"...and that's why, children, we use Past Simple to describe finished events in the past"
I started coming back from the mental vortex. I zoned out. Not that it was any surprise. It happened in almost every language lesson at school.
"Let's take a look at the following example", a cold, sharp voice cut through the air, "yesterday Johny went to the shop."
I don't know what she said next. I didn't care. I preferred to concentrate on my physics homework.
"Why do these lessons have to be so boring", I thought, as the frustration started growing inside of me." And who the fu** is Johny?! He's no friend of mine!".
Maybe for you, it wasn't English. Maybe it was German, French or Spanish. But you REMEMBER that soul-tearing boredom of language classes, don't you?
Why Grammar Is So Boring
One of the problems with effective learning, be it languages or anything else, is that we try to learn new material in the exact form we get it. Teachers, authors of grammar books and course creators serve you some definition and expect you to understand it and (ideally) start using it right away.
But truth be told, it doesn't happen often.
You can read a definition of the use of a given tense or grammar construction. But will it really mean anything to you? Will it appeal to you?
Courses and books are full of faceless and meaningless "Johnys'". But you don't care about them. But do you know who your brain cares about? You!
Anything which concerns you immediately becomes ten times more interesting! Why not use it to your advantage to become better at grammar (also check this article to memorize grammar faster)?!
Encoding - involves initial processing of information which leads to construction of its mental representation in memory
Storage - is the retention of encoded information in the short-term or long-term memory
Recall - is retrieval of stored information from memory
As you can see from the model above, in order to maximize your chances of storing and retrieving information, you have to encode it.
Ok, let's try to encode some grammar construction by personalizing it. I can't promise that my examples will appeal to you. But I hope they will give you some idea of how to do it.
Example no 1 - French verbs with "être"
In French, the auxiliary verb is either avoiror être. French verbs are classified by which auxiliary verb they take, and they use the same auxiliary verb in all compound tenses.
Most French verbs use avoir. However, there are 16 sneaky verbs which require être.
I will list only half of them.
The usual strategy is to repeat such list until you "get it". Or until you lose the will to live. Whichever comes first.
But we will try to encode it with help of some nice and personalized story.
Let's say that you're an adventurer and together with your friend you're hunting the mythical "Fluffy Monster".
I have come there – to the cave of a fluffy monster (Je suis venu ici– à la grotte d’un monstre en peluche). I have wanted to do this since I was born (Je voulais faire cela depuis que je suis né). My friend has also arrived – he didn’t stay at home (Mon ami est aussi arrivé– il n'est pas resté à la maison).
We have climbed the stairs and entered the gate (nous avons monté les escaliers et sommes entrés par la porte). We have killed the monster, reentered the gate and returnedhome (Nous avons tué le monstre et nous sommes rerentrés par la porte et sommes retournés à la maison).
The story is definitely silly but I dare you to forget it!
Example no 2 - When to use the Present Continuous tense in English
English tenses are notoriously difficult for non-native speakers.
things that are happening at the moment of speaking
temporary situations, when we feel something won't continue for a long time
annoying habits, when we want to show that something happens too often, and we don't like it. In this case, we usually use an adverb like 'always', 'forever' or 'constantly'
definite future arrangements (with a future time word)
situations which are changing (i.e. is dynamic)
But if you have a spouse, maybe you will find the following monologue more appealing and memorable.
"Recently I'm working too much (2) . Am I turning into a workaholic (5)? Maybe. But I'm meeting my boss on Friday (4) and I have to have something to show for it. Now when I am thinking about it (1), it's all because of my wife ! She is always nagging me (3) - "do this", "do that" !
Example no 3 - When to use the subjunctive mood in Spanish
The subjunctive mood is used to express everything except certainty and objectivity: things like doubt, uncertainty, subjectivity, etc.
One of the best ways to get accustomed to using it is to learn a list of clauses commonly associated with the use of the subjunctive. It is quite long, so I will take the liberty of using just three of them in my example.
en caso de que ...
en cuanto ...
es aconsejable que ...
in case ...
as soon as ...
it's advisable that ...
To remember them, try to imagine that your friend turns to you with a problem - his feet hurt. He is in a lot of pain. Luckily, you know the remedy. You look him straight in the eye and say:
It's advisable that you lick your toes as soon as you come home - in case you feel lonely (es aconsejable que lamas tus dedos del pie en cuanto lleges a casa - en caso de que te sientas solo)
Give It A Try
As with everything - you will never know if something works until you try it yourself. So go ahead! Infuse some life into your learning. Make it absurd, funny and personal,
Make it MEMORABLE!
Question for you: Is there any grammar construction you have trouble remembering? How can you personalize it?
Done reading? Time to learn!
Reading articles online is a great way to expand your knowledge. However, the sad thing is that after barely 1 day, we tend to forget most of the things we have read.
I am on the mission to change it. I have created over 7 flashcards that you can download to truly learn information from this article. It’s enough to download ANKI, and you’re good to go. This way, you will be able to speed up your learning in a more impactful way.
I love how language learners usually approach grammar. Or grammar books to be more precise! These vademecums seem to adapt the form of slimy, leprosy-ridden yet magical gnome. You know that if you rub its butt long enough, it will grant you your wish. You will be bestowed with the knowledge and wisdom of the language of your choice.
The ultimate prize sounds great. But somehow, it doesn't entice you to lay your hands on this filthy creature. Not too often anyway.
No wonder. One look at any enormous grammar book sends shivers down my spine.
Because opening a grammar book is like teleporting yourself into the middle of a language maze. It's hard to find your way out. Everything seems to be so random and chaotic.
Rules. Rules. More rules. You take a left turn, and you get punched in the stomach. You turn to your right, and you get kicked in the head. Only when you take a few steps back and leave the maze, you begin to see things differently. There are patterns. A lot of patterns. And there is one object, almost the artifact, that can grant you this kind of perspective.
The Grammar Cheat Sheet.
A Case For Grammar Cheat Sheet
It doesn't matter if you're a beginner in language learning or a mean linguistic son-of-a-gun. A grammar cheat sheet should be an indispensable part of your learning arsenal.
