Category Archives: Learning about learning

Ways to learn grammar

My last post addressed our goal in learning grammar. In brief: it doesn’t matter what you know about grammar, the important thing is that it comes out (and goes in) right. You need an internalized knowledge of grammar. Let’s think about that last sentence…

I can explain how to drive a manual transmission in one sentence: “When the engine is working too hard, push the clutch in, move the gear shift to the next highest gear, and release the clutch as you give it some more gas.” That’s head knowledge. You can’t drive a car with that knowledge. You have to go through a tortuous process of stalling and jerking over and over and over and over. Somehow you figure it out, and it starts happening. If you’re fortunate, you’re still on speaking terms with your parents at the end. Our goal in the sequence below is to start with the head knowledge (Steps 1 and 2), and get it into our internalized knowledge (Steps 3 and 4).

Step 1: Find out what you need to know

Any of these is a good way to find out what you need to learn.

  • Keep a running log of things you hear or read that you don’t understand. This is a very efficient way to identify holes in your knowledge.
  • Look through the Glassman book, or through these grammar descriptions, to find something unfamiliar, or something you think you might do wrong.
  • Write out a story or speech, and bring it to a language lesson. Revise it, and take note of the kinds of mistakes that you make. (Of course you can write in phonetic transcription or Dari script.)
  • If you can take it: record yourself having a conversation. Go back through it with a teacher and note down the kinds of mistakes you make.
  • Ask your teacher what you need to improve. Encourage honesty.

Step 2: Get the head knowledge

Find out how what you should be saying. You can do this as formally or as inductively as you like.

  • Look it up in a grammar book. Look for examples that sound like what you want to say. Or browse through the topics and look for something that seems relevant.
  • Negotiate meaning with your teaching to communicate what you want to say, and get the teacher to say it the correct way. (You may need to put it in the context of a short story.)
  • Ask the LCP consultant!

Step 3: Get some practice with the form

  • Try to generalize on the sentence. If you’ve figured out how to say, “I wish I had come to the party,” make up other variants of the same sort of sentence:
    • I wish I had studied Pashtu.
    • I wish Ahmad had gone to Kabul.
    • Ahmad wishes Razia was in Herat.
    • I don’t know whether Ahmad has gone to Kabul. [Is that the same grammar? I don’t know, try it out!]
  • I envision this happening in a language lesson so that you can be corrected.
  • Do this until you’re comfortable with the construction. Be deliberate in getting it right, and only then try for fluent production.

Step 4: Make a mental note to pay attention to that form in the future

  • I’ve found that simply being aware of a form makes me notice it more when I encounter it “in the wild”
  • If you have written or recorded texts that you listen to, make a note whenever this form appears, and re-read it or re-listen to it later.

What’s our goal in learning grammar?

My last post was about strategies for learning vocabulary. With this post I’d like to talk about learning grammar. In the vocab post, I shared a lot of ideas from a blog post that solicited various opinions. Interestingly, the same blog has another selection of opinions about learning grammar, which are notably more diverse. Grammar-learning is a controversial subject. In fact, I decided it was necessary to have a whole post just on what we mean by “learning grammar.”

Our goal is clear and accurate speech and accurate understanding

I want you to speak correctly and fluently. I want you to understand completely and fluently.

Some people are paralyzed by the need to speak correctly: they just seize up. If that’s you, then loosen up a bit. Let yourself make a few mistakes—you can learn from them.

Other people speak fluently from the beginning, accuracy be damned. If that’s you, you should be cautious about letting bad habits fossilize. Make the effort to speak correctly as well as fluently

The goal is to understand and produce, not to know about grammar

If you can understand and speak the language correctly, then you’re done. Stop reading this. I have nothing more for you. You don’t need grammar.

If you’re having trouble speaking and listening, you probably need to learn grammar. But you need to internalize the grammar, not study it explicitly. To understand that contrast, here is a sentence about Dari grammar:

 “The subjunctive is used as a dependent complement of the independent verbs khâstan ‘to want,’ tavânestan ‘to be able’ and gozashtan ‘to allow, let.’”

It doesn’t really matter in the least whether you understood that. On the other hand, you do need to be able to fill in the blank below.

“I want to go.” ma mexʌjʊm _______.

If you can’t fill in that blank, you need to study grammar. You can get a book about Dari grammar (like the Glassman book), or you can sit down with a teacher and just try to figure it out.

An inductive approach is the best way

The ideal is to learn the grammar inductively, without reading a book about grammar. We hope that this goes on during the Long Course. The goal is that the language “sound right” to you. It should eventually just come out by itself.

