How To Learn A Language That Has Really 'Hard' Grammar Easily

  • Donovan Nagel
    Written byDonovan Nagel
    Donovan NagelTeacher, translator, polyglot
    🎓 B.A., Theology, Australian College of Theology, NSW
    🎓 M.A., Applied Linguistics, University of New England, NSW

    Applied Linguistics graduate, teacher and translator. Founder of The Mezzofanti Guild and Talk In Arabic.
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How To Learn A Language That Has Really 'Hard' Grammar Easily

Happy Spring time, all 🙂

It’s been about 8 weeks now since I moved to Russia and started immersing myself in the Russian language.

Despite all the bad news coming out about the whole Russia/Ukraine thing, everything’s fine.

I was actually supposed to go to the Ukraine for my visa renewal this week but obviously that’s not going to happen now. 🙂

I’m now in Dubai again with my Russian host family for their holiday and after this I’ll probably have to spend some time in Estonia or Latvia for the visa renewal (Russia’s quite strict on visas so it’s a giant hassle!).

Time outside Russia is not ideal for me at all of course because I really don’t want any setbacks on my Russian progress, and being in another country is unfortunately time wasted in my opinion. I’m a little concerned that the current political climate might place delays on me getting my next visa so fingers crossed.

I have some unique language projects planned this year – some of which will work out a lot better if I’m conversationally fluent in Russian so the pressure is on to improve. 🙂

The good thing is I’ve got plenty of italki credits so it’ll give me a chance to use them all up with Skype lessons while I’m waiting.

Jump in and start to speak without getting bogged down in grammar study

When I first arrived in Russia I couldn’t really communicate in Russian at all.

As I wrote in my last post, I’ve been confronted by the need to speak Russian every single day since I arrived here. Even though I could barely communicate when I first got here, I was forced to learn as quickly as possible as pretty much nobody around me speaks any English.

Russian immersion

I’ve started making some really special friendships with people entirely through Russian which has also been a great motivator to pick up the pace.

Now… Russian’s one of these languages that has a reputation for having painfully tough grammar.

Ask any experienced learner of the language why people think it’s hard and you’ll no doubt hear about things like verbs of motion, aspects and cases. These things would indeed be very challenging to memorize if you were taking the traditional ‘study grammar first’ approach.

I however do not and my experience and research have proven time and time again that it’s a mistake to start out like this.

As I wrote a while back in my popular and controversial post called ‘You Don’t Need To Study Grammar To Learn To Speak A Foreign Language’, this is absolutely the worst way to tackle any living language.

It’s unnatural, robotic and a real motivation killer for most people.

The problem with most language instruction is the idea that in order to become a fluent speaker of a language, one has to memorise all the rules and exceptions of its grammar first.

We learn languages backwards.

Speaking and using the language takes a back seat until you feel ‘ready’ (which for a lot of people never ends up happening).

It’s then no surprise that many of us studied grammar for years and still can’t speak the language properly or at all.

Learning a language by studying grammar first is like trying to learn how to ride a bike by analysing the mechanics of the cogs, pedals and chain instead of just hopping on the bike and falling off dozens of times until you can ride.

Eventually you’re going to have to fall off the bike anyway so you might as well start early and fail often because it’s the only way you’re going to improve as a speaker.

Being a social risk-taker then is key.

Listen, repeat and use whole phrases and expressions even if you have no clue how they work grammatically.

Use them hundreds – even thousands – of times until they become natural to you.

Take a simple sentence in Russian for example: Ты читaла эту книгу? Did you read this book?

In this tiny sentence there are loads of different grammar points that you could spend weeks or even months trying to learn through traditional study and memorization.

Just for this sentence alone, you’d be studying personal pronouns, verb tenses, gender, demonstratives, number, and cases as well as the vocabulary.

It’s a small but heavily loaded sentence and for most people the grammar study would be an instant motivation killer.

But suppose you just acquire and practise the whole sentence as it is, using it over and over and over again until it becomes habit and sticks.

The key word here is HABIT.

Make that sentence a HABIT that rolls off your tongue automatically.

You might think that by doing so you’ve only learned one sentence and a few words.

You’d be wrong.

By turning that one sentence into an acquired HABIT, you’ve learned an infinite number of sentences of the same structure and as your vocabulary grows you’ll start to naturally and automatically produce new sentences using the same structure without ever thinking about it.

Read what I wrote here and here if you haven’t already where I explained how the Lexical Approach works in more detail.

Rely on natural dialogues

It’s crucial to have good, natural dialogue material.

I’m finding the Assimil book series extremely useful but any good book with quality audio will work.

Another great resource that I’ve recently had the chance to try out is Glossika Spaced Repetition Training. I can only vouch for the Russian version at this stage but I’m truly impressed by what I’ve seen and it’s an excellent resource that I’ve found very useful over the last few weeks.

I’ll share more about my thoughts on this product soon.

Just make sure the sentences you use are spoken at natural speed and don’t use archaic, outdated expressions or overt politeness that you wouldn’t often hear in the real world.

Listen to dialogues in the same way you’d put your favourite song on repeat (again, the Glossika audio files are great for this). Go over it constantly, speak it and find every opportunity to use it.

Even if you only know one conjugated form of a verb or one noun form, use it as often as possible even if you know you’re using it incorrectly.

Some people will crucify me for saying this but…

Intentionally use wrong forms of nouns and verbs.

Deliberately making mistakes is better than not speaking at all.

When we don’t know how to say something correctly, a lot of the time our first instinct is to shy away from using it altogether until we’ve ‘studied it enough’.

My advice is to not be afraid to use the wrong forms of words or to say things incorrectly from the get-go.