Before I dive into some of the main reasons why you should embrace grammar cheat sheets, I want to share with you a story about my youngest student.
I usually don't teach kids. It's a frustrating experience. I am sure that most parents can relate to! Anyway, Adrian is ten years old and a really bright kid. Although amazingly lazy.
Our first lesson revealed that his collective vocabulary amounted to about 40-70 words. After four damn years of his formal English education, he couldn't say, well, anything. Of course, he couldn't even use the words he knew in a sentence.
Not a very promising beginning, right?
However, after explaining the most basic English and writing them on his grammar cheat sheet, something seemingly impossible happened.
He got it, I didn't even expect it, but he got it!
Eleven hours into our English adventure, he is already able to build basic sentences in 4 tenses he knows. Sure, it takes him some time. The sentences are far from perfect. He still needs to resort to the grammar cheat sheet now and then. But again - 10 hours of dedicated learning beat four years of education.
I've had a chance to see more of such success stories with adults. But somehow, this story is the one that stuck with me.
6 Reasons To Create A Grammar Cheat Sheet
1) It Gives You Clarity
Grammar doesn't look half as scary when it is on one piece of paper. Just take a look at the Japanese grammar cheat sheet (don't worry if you don't know Japanese - neither do I.)
Everything is presented in a clear and transparent form. One glance at this page makes us want to learn this language!
It also helps you to concentrate on all the most critical aspects of the language. It's much easier to notice different patterns. And pattern recognition is something of tremendous value in enhancing memory, mind you!
2) It Decreases the Activation Energy
Activation energy is the initial energy needed to start acting. The more time and steps it takes to start doing something, the higher the chance you won't do it.
Lower the activation energy for habits you want to adopt and raise it for habits you want to avoid. The more we can lower or even eliminate the activation energy for our desired actions, the more we enhance our ability to jump-start positive change.
People exhibit better memory for more intensely emotional events than less intensely emotional events (…), the atypicality of extreme memories can lead people to believe those extreme moments are representative of the “set” being judged.
Repeat this ritual a sufficient number of times, and you end up with the full-blown I-f**ing-hate-grammar syndrome.
The cheat sheet is clear and straightforward and thus should encourage you to learn grammar.
4) It Promotes Learning Independence
Having just one piece of paper that provides you with essential information about the languages can help you become a more effective independent learner.
Whenever one of my students doesn't know how to create some grammar construction, I always refer them to their cheat sheets. On the surface, it might seem bizarre.
"What the hell is this dude getting money for?"
But the thing is that building a sentence is like doing puzzles. Every piece of a puzzle is a word. Grammar tells us where the given piece should be placed. That's why, after taking a look at the cheat sheet a couple of times, every student becomes intimately familiar with it.
Using the language ceases to be some voodoo magic. It becomes a logical step-by-step process of putting puzzle pieces into their rightful place.
That's also the reason why it's much easier to convince my students to talk with themselves. They don't need me so desperately anymore.
The said piece of paper can substitute a teacher to some degree!
5) It Helps You Relearn Languages
A lot of knowledge we acquire throughout our lives gets forgotten. At least this is how we commonly refer to the phenomenon of not being able to recall information. However, perhaps the more accurate word, in this case, is "inaccessible".
As it turned out, even though the volunteers showed no memory of the second language in the vocabulary test, they were able to quickly relearn and correctly identify phonemes that were spoken in the neglected language.
Psychologists Jeffrey Bowers, Sven L. Mattys, and Suzanne Gage from the University of Bristol found out in another research that:
(...) even though the volunteers showed no memory of the second language in the vocabulary test, they were able to quickly relearn and correctly identify phonemes that were spoken in the neglected language.
Maybe one day, you will be forced to take a break from language learning. Perhaps because of work, family, or general suckiness of life.
Either way, when all the bad things fade away, you will have your cheat sheet to refresh your memory quickly. It will give you an excellent general overview of the most critical parts of grammar. Psychologists Jeffrey Bowers, Sven L. Mattys, and Suzanne Gage from the University of Bristol found out in another research that:
6) It Makes You More Fluent
There is this great saying I love.
If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
The same goes for grammar. We are cognitive misers. We don't want to use our deposits of cognitive energy if it's unnecessary. That's why we cling to the grammar constructions we feel warm and comfortable with.
Seeing all the other constructions, which you don't use at the moment, in one place can be thought-provoking. It acts as a reminder of different possible ways to express yourself and jars you out of grammar lethargy.
Because, all in all, this is what grammar is - the scaffolding which enables us to build proper sentences. And you can't make even a ramshackle hut if all you got are some measly sticks.
The Most Important Rule For Creating a Grammar Cheat Sheet
There is just one rule you should keep in mind if you decide to create your grammar cheat.
Make it clear and concise
Your cheat sheet shouldn't be bigger than one A4 page. It should only contain all the essential grammar rules.Resist the temptation to jot down all the grammar exceptions and constructions nobody even uses.
Blah, blah. It sounds obvious. But very often, once you start creating your cheat sheet, the urge to include as much information as it is only possible sprouts uncontrollably. All so well known voice whispers, "Dude, don't forget to increase THIS rule. And THAT one as well! Screw it! Rewrite the book! Muahahaha."
The next thing you see is a 40-page behemoth. If you need more information, you can always create a second grammar cheat sheet for more advanced concepts.
However, usually, it is unnecessary. All you need are the essential rules. You will pick up the rest once you start surrounding yourself with a language (and using it).
Grammar Cheat Sheet - Summary
For reasons I am yet to grasp, grammar cheat sheets are underappreciated and underutilized tools in language learning. While it may take some time to prepare one on your own, it is usually a much better choice than buying one.
Reason? Most of the paid ones suck big time. Don't be afraid to put some time upfront. You will reap the benefits of this investment for months (or years) to come.
I’m definitely a weirdo. I enjoy learning grammar! Declensions, conjugations, possessive pronouns.
I love them all! And there is a good reason for that! They are simply one of the easiest things to learn in most languages!
Of course, let’s be perfectly honest – learning them is easy. However, using them without any hesitation is another story. Here are a few methods you might use tolearn grammar effectively:
The Classical Method
Repeat everything till your eyes and brain start bleeding. Not interested? Read on!
