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!
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.
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…
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:
Here's the process we followed in our lessons:
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:
1) Learnt to form the present simple
2) Systematically written out every verb I know
3) Practised using it in conversation
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.
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