Is Studying from Grammar Tables Helpful?

Back when I was studying Classical Greek in college, I thought that I would just look at the tables for a long time and that I would somehow internalize them that way.

I was regularly struggling a lot in classical languages (although I did end up graduating with a degree in classics) and this was in part because I had no idea how to study.

Spaced Repetition, memory devices and, of course, the app zoo were completely unknown to me (and in case of the apps, not invented yet).

One degree, many struggles and a lot of shame, as well as many “I hope I’ve gained wisdom from this experience” ‘s later, I found myself learning Finnish. It is a language that… surprisingly isn’t as complicated as classical Greek in terms of its grammatical structure!

Granted, I understand very well that learning an ancient language (note that I do NOT say “dead”)  and learning a living language are two very different things. For one, I need active knowledge of Finnish in order to have a definitive mastery of it, I need to write it in and understand it when it is spoken by native speakers (also, for those unaware, Finnish is the slowest language I’ve ever encountered, especially in news reports. Keep in mind that it is still faster when spoken by native speakers than any language spoken by non-native speakers, however well [e.g. Creole Languages or English as an L2]).

None of that is required in an ancient language (although it may surprise some of you to know that a Modern Latin actually EXISTS and IS SPOKEN!)

So, now to answer the question you’ve come here for…how should grammar tables be used?

Within the past few years, there are a handful of languages that I’ve been using grammar tables for:

  • Icelandic
  • Cornish
  • Breton

And, interestingly, in Irish and Finnish I didn’t really use them that much.

However, I do use some of them in my classes when I teach languages

Allow me to explain:

When using a table, you should recite everything in it OUT LOUD and, if possible, use it with a simple sentence. In a language like Hebrew I would usually ask my students to say “I have a fish” and “I don’t have a fish” (Hebrew has no verb “to have” or indefinite articles, so what they actually say is “there-is to-me fish”, “there-is to-you fish”, and so on).

You can do this with verbs that conjugate (all Indo-European languages), prepositions with personal endings (like in Irish or Hebrew), adjectives that adjust themselves for gender (as in the case in Hebrew or Spanish)  or declensions (Slavic languages, Icelandic and Faroese, the Finno-Ugric Languages).

However, looking back to my journey in Breton, I remember stupidly reciting a lot of the tables over and over again and hoping it would stick. And it usually didn’t ,except for the most basic sentences (like “I am Jared”).

However, now I can have conversations in Breton without any major issues, so how did I get there?

For one, did the following, AFTER having recited the tables (but not memorized them):

 

  • Used them in small sentences of my own creation (e.g. I am Jewish. Are you American?)
  • Learned a bunch of sentences that I might need (e.g. I’ll have a crepe, please). I got these sentences primarily from my Colloquial Breton book, my Kauderwelsch Breton book, and Clozemaster (not also to mention too many other websites to list). To remember these sentences, I associated them with imaginary places, emotions or situations. (A sentence like “I have a boyfriend!” is very likely to conjure mental images of an emotion AND a situation regardless of who you are)
  • After having poked around sentences that use these constructions, I returned to the table to fill in my gaps, and repeated the process.

 

That’s one way to do it.

Another way I managed it with a language like Faroese (before I forgot almost all of it) was that I not only did what I did above, but I also used immersion, listening to Faroese music regularly during my commutes, walking around, cleaning, etc. In so doing, I unconsciously picked up patterns as to what prepositions used what case. I developed, like native speakers of these languages, a sense of what “felt right”.

Even if you’re a memory master, you may not pick up the true sense of how to equip yourself with your declensions / conjugations / grammar immediately. You may come to recognize it, but like with any new tool, you’ll have to fiddle with it a while, try out new things, look at people using it on the internet, and be willing to experiment and even mess up more than a few times.

Sentences are also very helpful, in programs like Anki or Clozemaster or the Tatoeba Sentence Database, or even reading them out loud from phrasebooks or UniLang courses (these may be helpful with a translation into a language you understand as well!). In so doing, you’ll be able to note general patterns between them, and after five to sixteen exposures to a common word, you’ll find it fixed into your long-term memory.

The same is also true of various declensions as well. Now, there comes the case with irregular declensions and irregular verbs, and so you want to return to the tables and the grammar guides after you’ve made some satisfactory progress with your language and you want to fill in more gaps.

In so doing, you’ll soon put everything in the tables in your long-term memory before you know it!

And in some language, you may actually get exposed to irregular verbs via immersion on a regular basis (Spanish and the Scandinavian Languages did this for me), and you may come to associate particular sentences or song lyrics with an irregular verb form that may be useful to you!

So, to answer the questions, are tables useful?

 

Yes, but don’t cram your way into knowing them. You have to use them in tandem with the way the language is used in real life (in any form) in order to truly let them become a part of your understanding of that language.

I didn’t look at the Breton verb conjugations or the Icelandic declensions once and then memorized them forever. I didn’t do that with any language. Instead, I put it together in my understanding, piece by piece, by using the language in a genuine manner, actively and passively.

