Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

3 Steps for Tackling Grammar Slowly

grammar books stackedHow 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 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

Man studying laptopI do mean a "quick glance", and really just basic grammar. 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

Carpet PatternsWe 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

Grammar Book on table with woman's handsWhen you're happily into your new target language, 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?" "É americano, vero?" "É 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

Ripeti con me - Learning Italian - A Review

FluentSimple: Ripeti con me logo

Learning Italian? Check out "Ripeti con me!"!
A couple of weeks ago, Stefano Lodola wrote to ask us about reviewing his Italian audio course "Ripeti con me!".
Stefano is an Italian Polyglot, language teacher and translator who speaks nine languages. He's also an opera singer, and as you'll hear on the audio, he has a clear and pleasant voice.
The description of the "Ripeti con me!" audio course and the method behind it intrigued me.

Readers of earlier blog posts may recall that - before our stay in Italy several years ago - my husband and I completed the 3 Pimsleur audio-only courses (no text), a total of 90 lessons. (And for complete disclosure: I was the course writer and development editor of several Pimsleur audio courses before 2011.)
Personally, I've been looking for an Italian course to refresh and boost my Italian speaking skills.
So, I am not only quite familiar with audio courses but also definitely motivated to try out a new approach and new materials.
Stefano gave us access to 15 Lessons of "Ripeti con me!" so I could review his method and course.

THE COURSE BASICS
Ripeti con me! currently has 60 Lessons in audio format.

Each Lesson is made up of 30 basic sentences, spoken at a natural pace.
For each audio Lesson there are three files, Part A, Part B and Part C, to be done in sequence. The three files have you practice the same 30 sentences in three different ways.
The sentences contain useful, conversational vocabulary and common, idiomatic grammar patterns.
Spaced Repetition of vocabulary and grammar patterns is built into the course. Sentences come up again and again, but each time with small changes that show how the language works.
The sentences and their translations can also be downloaded as a PDF file, but that is optional.
The course is for Total Beginners to Intermediate Learners who want to improve their speaking skills.
In his Introduction, Stefano has detailed instructions on how to learn with his course.

WHAT WORKS FOR ME 

AUDIO FORMAT

I love learning with audio. I agree with Stefano that spoken and written language are processed differently by the brain.

Woman exercising listening

When you just listen, your brain connects directly to the sound without needing to decode the letters.

When I do a lesson for the first time, it's really effective to just sit with eyes closed while repeating and "shadowing" (i.e. speaking along with the speaker, or a split second behind him). That way I can also pay attention to the small but meaningful sounds that connect the sentence: prepositions, negatives, endings, agreements, etc.
With Audio, you can easily take the course with you and listen and repeat on the go, while walking, jogging, cooking, waiting for a bus, etc. 

PDF DOWNLOAD 

Ripeti con me: Screenshot Lesson 3 PDF
The sentences and their translations can all be downloaded in PDF. Reviewing the text is optional.
Still, I've found it very useful to look at the written sentences after doing the Audio.
The sentences and their translations can all be downloaded in PDF. Reviewing the text is optional.
That's because living in a world of the printed word, I automatically make up my own mental spelling of any unfamiliar word I hear or see, no matter what the language. I might as well learn the correct form.

Besides, I love to read. For any language that I learn, it's my goal to learn to read fluently (online news, blog posts, articles, stories, novels).
Reading is one of the most powerful ways to learn additional vocabulary and grammar patterns, and stay interested in the language. 

SENTENCES AND SPACED REPETITION

In "Ripeti con me!", sentences (not individual words) are the basic building blocks. You learn and practice all vocabulary in the context of everyday, useful sentences.
By listening and repeating many sentences that use and reshuffle basic vocabulary, you become more and more familiar with typical phrases and idioms.
The application of Spaced Repetition in "Ripeti con me!" is very good. As you constantly learn to construct new, slightly changed sentences, you automatically internalize Italian vocabulary and grammar patterns.
The English translations, because they are often not literal, help you to think in Italian. For example:

Come sto con gli occhiali? - How do I look in my glasses? (literally: How am I with the glasses?)

Come fai senza macchina? - How can you live without a car? (literally: How do you make it without car?)

THREE TYPES OF PRACTICE

Practicing the same 30 sentences of the lesson in three ways is quite effective, especially if you repeat/say the Italian out loud.
Part A: After the English cue, listen and repeat/shadow the Italian sentence. (For meaning, pronunciation of words, correct intonation.)
Part B: After the English cue, say the sentence in Italian in the pause that follows. (To produce the Italian and check if you're correct.)
Part C: Shadow each of the Italian sentences. (No English. To mimic the speaker and learn to think in Italian.)

