How not to study grammar
As a language teacher with over a decade’s experience in Nagoya, Japan, English conversation schools, and in U.S. classrooms, I’ve seen this killer mistake over and over in students’ personal study strategies.
It’s this: memorizing grammatical rules, or rules of usage, as if you can reference them on the fly.
It’s not very useful. The problem is that when you’re speaking in a real conversation, you can’t reference grammatical rules on the fly.
Another problem is that it slows your acquisition of language skills through inefficient study. It costs you time you’ll never get back. Meanwhile, you could be much further ahead by adopting a different strategy, which I’ll show you in this post.
A better way
Take this usage rule in French as an example: When to use “quel” and when to use “qu’est-ce que”? They’re both equivalent to the English “what?” So, how do you know when to use quel and when to use qu’est-ce que?
It’s not so hard once you know what else to notice in the sentence. Quel is an adjective. What does an adjective describe? A noun. So that is what to look for. Look for the noun that quel is attached to.
Here’s an example in English: In the question, “What dress will you wear?” the noun is “dress.” So, in French, you’d use “quel”. Like this:
Quelle robe portez-vous? (What dress do you wear?)
Now compare that to a very different question: “What do you wear?” Do you see a noun associated with “What” in that sentence? Nope. So, you’d use “qu’est-ce que” in French.
Qu’est-ce que vous portez? (What will you wear?)
Now, that’s the rule: Use quel when the question has a noun associated with quel/qu’est-ce que, and use qu’est-ce que when the sentence doesn’t have a nouns associated with quel.qu’est-ce que.
A more effective and natural strategy
Now we get to the point of this post: How NOT to study this rule into your actual French practice and use, and how to efficiently adopt the rule in actual practice and use.
Step 1: Put the rule into an Anki flash card:
Side 1: When do you use quel in a question, and when do you use qu’est-ce que?
Side 2: Use quel when there’s a noun, and qu’est-ce que when there’s no noun. “Quel (NOUN) allez-vous porter? Qu’est-ce que vous faire aujourd’hui?
Step 2: Create 10 fill-in-blank Anki flash cards with quel and qu’est-ce que as the possible answers.
|____ chemisier est-ce que tu vas acheter?||Quel|
|____ est ta couleur préférée?||Quelle|
|____ est ton magasin de vêtements préféré?||Quel|
|____ jours de la semaine préfères-tu faire les magasins?||Quels|
|____ taille faites-vous?||Quelle|
|____ tu as acheté hier?||Qu’est-ce que|
|____ tu préfères porter, des chapeaux ou des casquettes?||Qu’est-ce que|
|____ tu vas manger ce soir?||Qu’est-ce que|
|____ vêtements est-ce que tu aimes?||Quels|
|____ vous aimez faire après?||Qu’est-ce que|
Step 3: Review the Anki flash card deck until you know the answers implicitly.
The new technology of Anki spaced repetition is incredible for memorization and internalization of grammatical rules. You wouldn’t believe how much more powerful it is than anything you’ve tried before, until you try it.
The reason this strategy is more effective than simply memorizing the rule? It’s the difference in memorizing a description of how to ride a bicycle versus actually riding a bicycle.
Frenchpod101.com also uses spaced repetition. It has a huge built-in, 2,000-word powerful flash card system for recognition (reading the word in French), understanding (only hearing the word in French), and production (seeing the word in English and producing it yourself in French.)
No room to go into in this post, but if you want the full lowdown on spaced repetition’s scientifically-validated power for rapid and permanent memorization, read this post on Japanese vocabulary acquisition.
However, note this: Frenchpod101.com’s flash card system is for vocabulary. It’s very powerful. However, it’s not for grammar practice. Anki is the system you should use for grammatical practice, because Anki is completely customizable. You can anything you want with Anki.
Step 4: From time to time, if you need to, review the flash card deck again.
Like any spaced repetition flash card system (there are really only two in the running, in my opinion — Anki’s and Frenchpod101.com’s), Anki will keep track of it all for you — based on your actual performance in using the flash card system. Frenchpod101.com does the same thing. Each system will automatically reschedule your reviews. You just open the deck and it will prompt you with the cards you need to review — based on your performance.
Do you want a copy of the quel/qu’est-ce que flash card deck in the table above, complete with French audio?
To get a copy of it, ask for it via the contact form on the right sidebar here or on the home page. I’ll email it to you. You’ll also need to download the free open-source classic Anki in order to use it.
Want to get fluent in French in 3 months or less?
You could try the traditional “Fluency in 3 Months” method, if you can a) move to France for three months and b) wear funny hats and talk to random people.
But if you’re like most of the rest of us, who can’t afford the time, money, or risk of dignity (some can carry it off, most of us prefer not to), then use my method instead. It’s for “introverts” and self-aware extraverts. It’s for anyone, really, who can’t live for months on end in a foreign country.
You can still become fluent, and perhaps faster than the over-simplistic methods of “just immerse yourself and study hard.”
- Join Frenchpod101.com
- Follow my recommendations on how to use it. (I’ll show you the exact path I use to make it super-efficient for you.)