Look For Patterns
Let’s play Sherlock Holmes for one moment. The first thing I do when I learn grammar of some language is establishing some patterns.
For example, take a look at the weak declension of adjectives in German (it is used when there is a preceding definite article (“der-word”).
Can you see it? Rock n roll horns created of “-en”
And the rest of this table is just “e”! Quite simple to remember, isn’t it?
The Four German Cases
Can’t remember the order of German cases? Maybe if I NAG(ge)D you would! 🙂
2. Create Some Stories
This is my absolutely favorite method since you can use it with combination with mnemonics.
It definitely requires some concentration and creativity. It might be difficult at the beginning.
You have to shake up your rusty imagination!
Example 1 – German possessive pronouns.
Here you have a list of German possessive pronouns. It looks pretty random, right? Nope, there is actually some cool story hidden there!
I gave her MINE TIN(y) SIGN – and her EER(ie) UNSER (answer) was really EER(ie). Who knows, maybe it’s too abstract for you. Let’s try something different then. Let’s assume that I(h)R stands for Irina Shayk. Or some sexy pIRate if you’re a woman.
Now our little story can go like this:
MEIN DIME SIGN(s) IR(ina) – my UNSER (answer) is O(h) YEAH! IR(ina) !
As you can see, this method doesn’t always cover the pronunciation in 100%.
But that’s alright. In most cases, your brain is aware of that and can correct these mistakes.
Example 2 – Swedish objective pronouns
What about some (singular) objective pronouns? When I was learning Swedish I memorized them, more or less, like this:
There are so many ways to memorize these conjugations! But of course, they depend on many things – your native tongue, other languages you speak and your entire “database” of different names, notions, etc.
Being Polish, I would choose to memorize the first three endings with a word “OAZA” (eng. oasis). I think that this approximation is good enough. AMOS can be easily (for me!) associated with my beloved artist Tori AMOS who puts AIS on AN(t).
Something To Remember
Treat this method as crutches. It helps you to unburden your memory by memorizing grammar in an effortless way but it’s not a substitute for practice. You need to use the language to automate the use of grammar,
Q: Can you always find some associations? A: Yep. Just use your imagination!
Q: But what if it doesn’t work? A: Then try harder! Rome wasn’t built in a day.
Good luck and let me know what you think about this method!
I don't like waiting. It's not that I can't be patient - quite often, I don't see the point. Especially in the world of language learning, the typical response to any question seems to be, "it will come with time" or "you will learn it subconsciously."
It's especially true for grammar.
If we exclude just a handful of enthusiasts, we can say that learning is one of the least favorite activities of most language learners. It's a big, dark, and ugly maze. You have to learn how to handle it. Otherwise, it will chew you up and spit you out. And then crap on your face while you are sobbing pitifully.
The collective knowledge has it that you need plenty of time to learn your way around it. You have to fumble about in the dark until you finally crawl out of it. The whole process takes a heavy toll on the language learner's motivation.
But it doesn't have to be like that. The entire process can be accelerated at least several times, thanks to the deep learning (a.k.a. the deliberate practice).
It's the methodology that has been used by the world's top performers for over three decades. It can help you break grammar into easily digestible chunks. In other words, deep learning provides you with a step-by-step blueprint to master grammar of any language. It can replace any teacher if you know how to use it.
But let's start with the basics.
Master Grammar of Any Language with Deliberate Practice
Problems With Typical Approach To Learning Grammar
1. Feedback Is Not (Always) Enough
Try to imagine your average lesson. Not even group lessons - those are ineffective (though enjoyable for some). I mean 1-1 lessons.
Have you ever noticed that even though you often get feedback from your teacher, you still keep on making the same mistakes?
Here is why.
Learning almost always takes place in a chaotic and cluttered environment. At any given moment, there are dozens of dozens of pieces of information fighting for your attention. During your typical lessons, your teacher might correct you dozens of times. "Wrong pronunciation, wrong conjugation, wrong (...)".
You are getting bitch slapped to a pulp by the feedback.
The problem is too much information. If you get too many pieces of information, it's challenging to choose the ones which you should concentrate on — the ones which you will try to act upon.
In other words, to geek it up a bit:
The information overload which may hinder the integration of the new information into long-term memory. - source
"Why not correct a student about just one aspect of the language?", you might think. This thought sounds tempting. And let's be honest - yes, if you correct just one or two things, students will start correcting those mistakes much quicker. But there is a massive downside to this. If you don't make a student aware of other mistakes he makes, he optimistically assumes that they are not there!
That's even worse! By the time you get through previous grammar aspects, your student will already have consolidated dozens of other mistakes!
It's like the grammar-hydra! Eliminate one mistake, and ten others take its place!
2. Passive Learning Is Not Efficient
Passive learning (i.e., reading and writing) won't help either unless you invest significant amounts of time. So yes, it is possible to acquire decent grammar this way. However, if you want to learn many languages, it gets harder and harder to keep up with this input-heavy schedule.
But most of the time, seeing or hearing correctly composed sentences won't make you utter the correct ones on your own. (read more aboutpassive learning here)
Unless you think that reading about surgical procedures makes you a skilled surgeon. In that case - I rest my case. What you have to remember is that the deep understanding of most of the skills comes from using them. You won't just wake up one day and suddenly start spewing beautiful sentences left and right.
3. The difficulty of Acquiring Rare Grammar Constructions
While it might not be a big deal for some, it is annoying for me. Some grammar constructions occur very rarely. So rarely that learning them through context seems almost absurd.
How long would I have to read to learn some of them? How many hundreds (thousands) of sentences would I have to read to find one or two written in, say, past perfect continuous? Crapload. That's how many.
But if I can replace all these hours of reading and listening with just 2-3 hours of the deliberate practice, why wouldn't I?
What Is Deep Learning (a.k.a. Deliberate Practice)?
Before I move on and show you how you can use it to improve your language learning skills, let's try to define what deep learning is:
Deliberate practice is a highly structured activity engaged in with the specific goal of improving performance. - source
Some common characteristics of deep learning include:
it gives you a specific goal
it requires your full attention
it's energy-devouring and exhausting but not time-consuming
it gives you feedback
Words, words, words! But what does it all REALLY mean?
