn a new language with a song

If you ask people who are successful in learning foreign languages what are their favorite methods for studying a new language, many will mention learning from songs. The first thing that comes to your mind would probably be, oh yes, because it is so PLEASANT, you listen to nice music and enjoy the emotions that the music brings. But it is not all there is to this seemingly easy method.

First of all, a song represents part of the CULTURE of the language you study, it is REAL, unlike a study book texts that usually sound very artificial. No matter if you are a beginner or an advanced student, this method allows you to immerse in a real life experience that you share with the society you would like to get to know better.

A song is an artistic expression, you can feel all the emotions, and as you recognize the EMOTIONAL weight of the words, they become easier to remember. This is true, music and emotions definitely help getting our ATTENTION and making the phrases stick longer in our memory.

Another advantage of using a song for learning a language is that songs usually RHYME and even if not, they preserve a certain RHYTHM. The lyrics are naturally divided by the rhythm into SHORT phrases, which usually are written in everyday language and composed in quite SIMPLE grammar.

Ok, so how do I start studying a foreign language from a song?

Find a group or a singer that you like – no use listening for hours to someone you don’t appreciate. Preferably choose songs performed by a single person and sung in an easily understandable way – no choirs, no opera divas, no roaring metal bands, no speed of light rapping gangstas. You should be able to recognize single words when listening to the song and reading the lyrics simultaneously.

Once you have your set of songs, three to five to start with, search for the lyrics in the original language and check if you can find their translations into your native tongue. If translations are nowhere to be found, you can use Google translator (with all its faults, it is a very useful tool, just don’t trust it too much), or you can choose to use translations into a language you already know. When I was studying Italian, I used English translations, as translations into Polish were unavailable at the time.

You can find useful material on Youtube, like for instance here:

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In the next post we will be talking about how to use the songs and materials you prepared to achieve our two goals: native-like pronunciation and easy way to understanding the grammar. Keep tuned!

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series Sing to speak a foreign language