Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

3 Grammar Baby Steps for Self-Learners

baby-steps_by_david-brooke-martin-qa4-KH8UjRA-unsplashHow to deal with grammar is a question we get a lot from language learners. Yes, classroom learning often focuses a lot on grammar. I also plead guilty to having used this approach with my students during my college teaching years.

But I now know that it does not help your speaking abilities early on.
Fortunately, if you're learning a new language independently, it's okay to put grammar on the back burner.
Still, not focusing on grammar doesn't mean you ignore it completely. A good approach is to start with "baby steps" to learn gradually how your new language works.

Grammar in any language is a huge subject. However, knowing a grammar book inside out doesn't mean you can communicate in the language. All it means is that you can remember a lot of abstract rules. And these don't automatically translate into fluent communication.

So, what are a few "baby steps" that self-learners can take?
Here are the steps that work for me when I start out in a new language. (My examples are from the four languages on our site.)

Step #1: A Quick Glance At Grammar Basics

I do mean a "quick glance", and really just basic grammar.Grammar topics spread across page Do it in whatever way works for you - on the internet or in a basic grammar book.

You don't really want to know ALL the grammar rules right off. Especially not all the dozens of exceptions to those rules to boot.

What you want to know is how your new language works. How it is essentially different from your native language(s). Knowing these main differences will help you when starting out with conversations.

Pronouns

In English, you always use pronouns. The same goes for German and French.
Italian and Spanish usually drop the pronouns, unless they are needed for clarity or emphasis.

The Pronoun "you"

English has just one word for "you", and it works for familiar and formal, for singular and plural.

French, German, Italian and Spanish have different pronouns for familiar and formal, and also for singular and plural. You need to sort out which pronoun and/or verb ending to use for each of those situations.

Present Tense Verb Endings

English verb endings are pretty simple. Generally, you just have to watch out for the third person singular, which adds an "s". (I go, you go, he goes, we go, you go, they go.)  

For Italian and Spanish the personal endings of verbs are important because of dropped pronouns. For German and French, the different verb endings depend on which personal pronouns you use.

Articles and Gender

English has the definite article "the" and no gender for its nouns.

French, Spanish, and Italian have two noun genders, and German has three genders, plus various case-dependent forms of the definite article.

Negation

Each language has its own ways to express negation. English has "not", which is often attached to a helping verb and contracted: "don't, isn't, can't, won't, shouldn't".

Generally speaking, negation is simple in Spanish and Italian. In Spanish you put "no" in front of the verb, and in Italian "non". French uses the double negative "ne ... pas", and German has "nicht" for negating verbs and "kein" for negating nouns.

Basic Word Order

Here you don't want to learn any rules. You only want to observe and understand that there are differences.

Once you've had a quick glance at basic grammar differences between your native language and your target language, forget what you've read. It will all come back bit by bit, once you start listening, repeating and reading - a lot - in your new language.

Step #2: Look for Patterns

Patterns in sandWe may not feel that we are "wired for grammar" (as Noam Chomsky once suggested), but we are certainly wired for recognizing and internalizing patterns.

Sounds 

For children in their early years, language is primarily sound. Even as adults we hear spoken language all day - in conversations, on the radio, on TV, on the internet.

Sound remains an important part of communication. To engage with others, we produce the correct sounds to get the message across.

When we write, we often silently pronounce what we're writing.

Sentences

Learning the meaning of foreign words is important. But hearing and seeing them in complete sentences is essential: That's where "Grammar" is happening! 

When learning a new language be sure to include the sound of words, phrases and simple sentences. Listen and repeat as much as you can. It's important to get the sound of what you're learning into your ear.

As you listen, repeat and read, watch for patterns. Patterns of verb endings are basic, so listen and look for them. Watch out for the differences between questions and statements. Try to notice simple idiomatic ways of saying things.

Stories

Easy stories are a good next step. They will put essential vocabulary in context and therefore give you a more precise meaning of words and phrases.

Stories also show how the language works. You'll hear and see questions, responses to questions, emphatic forms, the use of familiar or formal "you", negation, word order variations, etc.

Reading & Writing

Once you're reasonably happy with your pronunciation, begin to pay closer attention to the written text as you practice listening and repeating. It will help you to master the correlation between sound and written text in your new language. It's a good way to get into reading.

Reading is a fantastic tool for acquiring vocabulary and for internalizing typical patterns of a language.

Step #3 More In-depth Grammar

When you're happily into your new target language,Grammar items when you continue to feel motivated and love the progress you're making, that's the time to tackle more grammar. But don't focus on rules. Focus on typical patterns. Below are two examples.