1. You need a specific goal
Choose a grammar construction you have problems with, and which is useful at the same time. For the sake of this article, I will use the declination of German definite articles. They are the stuff of nightmares for many and thus the perfect choice.
But that's not over. There is one more thing which you have to remember about this goal.
If you can't commit a given piece of grammar to your memory, it means that it's too big.
Because the availability of working memory is crucial for implementing expectancy-based strategic actions.
If you fry your working memory, you can forget about effective learning. The most straightforward test possible you can run to check whether this condition is met is to try to reproduce the information you have just memorized. If you can do it without the excessive number of groans, then you are all set.
For the article, let's assume that I want to master the Akkusativ form for "der," "die," and "das." Let's leave plural for some other time.
A quick sanity check confirms that I can comfortably reproduce the declination of the said forms.
2. it requires your full attention
As my beloved Hungarian proverb puts it:
“If you have one ass you can’t sit on two horses” .
You can't do two things at once without sucking at both of them. If you think that you can, then you are delusional.
But what does devoting your full attention mean? It means just one thing.
You should only pay attention to the correct use of the given piece of grammar. If you make some other mistakes along the way - so be it.
"But doesn't it mean that I will start consolidating some other grammar mistakes?". That's a fair question, but no - you won't. The reason is painfully simple.
If you devote your full attention to using one grammar construction correctly, you won't even notice other mistakes. It is how our attention works.
Here is a great video that exemplifies this phenomenon.
Have you seen that one already? Watch that one know.
These videos have a very sobering effect on all the people who claim to possess superior concentration power. And they prove one thing - it's hard to consolidate something you don't see.
3. It's energy-devouring and exhausting but not time-consuming
I am not going to lie to you. Deliberate practice is tedious and tiring. And that's bad news because, in the era of modern technologies, everything must be fun and hip. However, if you want to achieve results quickly, I am sure that's a trade-off you are willing to make.
In a nutshell, you build awareness of a given grammar construction by creating dozens upon dozens of sentences with it. It is what Barbara Oakley, a professor of engineering at Oakland University, Rochester, Michigan, wrote in one of her articles:
"What I had done in learning Russian was to emphasize not just understanding of the language, but fluency. Fluency of something whole like a language requires a kind of familiarity that only repeated and varied interaction with the parts can develop.
Where my language classmates had often been content to concentrate on simply understanding Russian they heard or read, I instead tried to gain an internalized, deep-rooted fluency with the words and language structure. I wouldn’t just be satisfied to know that понимать meant “to understand.”
I’d practice with the verb—putting it through its paces by conjugating it repeatedly with all sorts of tenses, and then moving on to putting it into sentences, and then finally to understanding not only when to use this form of the verb, but also when not to use it. I practiced recalling all these aspects and variations quickly.
After all, through practice, you can understand and translate dozens—even thousands— of words in another language.
But if you aren’t fluent, when someone throws a bunch of words at you quickly, as with normal speaking (which always sounds horrifically fast when you’re learning a new language), you have no idea what they’re actually saying, even though technically you understand all the component words and structure. And you certainly can’t speak quickly enough yourself for native speakers to find it enjoyable to listen to you." - source
So how should you correctly practice deep learning?
What I usually recommend is to create at least 100 sentences with the given grammar construction within the next 5-7 days. But as always - the more, the better.
Make sure that every sentence is different from the previous one and that YOU are the one who comes up with these sentences.
Here are some examples:
Ich habe den grossen Hund gehabt.
Er hat mir das schöne Haus gekauft.
Wir stellen den Teller auf den Tisch.
And so on. Rinse and repeat.
You have to become a grim grammar executioner. You might not enjoy your job, but you know it has to be done. The great thing about this kind of practice is that you don't need any fancy tools. A piece of paper will do.
Below you can find the worksheet I use to teach this concept to my students. It looks like this:
If you want to master grammar of any language asap, it will help you get there,
4. It gives you feedback
In the perfect world, there is always someone who can provide you with feedback. However, if you stick to the rules mentioned above, you should be able to produce grammatically correct sentences without any, or with minimal, supervision.
It's only logical - if you try to do just one thing correctly, it won't take long before you are fully aware that the construction you are using is applied appropriately.
You are better at monitoring your progress than you think.
Research has showed that individuals are able to monitor, control and regulate their behaviors in learning contexts, but all depends on the resources and the pedagogical approach used by the educators (Agina et al., 2011)
How to Master Grammar of Any Language with Deliberate Practice - a Quick Summary
Choose a small chunk of grammar
Create at least 100 sentences with it
Make sure that you can use it well enough
Move on to another grammar construction
Benefits of Deliberate Practice
I like to look at every field of knowledge, as one might look at the deep lake. It seems enigmatic and sinister. You want to cross it, but you don't know how. It's the same feeling most people get when they see monstrous grammar books. Helplessness, fear, and doubt peek at you from every page of the book.
"How dare you think that you might ever learn all of this?!", they seem to whisper.
And it's true. Without any specific plan, mastering grammar of any language to a decent level might take ages. Deep learning provides you with such a plan.
Here are some advantages of this kind of approach:
1. It concentrates your attention
Your attention is restless and gets bored quickly. Like a small child or a merry drunk. You need to learn to tame it. And it is precisely what deliberate practice does. It focuses your attention on one thing and one thing only. It is especially important because
"Attention constrains learning to relevant dimensions of the environment, while we learn what to attend to via trial and error." - source
2. It's Time-Efficient
Concentrating your efforts on just one thing means one more thing - you save a lot of time. Don't want to wait till your butt overgrows with moss, and you look like Keith Richards? Then the deliberate practice might be right up your alley.
Can I Use Deliberate Practice For Other Things Than Grammar?
Heck yeah! You can use it for almost anything - not only to master grammar of any language.
Learn how to produce two tricky sounds from your target language. - Once you learn how to pronounce them in isolation, try to pronounce them, say, 100 times in different words.
Start practicing these words in full sentences until the muscle memory is created.
Trying to improve your creativity?