I like the technique of shadowing when I'm learning a language. I use it often when listening to audio books or going over sentences in a course.
As mentioned, shadowing means speaking along with the speaker, or a split second behind. It takes a little practice. But once you've got the knack, you'll improve the rhythm, intonation, and pronunciation of your Italian.
Don't be afraid to talk over the native speaker's voice, you'll find that you can listen and talk at the same time. 

GRAMMAR PATTERNS

grammar books stacked

I don't really know if my brain is wired for grammar, but it's definitely wired for language patterns. 

Listening and repeating many sentences that have small shifts in pattern works really well for me.

I noticed that as I practiced, more and more phrases and idioms became familiar again and I would start using them automatically. (As Italian is not a new language for me, it's also likely that I notice these patterns more than a beginner.)

Each lesson focuses on a specific grammar point, built into the sentences. (The specific grammar items are bolded on the PDF.) Here are some examples of grammar points:

Lesson 1 has many sentences with present forms of the verb "essere" (to be).

Lesson 2 the sentences focus of the present forms of "avere" (to have), including common idioms with  "avere".

In Lesson 3, you practice number agreement (un gelato-due gelati), and adjective-noun agreement. (see photo in PDF section)
 
In Lesson 6, the sentences highlight the indefinite article forms: "un', un, una".

In Lesson 13, you practice sentences with "piacere": "mi piace/mi piacciono" (I like), "ti piace" (you like), "a Giulia non piace" (Giulia doesn't like), "a voi piace" (you-all like), etc.

A WELL-PACED COURSE 

It's recommended that you do a full Lesson a day. Because you're often reusing familiar vocabulary for new sentences, even a beginner can follow the pace.
Still, if you don't feel ready to move on, you can easily repeat that Lesson the next day.
My spoken Italian is probably at a Low Intermediate level (while my listening comprehension and reading skills are better).
With "Ripeti con me!", I found I can really focus on practicing to speak in Italian. I'm happy with the improvement I've noticed.

COST

FluentSimple: Ripeti con me logoAt this time, the course has 60 Lessons.
Click on the left logo for a YouTube playlist with the preview of all the lessons.

You can buy the full course for 44.50 euros ($50.68), or in chunks of 15 Lessons for 14.40 euros ($16.40) each. (Use  Promo Code G4L2018  to save 10%)

FURTHER THOUGHTS

No program will teach you everything you want to achieve in a language. And a program can certainly not replace speaking regularly with native speakers, a trained tutor, or good conversation partners.

A real conversation is so much more than listening and repeating. You have to understand what the other person is saying, which includes all the non-verbal signals that are part of effective communication. Plus, as you're listening and decoding what's being said, your brain is also working on an answer.

Still, good programs offer you the chance to practice specific foreign language skills. The 15 Lessons of Fluent Simple, which I did according to instructions, have clearly boosted my basic speaking fluency.

Beyond that, one can always find more ways to learn with a good program. "Ripeti con me" is no exception. Once you've gone through the course, you can go back and do other things with it. It keeps the material fresh.

MEMORIZE

For some people memorizing works. Once you've gone through the course as suggested, you can take ten sentences, for example, and just keep them in your head for the day. Say them to yourself from time to time, as you walk to work, take a break, or take the bus home. It's a good way to become totally familiar with certain sentence patterns.

DICTATION

I've always enjoyed dictation and have used it a lot in my language teaching and learning. In "Ripeti con me!", Part C of each Lesson is perfect for this. Write down the sentence as you hear it, and stop the audio if you need to. At the end, you can check what you've written against the correct sentences on the PDF file. For one, dictation strengthens the sound-letter correlation. Plus for me, writing something down by hand helps me remember.

WRITING

Journal writing for learning a language has become very popular. Even as a beginner, keep a daily journal by using the sentences that you've learned. Or you can even try out new variations of some of sentences. Do this just from your head, without looking up anything. Because of the many-sentence structure of the course, you'll have lots of possible sentences ready. It's a great start for beginning to write.

Italian is a wonderful language to learn, and you can do it at any age. Think about Italian culture and history, Italy's historic cities, villages, and beautiful countryside. And there's Italian music, and the world of Italian food, fashion and movies.

Besides, learning a language is good for your brain and learning Italian may inspire you to visit. Go for it!

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!

Disclosure: We intend to add "Ripeti con me!" to our Partner's list. Should you decide to purchase "Ripeti con me!" with the listed discount code, Gamesforlanguage will receive a small commission and help us keep our site ad-free.