Gender and Articles

Suppose you've been reading and listening to Italian and notice that the simple English article "the" has several Italian equivalents: "il, la, lo, l', i, le, gli".
You've probably figured out the articles "il, la, i, and le". But you're curious enough to check when "lo" and "gli" are used. From then on, each time you see or hear "lo" and "gli" in context, you become more familiar with its use.

French and Spanish have two genders, feminine and masculine, and four articles that go with it. In French, there's "le, la, l', les". In Spanish, you have "el, la, los, las". Good to know, but pretty easy to figure out on your own as you're hearing and reading a story.

German, however, has three genders: "der, die, das" (masculine, feminine, and neuter) and the definite articles, including the plural forms, change depending on the case of the noun. So, it will take more effort to really learn the correct German forms.

You'll want to study the various article/case combinations written out in front of you. Then, saying the forms often helps to make them automatic. Still, perfect mastery is elusive for most, and that's okay. (You're not alone: Mark Twain in his “A Tramp Abroad”, Appendix D, makes some very funny, but cogent observations.)

Asking Yes-No Questions

There are often fundamental word order differences between languages. For example, it's not easy for foreigners to understand when to use "do" or "are" in a question in English.

For example, you say: "Do you know?", while the question, "Are you knowing?" doesn't make sense. On the other hand, you would tend to say "Are you going?" The question "Do you go?" needs more context, such as "Do you often go to the movies?"

French, too, has various ways to ask yes-no questions. But these are different from English. For one, you can put the question particle, "Est-ce que" at the beginning of a sentence and thus turn it into a question, "Est-ce que vous parlez anglais ?"

Then there's the inversion of subject and verb, as in "Parlez-vous anglais ?" Or, you can just add "n'est-ce pas ?" at the end of a statement: "Tu parles anglais, n'est-ce pas ?" Finally, in informal speech, you can just raise your voice at the end: "Tu parles anglais ?" Once you start paying attention to questions when hearing and reading French, these patterns will become familiar and you'll learn when to use which.

In Italian you can make a statement into a question by letting your voice go up at the end, and/or adding a tag: "È americano?, È americano, vero?, È americano, no?" It's as simple as that.

Similarly, in Spanish, you can change a statement to a yes-no question by using question intonation and sometimes adding a tag: "¿Hablas inglés?, ¿Hablas inglés, no? ¿Hablas inglés, verdad?" Or, in some cases, you can invert verb and pronoun: "¿Tiene Ud. sed?"

For yes-no questions in German, you normally invert subject and the personal verb: "Sind Sie Amerikaner?" Or, "Wollen Sie jetzt essen?"

Make Grammar a Treat not a Chore!

There are exceptions, but most language learners don't learn grammar to become fluent in grammar. They learn a language because they want to be able to speak with others. 

It's more fun to figure things out than to memorize rules. So, try to figure out little by little how your new language works. Don't focus too much on the rules.

Becoming fluent in another language is a hugely satisfying achievement. It's great fun to step out of your native language and step into another way of communicating. It can be a wonderful life-long adventure!

Bio: Ulrike Rettig is the co-founder of GamesforLanguage.com. She's a lifelong language learner, growing up in Austria, the Netherlands, and Canada. You can follow her on FacebookTwitter and Instagram, and leave any comments right here below!

Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

How to Use the German Modal Verb "können"

Gamesfrolanguage.com: German Modal Shoot Quick GameOne of the most popular games on our site is the German Modal Shoot. It's a three-minute interactive online game that gives you a quick practice of the basic forms of the German modals.

What are Modal Verbs?

Modal Verbs are helping verbs, also called auxiliary verbs. They add a chunk of meaning to the main verb of a sentence.
In conversations they show up all the time.
German has six modals. They express ability, necessity, obligation, permission, a wish, etc. They are:

  • können (be able, can),
  • müssen (to have to, must),
  • sollen (shall, ought to),
  • dürfen (be permitted, may),
  • wollen (to want) and
  • mögen (to like).

So for example, take the sentence: Ich arbeite heute - Architect greeting foremanI'm working today, and add the modals:

  • Ich kann heute arbeiten. (I can work today.)
  • Ich muss heute arbeiten. (I have to work today.)
  • Ich soll heute arbeiten. (I ought to work today.)
  • Ich darf heute arbeiten. (I'm allowed to work today.)
  • Ich will heute arbeiten. (I want to work today.)

But: Ich möchte heute arbeiten. (I would like to work today.)
Arggh, here you would use the (subjunctive) "would" form in German: "möchte", not "mag".
(The present forms of "mögen" can't be used with an infinitive verb.)

The modal "können" - can, to be able - is a very useful helping verb.
But its changing forms and conjugations often make it frustrating for the English-speaking learner, who is only used to “can” and “could”.