Come up with 10-15 ideas (more aboutbeing creative here) for every problem you encounter. After 1-2 months, you will start noticing an enormous shift in your way of thinking. I know I did.
Master Grammar of Any Language with Deliberate Practice - Summary
Even if you wouldn't consider yourself a grammar-savvy person, the deliberate practice has the potential to accelerate your learning significantly.
It's not very complicated, but don't let the apparent simplicity of this method fool you. It's just one of the few techniques I have seen in my life, which has worked every time and with every student.
Why not try it yourself?
Question - Have you ever tried to master grammar of any language with deliberate practice? Let me know!
I wonder if you're like me when it comes to tracking your progress?
I used to hate it passionately. I mean, how much geekier can you get? And all these vain people scrupulously jotting down their weight. Pathetic!
And then, one day, I decided to buy myself scales. I joyously stepped on them to see that I hit 100 kg mark. WHAT?! I came to my senses around that time and started tracking, not only my weight but my learning progress as well.
Can you imagine a runner who runs around and one day shouts out: "I'm gonna win a marathon"! And then an older man standing nearby strikes a conversation, something along these lines: - "That's amazing! So what's your best time so far?" + "Best? Uhmm, dunno, really. I guess it's not that important to me." - "Have you ever run a marathon before?!" + "I'm not sure. But once I ran so long that my feet hurt and I had an ouchie."
That would be weird, right? And yet, a lot of us do it. The question is: Why?
Why You Should Track Your Progress in Language Learning - Habituation
Not only is it a cool word, but also one of the most critical (and frequent) processes that occur in our lives!
Habituation is a form of learning in which an organism decreases or ceases to respond to a stimulus after repeated presentations. Essentially, the organism learns to stop responding to a stimulus that is no longer biologically relevant. For example, organisms may habituate to repeated sudden loud noises when they learn these have no consequence. The Almighty Wikipedia
And therein lies the rub. We get used to our current skills level. And that's why we NEED tracking. The best part is that it does not need to be sophisticated to be effective.
At the bare minimum, it should be able to show you if you're moving in the right direction or moving at all. The chance is that you're spinning your wheels knee-deep in a turd ocean of self-admiration!
6 Ways To Track Your Progress In Language Learning
My idea of tracking my progress is quite tightly connected to the core language competencies: reading, writing, listening, vocabulary, grammar, and speaking.
Of course, to start tracking anything, you need a place to note your progress. Remember, it doesn't have to be high-tech. You can use a notebook, Google spreadsheet, Excel, or Calc (Open Office).
I assume that you already use Anki. If you don't, download it immediately (unless you use some other spatial repetition program).
ANKI makes tracking your progress easy. The first important piece of information for us is the number of words you've covered so far.
If you see that within a month you've moved from 406 to 700, it's a clear sign that you're on the right path.
The second thing worth tracking is the recall rate (especially correct mature).
This piece of information tells us how well you remember the information you learn. If it's alarmingly low (below 40-50%), it's a signal that you should seriously consider improving your learning techniques.
Usually, we either read e-books (e-articles) or paper ones. In my opinion, you should track the medium which you use more frequently. When it comes to reading, a good tracking criterion is to note down the number of pages you've read.
It doesn't matter whether you listen to podcasts, music, or watch TV-series. Tally it up and enter the data.
If you write mostly online, start counting how many words you have written (use Word Count Tool). Otherwise, start counting the number of pages you've written.
It's not the easiest thing to track. I've never done it as I prefer tracking words. But if you know that speaking is your absolute priority - go for it. Check when the Skype conversation or a meeting with your friend starts and when it finishes, and sum up the total number of hours.
If you put effort into your learning, I'm sure that after just a few weeks, you'll be amazed to see what you've accomplished so far!
It sounds daunting, and I agree. But for me, it comes naturally. As I've written before, preparing the outline of grammar is something that should be done before you start learning a language on your own.
Once you have it, start crossing out the grammar topics which you've covered or just put a date next to them. It shows how much further grammatically you should get to achieve a certain level.
You can admire your hard work at any time. Open Excel and take a look at yourself, you sexy, hard-working beast! And that helps you stay focused.
3) instant feedback
You see when you slack off or that your learning methods need a change. The data don't lie! Also, it helps you see patterns in your learning.
4) you don't focus on the negative
It's a sad fact, but we tend to focus on negative things in life. Your successes stop giving you joy after a couple of days. We lose sight of our achievements. Your language log will keep on reminding you about them!
Track Your Progress In Language Learning - Summary
Tracking is a powerful tool in language learning. It would be a shame not to take advantage of it. Of course, you don't have to go over the top. It's enough that you start tracking elements that are the most important to you.
So go ahead and let me know how it works for you!
Done reading? Time to learn!
Reading articles online is a great way to expand your knowledge. However, the sad thing is that after barely 1 day, we tend to forget most of the things we have read.
I am on the mission to change it. I have created over 9 flashcards that you can download to truly learn information from this article. It’s enough to download ANKI, and you’re good to go. This way, you will be able to speed up your learning in a more impactful way.
Do you know what is the biggest BS statement on the Internet concerning language learning? "You should learn languages like a child". Ok, maybe not the worst, but certainly right up there in the top ten. I hate it. I always feel like shooting kittens whenever I hear it.
You see, there are two kinds of stupid advice - harmful and harmless. Harmless advice is, well, harmless. If somebody suggests you to wash your car with milk to make it look glossy and shining, nothing bad will really happen.
Ok, you might find your car covered with ants and cockroaches in the morning. But nothing really THAT bad. However, the harmful advice will make you lose (besides health!) the most important and non-renewable resource you possess - time. You can always make more money. But you can't recover the lost time.
"Learn like a child" advice does exactly that. It makes you lose the unthinkable amount of time.
"But Bartosz, why do you think that it's actually a bad piece of advice?". Good question, voice no 3 in my head. I rush to explain.
Behind every phrase, saying and a piece of advice there is some assumption. Or even a few of them. At the first glance, they might seem logical. You have to dig deeper to uncover the truth.
Let's deconstruct all the assumptions behind this terrible piece of advice.
