For me, grammatical explanations are a crutch – I never study grammar for grammar’s sake, only as a crutch in order to be able to speak/write sooner. There is a point where it’s simpler to absorb grammar from massive input rather than study rules that only apply to some of the words. Still, when I do study grammar, I want to make it as effective and painless as possible. Here are some tricks for that.
I generally rely on the grammar explanations in textbooks, because they usually focus on the essential and avoid overly complicating things. I rarely consult grammar books or conjugation tables in addition to that; I only do so when something confuses me or when I keep making mistakes.
When I look at a table of verb endings, noun endings or the like, I usually do so with the intent of simplifying things. For example, I don’t see the point of considering Latin, Italian, Portuguese to have three verb conjugations when they almost always have the same endings. Allow yourself to use [base vowel] as a placeholder and you can describe almost the entire conjugation using one column only. When looking at German, Latin or Greek noun declensions, I take particular note of the times when the endings are the same or follow a predictable pattern.
In the rare cases when I do have to memorize a complete table of endings, I pick one sample word and stick with it whenever I have to remember or practise that table of endings. In Latin, many students are taught to mentally run through the declension of “rosa, rosae, rosae, rosam, rosa, …” in order to find the correct ending ending and only then apply it to amica, rather than trying to decline amica from the start.
Where possible, I also use rhythm and/or rhyme in order to make tables easier to memorize. This works well with the Latin verb endings for example; one of the Latin teachers at my school even devised a rap song for them.
To memorize grammar rules that don’t fit into a table or that can best be learned outside a table, I look for mnemonics and for set expressions that I already know that can serve as an illustration of the rule. For example, my boyfriend is very much into board games and the highest award for a board game is the German “Spiel des Jahres” award. There’s no way he would forget the name of this award or get it wrong, hence it is a great illustration of the German Genitive singular neuter/masculine – “des Jahres”. Similarly, it’s unlikely that a sci-fi fan would forget “Möge die Kraft mit dir sein!” (May the Force be with you), so it’s a great illustration of how to phrase such fancy wishes. Any movie title, funny quote or line from songs can serve as a grammar illustration. I cannot tell you what they should be though – in order to work, they have to be phrases that resonate with you and that you already know.
Thanks David Mansaray of the Polyglot Project for making me collect my thoughts about this!
Do you, readers, have any other tips to share? Post a comment below.