Modal Verb "können" - Present Tense

In the Present singular form, "können" changes its stem vowel from "ö" to "a":

  • ich kann - I can
  • du kannst - you(fam.) can
  • er, sie, es kann - he, she, it can
  • wir können - we can
  • ihr könnt - you-all can
  • sie, Sie können - they, you(form.) can

Below are examples of different ways you can use it.
"Können" - for a polite offer or request:

  • Ich kann Ihnen helfen. (I can help you.)
  • Können Sie/Kannst du mir helfen? (Can you help me?)
  • Ja, das kann ich. (Yes, I can.)

"Können" to express know-how:

  • Er kann Gitarre spielen. (He can play the guitar.)
  • Kannst du Deutsch? (Do you know German? i.e. Are you able to speak German?)
  • Ja, aber ich kann kein Englisch. (Yes, but I don't know any English.)

"Können" to express possibility:

  • Das kann doch nicht wahr sein. (Surely that can't be true.)
  • Kann das wirklich stimmen? (Is that really correct?)
  • Ja ja, heute kann's regnen. (Yes yes, today it may rain.)

"Können" to ask or give permission:

  • Kann ich jetzt gehen? (Can I go now?)
  • Nein, das können Sie nicht. (No, you can't.)
  • Ja, du kannst. (Yes, go ahead.)

Did you get all this? If so try this Quiz #1 for "können" on our siter site Lingo-Late.
Or, if you are looking for a fun German Quick Game: Practice "Können"

Modal Verb "können" - Simple Past Tense

Unfortunately the Simple Past is not that simple for English speakers, who conveniently use "could" for all persons.
In German, the stem drops the umlaut, and is "konn-" for all persons. But you still need to add the so-called "weak" personal endings for the Simple Past:

  • ich konnte - I could
  • du konntest - you could
  • er, sie, es konnte - he, she, it could
  • wir konnten - we could
  • ihr konntet - you-all could
  • sie, Sie konnten - they, you could

Past situations:

  • Sie konnte mich nicht verstehen. (She couldn't understand me.)
  • Ich war in Deutschland aber ich konnte kein Deutsch. (I was in Germany but I didn't know German.)
  • Warum konntest du mich nicht anrufen? (Why couldn't you call me?)

For making excuses:
The Simple Past of "können" is also perfect for making excuses, especially when you add "leider" (unfortunately)

  • Ich konnte leider nicht anrufen. (Unfortunately, I couldn't call .)
  • Leider konnten wir nicht früher kommen. (Unfortunately, we couldn't come earlier.)
  • Mein Mann konnte leider seine Autoschlüssel nicht finden. (Unfortunately, my husband couln't find his car keys.)

Modal Verb "können" - Imperfect Subjunctive Tense

This unapproachable-sounding tense is actually easier, if you remember the Simple Past forms above. You just add an umlaut to every Simple Past form.

  • ich könnte - I could, would be able
  • du könntest - you could, would be able
  • er, sie, es könnte - he, she it could, would be able
  • wir könnten - we could, would be able
  • ihr könntet - you-all could, would be able
  • sie, Sie könnten - they, you could, would be able

Use this tense for polite requests (with or without "bitte"):

  • Könnten Sie mir bitte sagen ... (Could you please tell me ...)
  • Könntest du mir das Salz geben? (Could you pass me the salt?)
  • Könnte ich etwas anderes bestellen? (Could I order something different?)

Make a polite suggestion:

  • Wir könnten jetzt gehen. (We could go now. Let's go now.)
  • Ich könnte dich morgen anrufen. (I could call you tomorrow.)
  • Du könntest auch später gehen. (You could also go later.)

Express a tentative possibility:

  • Das könnte teuer werden. (That could get expensive.)
  • Es könnte morgen schneien. (It could snow tomorrow.)
  • Wir könnten den 8Uhr Zug nehmen. (We could take the 8 o'clock train.)

Related verbs: können and kennen

Hearing the difference between “können” and “kennen” is often a challenge for the beginning German learner.
We've seen that the auxiliary verb "können" means "to be able, to know how".
On the other hand, the verb "kennen", means "to know, be acquainted with", referring to a person, a place, a song, a book, etc.
You say:

  • Peter und ich, wir kennen uns. (Peter and I, we know each other.)
  • Ich kenne Helsinki noch nicht. (I don't know Helsinki yet.)
  • Kennen Sie London gut? (Do you know London well?)
  • Kennst du dieses Buch? (Do you know this book?)

One clue to know whether you hear a form of “können” or one of “kennen” is to listen for another verb: In most cases, the auxiliary verb “können” needs another verb. (But as you've seen above there are exceptions.)

So, go ahead and use "können" as much as you can.
Ich kenne dich nicht, aber ich weiß, du kannst es. (I don't know you, but I know that you can do it.)