1. You have as much time as children
Average child needs at least a few years of his life to start producing any complex (?) sentences. And last time I checked kids don't have to pay any bills. Nor do they have to go to school when they are two. Hey, they don't even have to wipe themselves! They just sit and listen. That's their only entertainment.
So is your life situation comparable in any way to this ideal?
2. You can fully immerse yourself in a foreign language
Bad news. It's not going to happen. Unless you're willing to move abroad, of course.
3. Your brain is similar to the one of a child
I could quote dozens of scientific papers here. But there is no need. You already know that your brain is nothing like the one of a child. The latter is a clean slate. Yours is like a graffiti-covered wall. The first one absorbs hyper-actively anything on its path. Our adult brains are pickier not as willing to take in the new information.
Here is some foretaste of the processes taking place in a child's brain (original article can be found here).
Between conception and age three, a child’s brain undergoes an impressive amount of change. At birth, it already has about all the neurons it will ever have. It doubles in size in the first year, and by age three it has reached 80 percent of its adult volume.
Even more importantly, synapses are formed at a faster rate during these years than at any other time. In fact, the brain creates many more of them than it needs: at age two or three, the brain has up to twice as many synapses as it will have in adulthood.
And most importantly:
(Their) genes allow the brain to fine-tune itself according to the input it receives from the environment. The earliest messages that the brain receives have an enormous impact.
4. First and second language acquisition is basically the same thing
Adults are further advanced when it comes to cognitive development. What's more, they have already acquired their first language. It gives them the advantage of having the pre-existing knowledge!
All these factors influence the cognitive structures in the brain and make the process of second language acquisition fundamentally different from the ones occurring when you learn a mother tongue.
Learn The Most Important Grammar Rules
Here is a fascinating excerpt taken from David Gelernter in Mirror Worlds: or the Day Software Puts the Universe in a Shoebox…How It Will Happen and What It Will Mean. (as found on Farnam Street).
In your mind particulars turn into generalities gradually, imperceptibly—like snow at the bottom of a drift turning into ice. If you don’t know any general rules, if you’ve merely experienced something once, then that once will have to do. You may remember one example, or a collection of particular examples, or a general rule. These states blend together: When you’ve mastered the rule, you can still recall some individual experiences if you need to.
Particularities turn into generalities gradually. Gradually means slow. Slow, of course, isn't a negative term.
But I don't see any reason why I should wait one year before speaking some language at the communicative level. That's why it is always better to start with generalities, i.e. with the most important grammar rules.
I actually don't claim that you have to learn grammar at all. You might choose to wait until the language "sinks in". But I can promise you this. It will take you a long, long time. Even longer if this is your first foreign language. In fact, it might take so long that you will give up.
I believe that the pace of our progress is one of our biggest sources of motivation. Think about it. How many times have you continued to do something despite the lack of progress? Few of us are persistent enough to pursue activities which don't bring any effects.
Why Adults Learn Better
As I've written before, adults have pre-existing language knowledge. Children have to learn the mechanics of their mother tongue, while as adults have a more developed grasp of how language works. After all, almost all of us know what conjugations or adjectives are. What's more, adults are outstanding pattern finding machines - it's much easier for us to deduce and apply language rules!
To sum up - as adults, we can learn really fast. But as I've said many times, it all depends on how hard you're willing to work. If you believe that watching TV series, reading comic books or just passive listening will make you fluent then... keep on dreaming. I know it sounds harsh. But it's always better to be mentally prepared to tackle challenges than to hope that "it all will be good".
The beginning of language learning journey is full of questions. You can’t be sure of almost anything you say. How could you? You know almost nothing.
So how can you check if the sentences you produce with such effort are correct? Especially if you don’t have any contact with native speakers. Ultimately, the purpose of practicing any language is to get to (at least) communicative level in a foreign language of your choice. You definitely don’t want to utter some incoherent and half-baked sentences.
As you know, I’m a very zealous supporter of talking to yourself. It’s one of the best (and free!) ways to improve your fluency. Some people actually suggest that one of these days it will lead me to sitting half-naked on the park bench and mumbling to myself while feeding pigeons. But I’ll take my chances!
So how do you tackle this problem? How do you make sure that what you want to say sounds natural and would make every native speaker smile and nod with approval?
If your first and final answer is “Google Translate!!!”, I have bad news for you.It’s still a very imperfect tool, incapable of distinguishing between various differences of the words.
I mean, just take a look:
The solution I would suggest is combining the powers of Google Search Engine and Google Translate.
Google Search Engine gives you instant access to millions upon millions of sentences which you can compare your efforts with.
Let’s take a look at how you can make it happen. Closing the entire feedback loop shouldn’t take longer than 1 minute.
Translate A Phrase With Google Translate
Some time ago I wanted to use the phrase “padół łez i rozpaczy” (literally “vale of tears and despair”) in one of my articles. I admit this phrase is very rarely used, even in Polish. It’s quite a depressing idiom used to describe our world. And I love it.
It’s worth mentioning that I didn’t have the slightest idea how to say it. The first thing I did was checking the translation in Google Translate.
Does it look ok? No idea. Like I said, I have never used it myself. I also have never seen it being used anywhere.
Google The Phrase In Quotations Marks
That’s why our next step is to check how often it is used by native speakers. First of all, we need to learn how to make our search more precise. Our weapon of choice is “quotation marks”.
Using quotation marks
Putting terms in a quote indicates a sentence and will be searched for exactly in this composition. And this is what we get:
1 result?! Seriously?! What’s more, .pl means that somebody from Poland tried to use it before and even put it in the book! It is kind of disappointing. I really wanted to use it. But hey! Let’s check if the phrase “vale of tears” is more popular.
It turns up 351k results. Much better. If I had chosen so, I could have used it. Now just to prove a point, let’s check how many results it turns up without quotation marks.
As you can see, with over 1 million results it turns up 4 times more results than the same phrase with quotation marks. If I didn’t know better, I would say that it’s quite a common phrase.
Don’t Let It Limit Your Creativity
All the languages are constantly evolving. Who knows, maybe you’ll be the one to coin a new great word? That’s why you shouldn’t beat yourself up if you say something silly.
Not longer than one year ago I told my supervisor that “we can’t jaywalk through the planning process”. He said that it sounds weird. But hey! I still like this phrase!
