Grammar and Vocabulary
In this section we’ll be looking at how to improve your acquisition of grammar and vocabulary.
While it might seem like there is a lot of grammar to get your head around, the core grammar of a language forms a kind of “hump” that, once you get past it, opens the language up and enables progression with greater ease. Once you’re done with the core grammar, you will probably never have to approach it as systematically again.
Your initial grammar learning comes from your beginner course. This can be supplemented by exercises such as sentence flashcards and exercises; however, this should not be the majority of your time. Most of the grammar you will learn over time with input.1
Key tip: Do not rely on memorising grammar rules
In general, memorising rules is a poor way to acquire a language. Learning only happens when you use the language. Rules and other aides such as conjugation tables should be used as a stepping stone to help you understand meaning in context.
Key tip: Avoid spending all your time on grammar
While the noticeable progress feels good, you will learn faster overall with the help of input and context supplementing your learning. Languages are much more than grammar rules and you will not learn by studying grammar in isolation.
Flashcard phrases for grammar
Learners commonly experience difficulty remembering how to use grammar when first speaking, or simply struggle to remember how the rule works in context. For this, memorising phrases can be very powerful.
Grammar flashcards generally consist of a single sentence, as simple as possible, that demonstrates the particular grammatical rule used in context. This might be as simple as creating a set of cards for all the verb conjugations, one for each type. It can be helpful to bold or highlight the particular feature you want to focus on.
Productive learning is preferred over receptive because understanding grammar receptively is generally too easy to do when you have context, especially for languages closer to English. However, these cards can be very difficult and slow if the form is new to you. You may need to ease yourself in by first using receptive flashcards or spending some time reading.
I recommend you use phrases from your course or the internet to ensure they are correct—grammar can be very easy to get wrong as a beginner.
Vocabulary is generally the more underrated of the two core components. A huge portion of speaking a language is really just knowing enough words. Think about how often you struggle to understand the sense of what is being said because of a new grammatical construct versus not recognising a word. Words are a far more common barrier.
For a language like English, the number of words you’d need to be fluent is over 10,000. Focusing on vocabulary is therefore always a useful task if you don’t know what to study. While 10,000 is a large number, you will get there eventually by chipping away at it every day.
Key tip: Prioritise words over grammar
Prioritise increasing your vocabulary over learning advanced grammar. In conversation, advanced grammar can often easily be understood through context. This is rarely true of unknown words, unless they happen to include roots or affixes that are already familiar.
How to learn words
Learners typically learn words in three main ways:
Discovery: Finding or being introduced to words, spending time with the word
Practice: Reading and listening, seeing the words in context and understanding the meaning of the whole phrase
Drill: Flashcards and other exercisesa
It is rare that you will learn a word simply by being introduced to it once. Vocabulary is learned after repeated exposure, either in content or with flashcards.
If you want to remember a word, but aren’t going to add it to your flashcards, I recommend you spend a bit of time and mental effort consciously focusing on it. Tell yourself that it’s important and that you intend to learn it. Make sure you actually mean it! If you don’t feel interested or motivated to know the word, you will find it slipping from your memory more easily.
What words should I learn?
There are two primary criteria you should use. These are personal relevance and frequency.
Learning words that are personally relevant to you is a good way to ensure you are practising what you are learning. To meet this criterion, the words you learn need to be appearing in your resources often or be ones you think you will need to meet your goals.
Choosing words based on the frequency they appear in the language is useful as they are the most likely to be useful to you in the future. Words in natural language approximately follow something called Zipf’s Law. This means that the most common word will occur twice as often as the next most common word, three times as often as the third most common word, and so on. This means languages are heavily dominated by the most common words. Once you have learned 2,000–3,000 words, you have covered almost all the words you will hear in daily conversation. With only a few hundred words, you will have access to almost all the filler words, which make up most of spoken language.2
Key tip: Don’t learn closely related words together
Although it might seem like a good idea, it’s best not to learn words together if they are related or in any way similar, as this can cause you to confuse them. This includes near synonyms (rely/depend), opposites (fast/slow), words typically recounted together (days of the week, numbers), or even similar-sounding words (delay/relay).
Key tip: Learn numbers
Learning numbers, particularly large ones, can be a surprisingly difficult task, making dates an early challenge for many learners. It helps to spend focused effort learning them through drills. You may find LangPractice helpful for this.
You may find it helpful to keep a list of those words or phrases you have looked up and find interesting enough to want to remember. This can serve as a useful reference and the act of writing a list by hand can aid memorisation. This is not mandatory.
Word lists should not simply be read over, but revised with one side covered to get your memory working.
You can find more info on learning vocabulary in Appendix C.
Mnemonics are a versatile tool that turns vocabulary into easy-to-recall mental images that help you remember a word. Mnemonics can be very useful to learn vocabulary quickly; however, the word won’t be truly learned until you don’t need the mnemonic and can use and understand the word automatically. Mnemonics should be considered a useful stepping-stone towards getting there, not an easy way out of having to absorb the language.
The most common method is the keyword method. This links the word you want to learn to a similar-sounding word in your native language. For example: Imagine you want to learn the French word for car: voiture. You might note that the word voiture sounds like vulture in English. You can mentally link the two by imagining a car with a vulture on top of it, or, if you are very imaginative, a car shaped like a vulture. Now, when you want to talk about a car, you’ll remember the vulture and that the French word sounds like vulture, hence reminding you to say voiture. The more vivid, bizarre, or surprising your mnemonics are, the more effective they will be. You will be surprised by how well they work.
Further details are too much for this guide, so I will provide you with some links to learn more on your own if you are interested.
There are some learners who go mostly without studying grammar. This is done by compensating with lots of input, making sure to notice grammatical forms as you encounter them. It is best not to go without studying grammar until you are more experienced. Further discussion of the debate on the efficacy of grammar instruction can be found in the appendix. ↩
This isn’t a completely free shortcut, as much of the meaning is contained in the less-common words. What it will do is put you in a good position to learn these words naturally and better derive meaning from context. ↩