How To Master The Grammar Of Any Language And Why Deliberate Practice Is The Fastest Way To Do It
I don’t like waiting.
It’s not that I can’t be patient – quite often I just don’t see the point.
Especially in the world of language learning, the typical response to any question seems to be, “it will come with time” or “you will learn it subconsciously”.
It’s especially true for grammar.
If we exclude just a handful of enthusiasts, we can definitely say that learning is one of the least favorite activities of most language learners.
It’s a big, dark and ugly maze. You have to learn how to handle it.
Otherwise, it will chew you up and spit you out. And then crap on your face while you are sobbing pitifully.
The common knowledge has it that you need plenty of time in order to learn your way around it.
You have to fumble about in the dark until you finally crawl out of it.
It goes without saying that the whole process takes the heavy toll on the language learner’s motivation.
But it doesn’t have to be like that.
The entire process can be accelerated at least several times thanks to the deep learning (a.k.a. the deliberate practice).
It’s the methodology which has been used by the world’s top performers for over three decades. It can help you break grammar into the easily digestible chunks.
In other words, the deep learning provides you with a step-by-step blueprint to go through any grammar in the most efficient manner. It can replace any teacher if you know how to use it.
But let’s start with the basics.
Problems With Typical Approach To Learning Grammar
Feedback Is Not (Always) Enough
Try to imagine your average lesson. Not even group lessons – those are terribly ineffective (though enjoyable for some). I mean 1-1 lessons.
Have you ever noticed that even though you often get feedback from your teacher, you still keep on making the same mistakes?
Here is why.
Learning almost always takes place in the chaotic and cluttered environment.
At any given moment there are dozens of dozens of pieces of information fighting for your attention.
During your typical lessons, your teacher might correct you dozens of times.
“Wrong pronunciation, wrong conjugation, wrong (…)”.
You are getting bitch slapped to a pulp by the feedback.
The problem is too much information. If you get too many pieces of information, it’s very difficult to choose the ones which you should concentrate on. The ones which you will try to act upon.
In other words, just to geek it up a bit:
The information overload which may hinder the integration of the new information into long-term memory. – source
“Why not correct a student about just one aspect of the language?”, you might think.
This thought sounds tempting.
And let’s be honest – yes, if you correct just one or two things, students will start correcting those mistakes much quicker.
But there is a huge downside to this.
If you don’t make a student aware of other mistakes he makes, he optimistically assumes that they are not there!
That’s even worse! By the time you get through previous grammar aspects, your student will already have consolidated dozens of other mistakes!
It’s like the grammar-hydra!
Eliminate one mistake and 10 others take its place!
Passive Learning Is Not Efficient
Passive learning (i.e. reading and writing) won’t help either unless you invest significant amounts of time. So yes, it is possible to acquire decent grammar this way. However, if you want to learn many languages, it gets harder and harder to keep up with this input-heavy schedule.
But most of the times, seeing or hearing correctly composed sentences, won’t make you utter the correct ones on your own. (read more about passive learning here)
Unless you think that reading about surgical procedures makes you a skilled surgeon.
In that case – I rest my case.
What you have to remember is that the deep understanding of most of the skills comes from using them. You won’t just wake up one day and suddenly start spewing beautiful sentences left and right.
Acquiring Rare Grammar Constructions
While it might not be a big deal for some, it is definitely annoying for me.
Some grammar constructions occur very rarely. So rarely that learning them through context seems almost absurd.
How long would I have to read to actually learn some of them? How many hundreds (thousands) of sentences would I have to read to find one or two written in, say, past perfect continuous?
Crapload. That’s how many.
But if I can replace all these hours of reading and listening with just 2-3 hours of the deliberate practice, why wouldn’t I?
What Is Deep Learning (a.k.a. Deliberate Practice)?
Before I move on and show you how you can use it to improve your language learning skills, let’s try to define what deep learning is:
Deliberate practice is a highly structured activity engaged in with the specific goal of improving performance. – source
Some common characteristics of deep learning include:
- it gives you a specific goal
- it requires your full attention
- it’s energy-devouring and exhausting but not time-consuming
- it gives you feedback
Words, words, words!
But what does it all REALLY mean?
1) You need a specific goal
Choose a grammar construction you have problems with, and which is useful at the same time.
For the sake of this article, I will use declination of German definite articles. They are the stuff of nightmares for many and thus the perfect choice.
But that’s not over. There is one more thing which you have to remember about this goal.
If you can’t commit a given piece of grammar to your memory, it means that it’s too big.
Because the availability of working memory is crucial for implementing expectancy-based strategic actions. – source
If you fry your working memory, you can forget about effective learning.
The easiest test possible you can run in order to check whether this condition is met is to try to reproduce information you have just memorized.
If you can do it without the excessive number of groans then you are all set.
For the purpose of the article, let’s assume that I want to master the Akkusativ form for “der”, “die” and “das”. Let’s leave plural for some other time.
Quick sanity check confirms that I am able to comfortably reproduce the declination of the said forms.
2) it requires your full attention
As my beloved Hungarian proverb puts it:
“If you have one ass you can’t sit on two horses” .
You can’t do two things at once without sucking at both of them.
If you think that you can then you are definitely delusional.
But what does devoting your full attention really mean?
It means just one thing.
You should only pay attention to the correct use of the given piece of grammar.. If it happens that you make some other mistakes along the way – so be it.
