One simple strategy for learning the hardest grammar in the world

learn hard grammar

If you’re learning a difficult language, you might be wondering how best to set about learning its grammar.

You might have flicked through various textbooks, maybe even done a few of the grammar exercises… and felt so overwhelmed that you wanted to throw the book through the window!

Well, fear not!

This post will show you exactly how I’m approaching learning the grammar of a notoriously hard language: Arabic.

First, though, let’s be clear… You will never find any shortcuts for learning grammar.

Grammar is hard, yes. But impossible? Absolutely not.

Your success in learning the grammar of your target language will ultimately come down to one thing: Your ability to stay motivated and keep at it for long enough to get used to it!

Don’t take this statement lightly!

Many of us are terrible at taking on large projects and having the emotional intelligence to stick to them, even when it gets tough.

It’s not the difficulty of the grammar, but this simple fact that will determine whether you eventually master the grammar of the language or not.

With that in mind, let’s get into it!

Why learn grammar?

Although I believe that you shouldn’t focus on grammar when you’re learning a new language, there comes a time when you can’t avoid it any longer.

I’ve reached that point with my Arabic grammar.

I’ve been learning Egyptian Arabic for a few months since arriving in Cairo, and although I’ve been making steady progress, I’m now very conscious that my lack of grammar knowledge is holding me back.

How do I know this? Well, my approach to learning a new language involves learning large amounts of vocabulary in complete phrases. This is great, but now that I’m starting to reach a higher level, I’ve started to want more flexibility in expressing myself – to say things with more nuance and more accuracy.

And for this I need more grammar.

Grammar sprints

My favourite language learning strategy of all is something I call “Sprints”.

This is where I set aside around 3 weeks and focus all my attention on one thing. I do it well, and I go into depth. (You can read more about that here.)

So I decided to take that approach to tackling Arabic grammar.

My mindset coming into this was this:

“OK, I’ve been putting off studying Arabic grammar until this point, because I knew that it’s difficult and that it would hold me back from starting to speak the language. However, now that I’ve decided to start studying it, I’m going to do it properly and I’m going to do it thoroughly – no half measures!”

So, I was psyched up. But I couldn’t do it on my own. Egyptian Arabic textbooks are few and far between and often difficult to use.

Given how complex this task was going to be, and how I wanted to do it seriously, I decided to take lessons with a tutor. Luckily, the iTalki New Year Language Challenge was beginning at the same time, and so I thought I’d use that opportunity as extra motivation.

This challenge is a fantastic way to turbo-charge your language learning as you commit to taking a certain number of lessons and actually get paid to do it! I’ll give my tutor Mona a little plug too, because she’s fantastic!

So, armed with a Sprint and a Language Challenge, I headed off into the grammar jungle…

Entering the grammar jungle

First things first.

The enemy of progress is trying to take on too much at once.

I have a philosophy in everything I do, whether it’s language learning, writing, or habit formation, that is this:

Choose one thing that’s manageable, and do it to completion. Enjoy the feeling of success for a moment, then move swiftly on to the next step.

Taking this philosophy and applying in to learning Arabic grammar, I decided to choose to focus on one tense (or verb pattern) only, and aim to master it.

Here’s what I did:

  • Decided to learn and master the present simple, because it’s a logical starting point
  • Not to try to attempt anything else until I could confidently use the present simple, in any conjugation, with any verb

I discussed this with my tutor, and asked her to work with me to achieve this goal. Mona is great, and knew exactly what to do – this is the advantage of having a really great teacher.

Here’s the process we followed in our lessons:

  • She taught me the rules of the present simple in Egyptian Arabic. Logistically, this was done using mostly English, and writing out examples on a Google Doc as we went. Google Docs are great because both sides can see and update them live – great for Skype lessons.
  • I went away, looked back through my notes and wrote a list of all the verbs I knew in Arabic
  • Next, I systematically went through and conjugated every verb I knew in the present tense, writing it all in the Arabic script, filling up dozens of pages of my notebook as I went!

arabic present simple

  • I sent photos of what I’d written to Mona so she could check it
  • In the subsequent class, after troubleshooting some errors (there were quite a few!), we spent the time having a conversation in Arabic entirely in the present tense! It’s pretty simple really – she would ask me questions and I would answer them, using the present simple all the way. (e.g. What time do you start work? I start work at 9am.)
  • We then continued this pattern for about 2-3 weeks (the length of a Sprint). My homework was writing out verb tables and our 2 lessons a week were spent practising them in conversation.

arabic present simple grammar

So, as you’re reading this you might react in a number of ways. You might think it’s overly-simple, or you might think it sounds too much like hard work.

If you’re tempted to try something like this, here are some points to bear in mind:

  • When your aim is to understand something thoroughly, try not to confuse it with anything else. Although you might be tempted to look at other tenses and “learn more”… don’t! When dealing with complex areas of language, learn one thing properly, then move on.
  • There are lots of fancy, modern ways to learn grammar that try to make it feel “easy” to learn grammar, but don’t lose sight of the fact that a direct approach is better. In this case, I’ve simply done three things, which are very logical, and will work well for most people:

1) Learnt to form the present simple

2) Systematically written out every verb I know

3) Practised using it in conversation

  • Although we did start to practise it in speaking, there’s no hurry to do so. Things in Arabic get much hard than the present simple, and when I tackle those I will be content to just “learn” it for 2-3 weeks without feeling the need to use it in speaking. Take your time, but do it thoroughly.
  • Once you’ve gone through this fairly mechanical process of learning one bit of grammar, the next step is to start to really listen. You need to pay close attention to everything you hear and try to notice when it’s being used. This is how it starts to become familiar, and you can start to really “know it”.

