A reader who was getting a pretty good vocabulary base asked me how to start developing a base in German grammar, and I took the opportunity to write out a pretty complete reply. The principles should apply to any grammar you’re learning (and if you don’t see how, please post a comment or email me so I can make sure that I’m not missing something). Enjoy!
Tips, tutorials and resources to aid you on your path towards fluency.
Q: How do I learn abstract words like “to seem” and “to be”? A: Up until you have enough vocabulary to handle a monolingual dictionary, you’ll be reliant on context. My favorite source of words in context is the basic (old) version of Google Images plus Google Translate (I use the google toolbar to dump the Google images search results url directly into google translate). This will give me a bunch of pictures with translated captions underneath. Pick one that you like and turn it into a fill-in-the blank card. In Russian, my example for “seem” translates to “this house seems small“. I already know house and small and I remember enough about the meaning of the sentence that those two other words plus the associated picture from google images that the meaning stays pretty clear. Once that sentence makes sense to me then I can go in the other direction and have “to seem” on the front, and on the back my example sentence. In that card, I’m training myself to more-or-less remember in which context I’ve heard that word before.
Basically, you use pictures to provide concrete anchor points, and you build bridges between them with connecting words (He is a boy, He is mean, the dog wants a bone). Once you’re comfy with those words then you build bridges on top of your bridges (he is drowsy = he wants to sleep a little, etc). The structure gets bigger and bigger underneath, and eventually you can handle a monolingual dictionary and things get easier. It’s a fun process, once you get used to it.
Q: I speak German fluently, but I have a lot of ingrained mistakes. Can I fix them? A: Write, write, write. At your level, it’s how you figure out exactly where your ‘fossils’ are. Routinely write out a 5-minute journal in German and submit it to Lang-8.com. Get your correction and put it in Anki as a fill-in-the-blank-type card wherever you make a mistake. Get a daily Anki habit going.
The program will automatically focus on the more difficult stuff, because you’ll make more mistakes with it, and so you’ll see those cards more often, and it should pretty quickly replace your bad habits with good ones.
In the basic word list, I point out the importance of Googling your images in the target language, and being very careful when you don’t get the results you expect, since languages don’t translate one-to-one. I point out that German, for example, doesn’t have separate words for “Foot” and “Leg” - they’re all Fuß.
Several readers pointed out that German does, in fact, have a separate word for leg (das Bein). This is true, making my example, well, not true. It’s been fixed.
But! It does bring up an interesting point about regional dialects and the vagueness of words. Down here in Austria (and in Southern Germany), the word “Bein” does exist (and does mean leg), but Fuß can mean foot AND leg. So when someone says “Ich habe mir den Fuß gebrochen” (I broke my Fuß) - you actually have no idea where the break is. Regional dialects are a tricky thing, because you can speak a language just fine, move to a place, and not understand much of anything for a while.
Site news: A few cosmetic updates throughout the site. Many thanks to readers who have sent in bug reports and mistakes and stuff that looks weird on their browsers. Keep sending in those screenshots! Surely I’ll get this thing working eventually.