But the inductive approach is not the only approach, and we have grammatical resources (like the Glassman book) to give explicit instruction. Always remember that explicit instruction is a means to an end: to help you internalize the grammar. It’s not an end in itself.

Some limited rote repetition is probably necessary

At some point, I’m sure that I practiced verb agreement by rote: [ma mijʌjʊm, tu mijʌji, u mijʌja, mʌ mijʌjem, ʃʊma mijʌjen, unʌ mijʌjand; ma raftʊm, tu rafti, u raft, mʌ raftem….] — and on and on. If you’re learning about the perfect subjunctive for the first time, I recommend that you produce twenty or thirty perfect subjunctives to practice.

But again, this is only needed to beat the forms into your brain. You should be able to leave off the drills fairly quickly and use it in the real world. I do not recommend that you do drills with a language teacher. Find a foreign friend and practice with him/her if you need the correction. Use native speakers to practice fluency.

The grammar example is from Wheeler M. Thackston’s An Introduction to Persian, 3rd ed., pg. 112. It’s the best book on Persian grammar I’ve found, and I’ve learned a great deal from it.

[ma mexʌjʊm bʊrʊm], if you weren’t sure.

Ways to learn vocabulary

Learning vocabulary is a great challenge in language learning. It doesn’t matter how easy the language is, there are still thousands of words to learn. How should  you do it? In this post I’m going to summarize the answers to that question given by a wide range of language learners here, putting those responses in the context of Afghanistan and the resources that we have available to us.

How should you study vocabulary? There is not one answer to that question. It depends on your learning style. You can take the full inventory, but my guess is that there are two crucial factors.

The first factor is whether you are extroverted  or introverted. If interacting with people gives you energy, pick an interactive way to learn vocabulary. If it wears you out, find a way that gives you some alone time. The best study technique is the one that you actually do.

The second factor is whether you are a visual, aural, or tactile learner, or whether you learn best with a combination of stimuli. You want to choose a modality that helps you learn.

Studying in private

  • Flashcards are a popular approach. (It’s hard to argue with those numbers. I’ve learned more than 4,000 words in three years, in less than ten minutes per day.) You can get started with Anki today.
    • Some people like to be prompted by an image. This is certainly better for picturable items, though it is time-consuming.
    • Some IAM members have put audio recordings into their Anki decks, so that they’re prompted by the sound of the word.
    • Several people recommending learning the word as part of a phrase. Certainly an example sentence can help.
  • The next three points are ways to review vocabulary in context, without flashcards: through listening to recordings, watching videos, or reading.
    • Listen to recordings or watching videos. Particularly if you are an aural learner, this can be helpful. Develop the habit of listening to recordings on a daily or weekly basis.
    • You can learn by reading new texts. You can review by reading familiar texts over and over.
    • Listening and reading. One person suggests reading along while listening to an audio book. This strikes me as a fairly difficult activity, but it’s not impossible if you can get ahold of some recordings.
  • Some points to keep in mind
    • Half the trouble here is finding appropriate texts. You could start with some simple stories, or some (harder) news texts.
    • Note down words or grammar that you’ve forgotten, so you can go back with it later (perhaps with a teacher). I write down the name of the audio file and the time of the unfamiliar word, for instance.
    • If everything in the text or recording is familiar, you’re still developing fluency, so it’s a win-win.

Learning with others

  • Context is always helpful, so learning and reinforcing vocabulary by interacting with people is a great thing to do.
    • Keep a notebook handy so that you can write down new words and phrases
    • Try to repeat a new word soon after you hear it
    • Be sensitive to the way people echo your speech
  • You can have intentional conversation practice outside of the language classroom
    • Hire a conversation partner to speak with for an hour or two a week. It’s more natural to control the subject of a conversation if it’s not just a social visit.
    • You can trade an hour of English for an hour of Dari/Pashtu/Uzbek conversation.

General tips

  • You’ve got to beat it into your brain with lots of repetitions. Whatever you do, do it consistently so that you get the reps in.
  • Mnemonics are very helpful, especially if you’re learning words out of context.

Quirky methods

  • Develop the habit of describing the world around you—silently! You’ll be surprised at how much you don’t know how to say. Take notes of what you need to learn. You’re also rehearsing the words that you do know.
  • One person suggests learning from music lyrics. This is not impossible with Dari, but music can use elevated grammar and vocabulary, and most of it is romantic. Unless you routinely deal with star-crossed lovers, this might not be the most efficient way!
  • Some people write out labels for everything in the house and the office. This limits the domain of vocabulary, but it’s a great way to refresh those words.