So, this is the exact process I’m using right now to learn Arabic grammar.

It’s a systematic approach to a very difficult language.

If you’re learning a more familiar language, such as Spanish or German (for an English speaker), you might not need to go to such lengths, and there might even be a much better approach.

But that’s a story for another day!

For now, do you think you could use this approach to learning grammar in your target language? Does it make sense? Leave me a comment below.

Image: alamarco

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  • Daniel Zimmermann

    Perfect!

  • chitchatchinese

    Good follow up post to your last one. My approach is exactly like yours: lots of words and phrases, then I increasingly plug in more complex grammar. That way when you get to the harder grammar you already have a lot to plug in. BTW in order to use this approach, as I am doing now with Turkish, I have to use several beginner textbooks/sources. That way I absorb a lot of content without being forced into more complex grammar. I think the typical textbook moves too fast with the grammar and too slowly with the content. How about you?

    • Yes! That’s exactly why I recommend learning with 2-3 textbooks at the same time. (http://www.iwillteachyoualanguage.com/choosing-language-resources-textbooks/)

      Part of learning grammar is being able to recognise patterns, and to recognise patters you’ve got to be able to see lots of examples from different sources. A “Teach Yourself” textbook often claims to take you from Zero Beginner to A2 (or even B1) level over the course of the book, which is ridiculous. As you say, you’ve got to take it slow and get as much exposure as possible.

  • Criss Cross

    Thanks for this post! Began learning urdu and I was making the mistake of trying to learn all tenses at once, my logic was “I just need to learn the pattern and I’d know the tenses” but it becomes overwhelming especially for a language that doesn’t really have any good online resources. But my strategy is clear now, follow this post. 🙂

    • Yes, grammar alone is meaningless. You’ve got to have words and phrases to use grammar with. The fact that so many courses insist on teaching grammar is putting the cart way too far before the horse. Overwhelm is a killer, but it’s inevitable if you chase grammar from the start.

  • So… can you use the present tense fluently now? And did it improve other areas of your Arabic by spillover? Just curious, because it still seems too little information for 3 weeks. (It’s like walking through one Rosetta Stone lesson time and again, not that I’d do this).
    And what size of grammatical chunks would you suggest for any sprint?
    Shameless self-plug for my blog: allthetongues.hol.es (not easier than Egyptian).

    • Well, I don’t think that “grammar” and “fluent” are necessarily related concepts. I’d say that with grammar it’s more a question of “accuracy”. So, yes, I can use the present tense accurately now, but it takes time mainly because I’m having to figure out how to adapt the verbs that I know. With Arabic it’s quite difficult to know what the root form of a verb is if you haven’t learnt it that way, so although the present tense prefixes and suffixes are fairly straightforward, the entire verb form is difficult if it’s not familiar to you.

  • Like the post, I would love to see a post on pronunciation because developing a accent seems to be the hardest part for me

  • Zaytun

    Ok, I think we do things pretty similarly, at least the techniques we are using. But I’m overdoing it a bit and slowing down my progress because of that. Basically I learn everything through sentences (ones which I need and make sense for a beginner) as well, go through it with my language partners, make recordings and archive everything in my selfmade memrise course. My problem right now is that the work on memrise is stacking up because paralel to that I’m learning with a book, shadowing all the lessons, and doing the written work from the book on paper, as well as going through a pimsleur course every morning right after I wake up.

    I’ve started all these things and I’m just afraid to stop with one of them, because I just don’t wan’t to miss out on anything but It might have been smarter to go through a book first and then move on… or the other way around. Now I’m seeing language partners about 3-4 times a week, trying to archive all work on memrise but it’s just too much. I might have to reduce memrise until I finish this book. I need grammar and structure, which I get from the book. On the contrary I need useful sentences which you don’t get in the book. It’s the variety you get from your language partners. And the pimsleur course gives me confidence to speak.

    Anyway, it’s not “bad” because I’m making progress, It’s just a little overwhelming. I know I can get everything done but the goal seems very far away, because I’m trying to reach 3 goals at the same time. A language book, pimsleur and work from my language partners. When I’m through with the book, I will make an effort to finish my work on memrise before moving on to the next book. Quitting one of them now though, would be counter productive. I have to finish what I’ve started.

    • Hi – thanks for that interesting summary. It absolutely is a lot, and the critical thing to watch out for is that overwhelm stage that can lead you to burn out. I find it hard to keep up so much at once, which is why I go for the Sprint approach, because it just allows me to simplify, stay focused, and keep enjoying it.

      Ultimately, it’s just a question of keeping going!

  • Jorn van Schaïk

    I do more or less the same thing (but worked out in much less detail). The problem that I have with Mandarin is that there are no verb conjugations whatsoever… there’s just word order to worry about.

    • Yes… Chinese is simple in some ways, but then, as you say, word order really does get complex as you get more advanced. I’d still call that grammar, though.

      • Jorn van Schaïk

        Yes, it just saves you the headache of learning a lot of verb morphology à la French….

  • Kanrei

    What helped me with Japanese grammar is to write down grammar points in Anki, because often I forgot what some construct meant. (Have wrote down example sentences) This helps me then, when I encounter them that I can think ah wait what did this thing too and what I memorized comes into my mind. (But sure this is just one of many things which are helpful, I really should write down more too. At the moment I’m mostly focused on reading stuff.)