understanding grammar

5 steps to understanding grammar


Since November 2017, I have been working towards the Neurolanguage Coaching™ qualification. It has been an amazing journey, full of discoveries, a-ha moments and, above all, brain friendly learning that has allowed me to make the so-much-coveted transition from language teacher to coach (or better, Neurolanguage coach™).

During the learning session led by our inspiring mentor Rachel Paling (who is the creator of the Neurolanguage coaching™ method), I had the opportunity to engage in fascinating discussions with the other Neurolanguage coaches in the making that made this course a real mastermind.

We discussed and questioned different approaches to language learning, became aware of how the brain works, practiced coaching strategies and, above all, learned how to allow our learners to communicate in a foreign language at the best of their ability without letting their fears o frustrations get in their way.

In one particular session, we discussed how some learners may resist the idea of learning grammar in their foreign language. They find it difficult and frustrating.

The truth is that they have had some negative learning experiences that led these learners to think that grammar is boring, difficult or frustrating. However, it doesn’t have to be like this.

Grammar can actually be interesting, easy and creative. Grammar allows you to manipulate the language and make it your own. Grammar is the most creative part of a language and understanding it can become an incredibly pleasurable and rewarding experience too.

Today, I’d like to share with you 5 easy and actionable steps to help you better understand the grammar of the language you love.


Step 1. Make friends with grammar in your native language

When you learn a new language as an adult, you need to have some grammar awareness. Some of my learners find it difficult to learn specific grammar structures in another language, because they are not really sure how grammar works in their native language.

First, can I just let you know you’re not alone, my friend. Many folks are in your same situation because they were never taught the grammar in school. Second, there is no need to worry, because you can easily fill this gap in your knowledge either either with your teacher’s help or even on your own (there are thousands of basic grammar guides online that you can consult for free!).

Here’s why you need to know grammar in your native language first: If you’re learning the present tense in Spanish, you need to know what the present tense is  in your own language and how it works. By knowing how a specific grammar structure is rendered in your native language you’ll be able to …


2. Compare it!

By comparing your native language grammar with your foreign language grammar, you’ll understand better how that language works. Ask yourself: what it is similar ? What is different? This will help your brain to make the right associations that will help you understand and retain what you’re studying (and the brain learns through associations!).

And if you’re now asking: “what if a specific grammar structure does not exist in my native tongue or it is rendered in a very different way? How can I compare it in order to understand it?”. 

This brings up to step 3 which is…


Step 3. Get the key words

As you know, I am Italian. As an English learner, one of the most difficult grammar point to grasp for me has been the use of present perfect. It drove me insane for a long time!

In fact, the English present perfect can be translated in Italian mainly in two ways depending on what you’re describing: sometimes you can translate it with the Italian present tense (presente semplice), sometimes you can translate with the Italian past tense (passato prossimo). So, you can imagine my confusion when trying to figure out when to use this tense!

One bright day at university, my English teacher gave us a great tip. He taught us the key words that trigger the Present Perfect. He explained that every time we would use words such as recently, just, since, we had to use present perfect. In other words, those were key words that triggered that tense. Needless to say, this was a life changing discovery for me.

From now on, when you are learning a new tense or a specific grammar structure in your foreign language, I want you to ask yourself this question: “Which key words trigger certain tenses or grammar structures in the language you’re learning?”. Memorise those words and phrases because they’re a life saver.

Another example from Spanish: “No creo que…” would trigger the present subjunctive. Can you find other examples?


Step 4. Study grammar in a context that is relevant to YOU!

The best way to learn grammar is putting it in context. But putting it in a context that is relevant to you makes learning it even more efficient.

This  story explains this point (again related to my dear friend Present Perfect!): when I was at school, they would show me the Present Perfect in context through sentences like: “John has recently been to Germany”. This sentence shows the Present Perfect in a context. But it doesn’t help much. Two reasons: 1. I don’t know who the heck  John is (and for some reasons everyone seemed to be called John in those old English grammar books) 2. I don’t care that has been to Germany! At all!

If I don’t care, it means my brain doesn’t care. Aka, my brain is going to forget that piece of information in no time. However, if I personalise that sentence, for example: “Carms has recently been to Milan and I couldn’t go with her!!”, I have just created a much more memorable example.

Here’s why: first, Carms is my sister and she has really been to Milan recently. Second, I was upset that I couldn’t go with her (because I am in the UK right now) which is kinda a big deal as (believe it or not!) I have never been to Milan before!  This is OUTRAGEOUS!!

Alright…drama aside, my point is this:  create personalised sentences that feature the grammar structure you’re studying in a context that is relevant to you ( bonus point: if you manage to attach emotions to what you’re describing it will make it even more memorable )


Step 5 – Make it colourful

I am a nerd. I love stationery. And I love it even more when it’s colourful and sparkling. If you’re a visual learner or, just like me, you love things that are pretty, use this trick to make grammar easier to learn.

Use colours to categorise words (nouns, adjectives, verbs…); tenses (past, present, future), formal, informal, slang or neutral vocabulary; regular and irregular verbs; words gender…you choose it!

You can use different coloured pens, highlighters, flashcards or whatever you feel most comfortable with. By doing so, you’ll create another powerful association in your mind, between the colour and the word, which will help you remember that grammar item.


Bonus step – Conjugation style!

I love this song  about conjugating verbs, and you? But maybe you don’t love conjugating verbs, especially irregular ones. Here’s a tip for you.

When I was learning French irregular verbs, I used to have a notebook where I used to collect all the irregular verbs I would come across. I would write the infinitive in my notebook and then I would conjugate the verb in all the tenses I knew.

I would make my own verb tables (like this one) and would take pleasure in adding more and more verbs in my notebook. I like filling in my notebook with all these verbs and the very fact that I liked doing this helped me memorise these verbs.

If you like writing, this tip is for you. And if you don’t like it and you’re more an auditory learner, you could look up the irregular verbs you cone across on Wordreference print them out and collect them in a binder. You could read the verb table out loud to memorise the conjugation, or you could create a song with all the version of that verb, or…you can do something completely different.  The most important thing is to allow your brain to create meaningful associations so you can retain effectively  the grammar structure you’re studying.

Now, you tell me : How do you learn grammar? Share your strategy in the comments below!

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