Yes, chanting verb tables can help, I know it did for Spanish (which I still remember) and Latin (which I don’t), but above all it is you that has to assemble the puzzle of your dream language together with using every tool you have—the book itself isn’t going to cut it, although it will help.

Happy learning!

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The Jigsaw Puzzle

Learning a language (or any other skill) is task that requires you to understand how pieces fit together.

Take a jigsaw puzzle, for example. You see the final product on the box cover (that is to say, what the completed puzzle will look like) and then choose to pick a puzzle based on which picture you like (I also know that there are three-dimensional puzzles as well so I won’t come to exclude those.)

You take it home, you open the box and all of the pieces come out.

That confusion is relatable in language learning.

I’ve experienced it many times. So much confusion in coming to grips with a new language (although obviously if it is closely related to one you already know, you already have a significant amount of the puzzle done for you).

I remember feeling similarly overwhelmed with a number of “frontier” languages that weren’t similar to those that I already knew. Hungarian felt like this (and I’m still studying it during my commutes), as did Greenlandic, Burmese, Finnish, Hebrew and Yiddish during the early stages. Even some languages that were closer to my native tongue—like Danish, Tok Pisin and Krio—also qualified.

In Hungarian, I was confused with how to use the cases (and I still haven’t mastered all of them despite the fact that they function very closely to the Finnish ones) as well as when to use “nem” and when to use “nincs” (the first is more like “not” with verbs and the second is more like “there isn’t”).

Burmese had me perplexed as it was a language in which a lot of sentences left out the pronoun. To say “we have it”, you would just say “is + present tense marker”. A lot of aspects that were not touched upon too readily in my previous language-learning projects came to the fore with Burmese (like classifier words or using different pronouns for yourself in various situations).

I could give more examples, but let’s delve into what this jigsaw puzzle means for you…

For one, especially in a two-dimensional puzzle, you want to separate the edge pieces first. In so doing, you will have the basis to fill in the rest of the puzzle.

The edge pieces in language learning are having mastered:

  • Pronouns (for some languages like Japanese with a lot of pronouns I would recommend focusing on the ones you are most likely to use or hear used given your environment)
  • Being able to conjugate verbs so that you can express the past, the present and the future in a significant capacity without struggling.
  • Being able to say things like “thank you”, “where are you from?” “do you speak (name of language)?” and basic question words, not also to mention speak about yourself in a small capacity.
  • Asking for directions
  • Being able to use adjectives and adverbs
  • Prepositions
  • A case system (if there is one. In the case [no pun intended] of the Finno-Ugric languages, the case system overlaps with prepositions).
  • Sentence structure (does the verb go first like in Irish? Or at the end like in Japanese and Turkish? Can I put sentences together with the same sentence structure found in my native language or in the other languages I know? If not, what’s different?
  • Articles and noun gender patterns (if any. Entire language families lack articles entirely, such as the Finno-Ugric Languages)
  • Conjunctions (although there are some languages like Rapa Nui that, according to wikitionary, “supplant the need for conjunctions”)

Your goal is to master all of these ten elements, and in so doing you will have assembled the edge of your dream puzzle. Some of these are going to be harder than others, depending on what your dream language is (and yes, sometimes entire items on that list will be lacking altogether. Bislama and Spanish have no case systems, but Finnish has no articles or noun-gender patterns).

Now what exactly do you do when you’re done with the puzzle?

You fill in the rest, but unlike the jigsaw puzzle in real life, the language-learning process never ends. Even for your native language, you’ll always be learning new words and new expressions. I’ve been speaking Yiddish for nearly a decade now, and nearly seven-eight years as a fluent speaker, and I’m always discovering new expressions, new words and new surprises. The same is even true with English, even if I count American English by itself! (And after having studied Trinidadian Creole and Krio, I’ve realized the true extent to which African-American culture has developed this unique language and made it distinct, expressive and admired the world over! And my journeys with Irish and Yiddish and German have also made me realize how many other immigrant groups made their mark on it as well! )

The portions you fill in next will be those that you deem the most important to apply in your life. You’ll notice exactly what you’re missing from your time spent with the language, whether it be with native speakers or using the language online or with your books (whether they are books for learners or books for native-speakers).

And perhaps the most important thing about the jigsaw puzzle is that it will involve rearranging the pieces and finding out how they fit together. You’ll look at the huge collection of pieces and think, “well this one goes over there, and I think it fits with that one? No? Well maybe I’ll need to try something else…all of these eight pieces go together! Great job!”

You may indeed be able to memorize words very quickly, but understanding how they fit together is another thing that may take time. If I were learning a language like Slovak (which I’m sort of letting sleep at the moment), given its similarities to Polish (for which I have already assembled the edge of the puzzle), I wouldn’t need to really “assemble” the edge again. But for Palauan I had absolutely no prior advantages, and I had to assemble the whole thing from scratch. Fun times.

Here’s hoping to you finding all of the edge pieces and putting them together! Happy puzzling!

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Yah, I know, it ain’t no jigsaw puzzle, but it’s all I got!