“But doesn’t it mean that I will start consolidating some other grammar mistakes?”.
That’s a fair question but no – you won’t
The reason is painfully simple.
If you devote your full attention to using one grammar construction correctly, you won’t even notice other mistakes. This is how our attention works.
Here is a great video which exemplifies this phenomenon.
Have you seen that one already?
Watch that one know.
These vidoes have definitely a very sobering effect on all the people who claim to possess the superior concentration power.
And they definitely prove one thing – it’s hard to consolidate something you don’t see.
3) It’s energy-devouring and exhausting but not time-consuming
I am not going to lie to you.
The deliberate practice is boring and tiring.
And that’s bad news because in the era of modern technologies, everything must be fun and hip.
However, if you want to achieve results quickly, I am sure that’s a trade-off you are willing to make.
In a nutshell, you build awareness of a given grammar construction by creating dozens upon dozens of sentences with it.
This is what Barbara Oakley, a professor of engineering at Oakland University, Rochester, Michigan, wrote in one of her articles:
“What I had done in learning Russian was to emphasize not just understanding of the language, but fluency. Fluency of something whole like a language requires a kind of familiarity that only repeated and varied interaction with the parts can develop.
Where my language classmates had often been content to concentrate on simply understanding Russian they heard or read, I instead tried to gain an internalized, deep-rooted fluency with the words and language structure. I wouldn’t just be satisfied to know that понимать meant “to understand.”
I’d practice with the verb—putting it through its paces by conjugating it repeatedly with all sorts of tenses, and then moving on to putting it into sentences, and then finally to understanding not only when to use this form of the verb, but also when not to use it. I practiced recalling all these aspects and variations quickly.
After all, through practice, you can understand and translate dozens—even thousands— of words in another language.
But if you aren’t fluent, when someone throws a bunch of words at you quickly, as with normal speaking (which always sounds horrifically fast when you’re learning a new language), you have no idea what they’re actually saying, even though technically you understand all the component words and structure. And you certainly can’t speak quickly enough yourself for native speakers to find it enjoyable to listen to you.” – source
So how should you exactly practise the deep learning?
What I usually recommend is to create at least 100 sentences with the given grammar construction within next 5-7 days. But as always – the more the better.
Make sure that every sentence is different from the previous one and that YOU are the one who comes up with these sentences.
Here are some examples:
- Ich habe den grossen Hund gehabt.
- Er hat mir das schöne Haus gekauft.
- Wir stellen den Teller auf den Tisch.
And so on.
Rinse and repeat.
You have to become the grim grammar executioner.
You might not enjoy your job but you know it has to be done.
The great thing about this kind of practice is that you don’t need any fancy tools.
A piece of paper will do.
Below you can find the worksheet I use to teach this concept to my students.
It looks like this:
4) It gives you feedback
In the perfect world, there is always someone who can provide you with feedback.
However, if you stick to the aforementioned rules, you should be able to produce grammatically correct sentences without any, or with minimal, supervision.
It’s only logical – if you try to do just one thing correctly, it won’t take long before you are fully aware that the construction you are using is applied appropriately.
You are better at monitoring your progress than you think.
Research has showed that individuals are able to monitor, control and regulate their behaviors in learning contexts, but all depends on the resources and the pedagogical approach used by the educators (Agina et al., 2011)
1) Choose a small chunk of grammar
2) Create at least 100 sentences with it
3) Make sure that you can use it well enough
4) Move on to another grammar construction
Why The Deliberate Practice Is The Perfect Solution
I like to look at every field of knowledge like one might look at the deep lake.
It seems enigmatic and sinister. You want to cross it but you don’t know how.
It’s the same feeling most people get when they see monstrous grammar books. Helplessness, fear and doubt peek at you from every page of the book.
“How dare you think that you might ever learn all of this?!”, they seem to whisper.
And it’s true. Without any specific plan, learning grammar of a given language to a decent level might take ages.
The deep learning gives you this plan.
Here are some advantages of this kind of approach:
It concentrates your attention
Your attention is restless and gets bored easily. Like a small child or a merry drunk.
You need to learn to tame it.
And this is precisely what the deliberate practice does. It focuses your attention on one thing and one thing only. It is especially important because
“Attention constrains learning to relevant dimensions of the environment, while we learn what to attend to via trial and error.” – source
Concentrating your efforts on just one thing means one more thing – you save a lot of time.
Don’t want to wait till your butt overgrows with moss and you look like Keith Richards?
Then the deliberate practice might be right up your alley.
Can I Use It For Other Things Than Grammar?
You can use it for anything language and non-language related.
- Trying to improve your pronunciation? (more about it here)
Learn how to produce 2 tricky sounds from your target language. – Once you learn how to pronounce them in the isolation, try to pronounce them, say, 100 times in different words.
Start practising these words in full sentences until the muscle memory is created.
- Trying to improve your creativity?
Come up with 10-15 ideas (more about being creative here) for every problem you encounter. After 1-2 months you will start noticing an enormous shift in your way of thinking.
I know I did.
Even if you wouldn’t consider yourself a grammar-savvy person, the deliberate practice has the potential to significantly accelerate your learning.
It’s not very complicated but don’t let the apparent simplicity of this method fool you. It’s just one of the few techniques I have seen in my life which has worked every time and with every student.
Why not try it yourself?