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.

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