So that’s what I do at the beginning of my language journeys (and even much later) to make sure that I don’t mutilate a given language too much. You see, now you have no excuses not to write to somebody in a language you’re currently learning!
I have the greatest pleasure to introduce my friend and ex-student – Mariusz who I had the honor to teach (Swedish) not so long ago.
Mariusz started his journey with Swedish in March and thanks to the super effective mix of grit, right methods and mnemonics got to (almost) B2 level at Swedish. The level was assessed by one of the language schools in our hometown at the beginning of October.
How fast is that? Pretty damn fast if you ask me! Especially since he had only a 1,5 h lesson once per week for just 4 months!
Warning: if you’re new to the world of mnemonics, please do not think that we’re having a really bad, acid-induced trip. Instead click hereto hop on the list and get your own 7-part mnemonics course.
Without further ado – enter Mariusz!
How to memorize grammatical genders with use of mnemonics
Come along for a stroll! How I memorized Swedish A1 level ett-gender nouns. It is known that there are only two grammatic genders in Swedish and they are described with their proper indefinite articles – ‘en‘ or ‘ett‘.
The first one covers, depending on sources, about 75% of all the nouns, while the other the remaining 25%. It was obvious, that with the aim to pick always the correct one, it’s sufficient to memorize the smaller group of nouns. So I made use of mnemonics.
I’m not certain why but from the very beginning I have already imagined the en-nouns as green and the ett-nouns as light blue, particularly while revising vocab with Anki, and I colored at least the ‘ett’ ones.
As I was wading through, at first, quite big amounts of upcoming words and the number of the blue ones began to grow, I felt the need to arrange them, preferably into one vast made-up Loci. Then I created a picture of a seaside in my memory.
The sea (ett hav) seemed to fit my needs the best because the only bigger blue objects that I came up with were the sky or the planet Earth, too vast to take up a virtual walk along. So I landed by the Baltic Sea on a beach I am familiar with because I’ve spent my holidays there many times, taking long runs in the sand in early mornings.
Having appeared there once again, I saw in front of me the extensive mass of water reaching up to the horizon on my left and right. Although the sand was yellowish, I realized that after every step I took left a footstep (ett spår) illuminating with bluish light (ett ljus). Cool, isn’t it? I looked around hastily and to my surprise, I spotted even more phantom-like bluish objects.
The nearest one was a table (ett bord ) with my Swedish grammar book, opened on a site with a test (ett test). I always feel pain (ett ont) when I make a mistake (ett fel). I left it as I found it and continued to explore the surroundings to find something more inspirational.
Not too far away, more or less halfway of the left-side shore, there was a stage on which a music band played a sort of heavy metal, sounding similar to the Polish metal band… oh, I forgot, what was its name (ett namn)?
Seepsteen (Sias van Schalkwyk)
Oh yes, the name was Vader. Maybe to spice up the atmosphere of the heavy and furious songs, the weather (ett väder) at the venue was about to get bad (such a shame!), as I saw a big grey-blue cloud (ett moln) thereover.I gave the gig a better look.
Seemingly, the frontman had a sibling (ett syskon) in the same band, but the difference between them was that, unlike his brother, he wore a weird blue beard (ett skägg).
Maybe that’s because he’d always had a big ego (ett stort ego) and wanted to show off? Or simply got crazy on drugs (ett knark). Apart from that, whenever he didn’t sing he sipped his beer (ett öl). And…
If you would like to know how my short story continues, I can only say, that on the right side of the beach one can see a big company (ett företag) which processes the water (ett vatten) to make it clear again before letting it into the sea.
Not to mention other countless objects. If one day there’s no more place available at the seaside, I’ll certainly check what’s behind the distant tip of land so that I could go on with my travel. And you’re invited too!
Let’s take a look
That’s not a place to sugarcoat anything so let’s get straight to the meat of the matter.
Have you noticed how static Mariusz’s picture is? There is very little action and far too few emotions. If you see a book which reminds of your mistakes you should punch it time and time again! Guys on the stage should go crazy since they are likely to be stoned!
Action and emotions are the mortar of your associations. If used appropriately, they can increase your recall manyfold.
too few distinctive places
I don’t know exactly how the said beach looks like. But the thing about beaches is that there are not many distinctive places there to place many pictures. It might work assuming that we don’t flood such a scene with too many associations but in the long run it’s not good enough.
Variations of this method
You might say that the example used in this article was pretty useless, after all, there were only two articles. What about German where there are 3 of them?! Or about Russian where the grammatical gender is not even specified by an article?!
Well, the main principle doesn’t change – we just need two distinctive locations to memorize the grammatical gender. Logically, the nouns which don’t appear in any of the stories placed in these locations must fall into the third gender category – piece of cake!
That’s it, have fun and let me know if you decide to use this method (or have used it already!).
Can you feel it? We're going on an adventure! By now, you should have everything we need to start learning.
If you've read the first part of this guide you should have some grammars book. Internet sources are also acceptable but book is always more reliable.
But before we start, just a small disclaimer.
THE SMALL DISCLAIMER
The process which I'm about to present work like a charm for me. But we're all different, so remember that your approach might vary from mine. That's why you should consider tweaking them a little bit so they're more tailored for your needs.
This part of the guide will seriously get you started but of course, it's not possible to cover all complexities of particular languages. I'm selective.
I don't give a damn about being 100% correct at the beginning because nobody cares. You know what is really tiring? Stuttering with perfect grammar every second word.
Sure, you'll make mistakes but it rarely happens that they are serious.
- "I really do love rapes officer!" - "Pardon me? You are a sick and twisted person! Oh, wait! Did you mean grapes?" - "Oh yeah, me thanks and love you long time!"
You see? At least you're politely making a conversation.
TWO MAIN BRICKS OF YOUR LEARNING FOUNDATION
There are two things which you should know before learning anything - your baseline and general outline of the subject you're about to learn.
So what's baseline?
This is the manner in which you can refer what you already know to the material you want to acquire. It's possible most of the time. However, sometimes you have to be really creative!
When you learn a new language, you can, of course, compare it to the ones you already know.
If yours is only to read or write - it's still the approach I would choose as it helps you to build a grammatical scaffolding where you can later set vocabulary.
Grammatical correctness usually follows quickly once you start speaking. To depict the said process, I'll use Esperanto as an example.
It's much easier than most languages and that's precisely why it is perfect. Just like scientists who use simple organisms to understand more complex ones. I'll use an easy language as an example so you can later transfer this knowledge to more complex ones.
HOW TO USE THIS PART OF THE GUIDE?
I suggest the following - go through it (more or less) step by step. It'll set you on the right path.
But the most important advice which I can give you is - ignore ALL the other things from further steps until you cover the ones you're actually trying to learn. It takes the burden of overthinking off of you.
When should you move to the next step?
Once you can use the structures from the current one with confidence. Of course, feel free to change the order of these steps and adjust them to you if you feel it suits you better.
FIRST BABY STEP- Personal Pronouns
The first question which we have to ask ourselves is: what elements of language are the most important? The answer is - the ones which you can't substitute with anything else.
That's why I always start with personal pronouns (subject pronouns). For the sake of brevity, I'll limit my examples to a singular form.
Step 2 - PRESENT TENSE
Once we get a grasp of subject pronouns we can move to present tense. This choice begs the same question as before.
Why present and not past or future tense? Assuming that we have really little time at our disposal, we can always say something like:
"I eat dinner yesterday" "she goes there in 3 days"
Sounds terrible - I'm pretty sure we all agree here BUT It helps you to get your message across! If there are more than 1 present tense in your target language, it's better to choose the one which's used for general events
Step 3 - CONJUGATION
Esperanto makes everything simple. All verbs in present tense have endings -AS.
Obviously, in a language of your choice, you'll face more conjugations. And the great thing is that you know how many because you learned beforehand what the grammar outline of your target language looks like. (You READ it, right?)
Now we have to learn how to construct:
Questions are least important as you can always ask one using an affirmative sentence and changing your tone of voice.
AFFIRMATIVE SENTENCE (in present tense)
POSSIBLE TRAPS: In many languages the order of the sentence is fixed - e.g. The conjugated verb is always the second sentence element in German.
Be aware of it.
Let's select some verbs, so we can start creating sentences.
Short list of the most useful verbs:
an = povi must / have to = devi should = devi might / may = povi have = havi be = esti get = ricevi give = doni take = preni want - voli need = bezoni buy = aĉeti sell = vendi go = iri come = veni
and 3 nouns
money= mono time= tempo book = libro
Now the best part - building sentences:
mi prenas libro = I take a book ŝi vendas mono= she sells money vi havas tempo= you have time
Please note that these sentences are incorrect (we should add -n to nouns in this case) - I'm trying to show the process of grammar acquisition as precisely as it is only possible.
As for now, we know nothing about declension. Nevertheless, such sentences can be understood without any problem.
Typically, we can negate either a verb or a noun. The most important for us is how to negate verbs. In English, we use the adverb "not" to do so. In Esperanto, we can do it using "ne" before verbs.
Mi ne havas mono = I don't have money ŝi ne vendas mono = she doesn't sell money vi ne havas tempo = you don't have time
Some most popular ways to form a yes-no (i.e. close-ended) question in many languages is to use intonation, inversion (present in English), inflection, auxiliary verbs (do, have, etc. in English) or a grammatical particle.
The latter is true in, among others, Polish, Esperanto and French. In Esperanto, we use the particle "ĉu".
love = ami Do you love money?= ĉu vi amas mono ? Do you have a book?= ĉu vi havas libro?
If we want to learn some more details, it's great to know the most popular interrogative words:
List of interrogative words
which what whose who whom where when how (much, many, often) why
Who = kiu, what = kio Who do you love? = Kiu vi amas? What does he want?= Kio li volas?
Step 4 - OTHER USEFUL PRONOUNS
The final step to make our sentences clearer and fancier is to learn some more personal pronouns
POSSIBLE TRAPS: You have to be aware that in some languages you can encounter many categories of pronouns depending on the case.
my - mia your - via his - lia her - ŝia
Let's add two adjectives to spruce things up a bit:
big - granda* cheap - malmultekosta*
* All adjectives in Esperanto end with -A
My book isn't big - Mia libro ne estas granda His time isn't cheap - Lia tempo estas malmultekosta
me - min you - vin him - lin her - ŝin
She loves you (yeah, yeah, yeah) - ŝi amas vin Do I need her? - ĉu mi bezonas ŝin?
Why are they so great?
Because you can simply learn them, point at some object and grunt:
"This!" "Not this, that!"
this - (ĉi) tiu that - tiu these - (ĉi) tiuj those - tiuj
This person is stupid - Tiu persono estas stulta He gives that money - Li donas tiu mono*
* I still make mistakes on purpose. It should read "li donas tiun monon".
List of indefinite pronouns:
enough little less much more most several few fewer many more most no one nobody neither none everybody everyone all both someone something some anyone anything either any
Someone = iu, everything = ĉio She knows everything = ŝi scias ĉio Someone wants you = iu volas vin
after although as as far as as if as long as as soon as as though because before even if even though every time if in order that since so so that than though unless until when whenever where whereas wherever while and nor but or yet otherwise so either...or not only...but (also) neither...nor both...and
The ones that are the most important to me at the beginning are: because, and, but, or, after, before, that, that's why, to, although, if, until, since, although, otherwise
Conjunctions give us this nice feeling of confidence when we speak. They combine two or more sentences and add a great touch of logic and cohesion to them.
because = ĉar I love you because you're pretty = Mi amas vin ĉar vi estas bela
understand = kompreni I understand that's why I sell = Mi komprenas tial mi vendas
That's it when it comes to grammar basics. More to come!
You can create your own context and the world within a language. You'll have time to adjust the accuracy later.
As long as use logic and try to avoid any idiomatic expressions you should be understood.
Know the general outline of grammar before you start
Learn grammar step by step, once you feel quite comfortable within some grammar structure - move on
If you want to start speaking as fast as possible, learn the thing which can't be substituted with anything else first
Your brain craves sense and meaning - create your own context, have fun, start saying some silly stuff!
Embrace imperfection, we all have to start somewhere