If a learner of English said to me, “I to go the shop at tomorrow”, it would make perfect sense to me as a native speaker. Even though it’s grammatically very wrong I understand it and I can then correct the person.

I’ve been doing the same with Russian since I arrived.

There are a lot of Russian verbs for example at the moment that I only know one form of. Saying sentences like, “I to eat now” or “I to call you tomorrow” are grammatically incorrect but speaking like this is far better than shying away from speaking at all and it also means that I’m constantly learning from the corrections of my native speaker friends.

You’ll be amazed at how quickly you improve by not being afraid to make mistakes openly like this.

The feedback I get from native speakers when I do this helps me far more than trying to memorize lists and tables in a book ever would.

You’re also giving yourself a chance to get used to producing the language early on. If you wait until you’re ready to speak (which could take forever), you’re missing out on all that time to get used to producing the sounds of the language.

There’s really no difference between a language with ‘easy’ grammar and a language with ‘hard’ grammar

The reason why I titled this post How To Learn A Language That Has Really ‘Hard’ Grammar Easily is because by taking this approach, the difficulty level of a language’s grammar becomes irrelevant to you.

I’m learning Russian the same way I learned Korean for example which has a much simpler grammar in comparison.

Get to work on acquiring whole lexical chunks, listen to and repeat them constantly, and of course find every opportunity to use them.

Turn real language that you read and listen to into habit and save the grammar study for later on.

This was written by Donovan Nagel.

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Donovan Nagel
Donovan Nagel - B. Th, MA AppLing
I'm an Applied Linguistics graduate, teacher and translator with a passion for language learning (especially Arabic).
Currently learning: Greek


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I like your approach of listening and repeating, learning a language like you would a song. I’m wondering how reading fits into this method. I’m struggling with Japanese kanji now. I have a book (the Kodansha Kanji Learning Course) that teaches kanji in a specific order from simple to complex. This is helpful, but it’s not audio content. The book has vocabulary words that the kanji are used in, but I haven’t heard those words before. I’m hesitant to learn words from reading that I haven’t heard in a natively spoken dialogue because I don’t want to internalize “bad” pronunciation.

Is it best to learn a language aurally before learning the script? How would you go about learning a really complicated script like the kanji?



love the approach and it definately works, but I think going into this method with at least basic grammer is best. Im learning spanish and the male / female aspect of the language is important. Also someone mentioned above about being able to transform words (I speak Hablo, you speak Habla)
this is a valid point. Netherless, speaking is what its all about for communication and learning sentances and forming your own from them is a very quick way to speaking the language.....I just prefer to do it with a heads up (at least) on the grammer side.

Roger Kovaciny

Roger Kovaciny

As someone who regularly teaches one (of several) foreign languages while speaking one of two OTHER foreign languages, I’m glad someone else has figured some of this out. English for example has 200 irregular verbs, but I tell Ukrainians and Russians that at first they should change them as though they were all regular, because that’s what our children do. They say “I ranned to the store and I buyed a candy bar and Sally eated half of it!” We understand little kids, and later on they can learn the correct forms. Likewise, I’ve told Americans that their bad grammar doesn’t matter because they naturally have to speak slowly so people figure out what they mean from the word order. If I ever get around to writing beginners’ textbooks for English and Ukrainian, the titles will be “How to speak English badly” and “How to speak Ukrainian badly.”



Hi Donovan ;-) love your website! Can you date your blog posts?
Eg I note you mention the ‘situation’ with Ukraine. Thats a salient point to include but we have no idea of the time for context
As you probably know, you can contine your russian learning with no interruption in nearby countries with a large russian population - many of whom learn english but refuse to learn the native language, eg Latvia ;-)



I agree wholeheartedly with you Donavan, and I think you should talk more about that approach, some initial grammar insight is good, that’s obvious, all that discussion stating that is missing the point, no one is forbidding you to take a look at your grammar book to see how the imperative works and things like that, but regardless of the use or not of specific grammar resources you will learn it anyway, and then quickly those resources will worn off, the details are just too numerous and too volatile to be described precisely and you won’t probably find anything describing them.

A average native knows like 1000000 guidelines, little relationships between words, set phrases, word related feelings and nuances (that do change how the rules work in real life) and they’re all attached to specif situations that trigger them. Do you really think you’ll be able do read a full explanation and do a full page exercise about every-single-one-of-them? Well that’s what many English students think they should go about learning things, that’s why they need to be explicitly taught everything, and that’s why they suck.

Regardless of what you think it’s best for you, 90% of everything you say will come from insight, information that nobody taught you, so it’s better to develop that skill now than later. you could also try to glue that words with the rules but you’ll end up like a Japanese guy who says ‘this book is my belonging, I will give it to you tomorrow’- correct grammar but odd sentence.

Darren X

Darren X

If you memorize the phrase “Did you read this book?”, you’ll be able to ask someone “Did you read this book”....and that’s all.

Rather than learning that phrase “hundreds, or even thousands of times”, you could spend some of that time learning GRAMMAR, and then you’ll be able to start from that single chunk and magically transform it to **CORRECTLY** say things like:
”You did read this book” (to emphasize it).
”I read this book”.
”Did HE read this book?”
”Did HE read THAT book?”
”Didn’t you read this book?”
”Will you read this book?”
”Are you reading this book?”
”Would you read this book?”
”Should I read this book?”
”Could I read this book?”
”Would you have read this book if you had had time?”
”Did you need to read that book?”
”Did you like reading that book?”

And you don’t need to have ever heard any those phrases in the target language before even once, let alone the recommended “thousands of times” each.

Making glaring, beginner-level grammatical mistakes sounds cute when kids do it. It doesn’t sound so cute when adults do it. Granted, people will make allowances for language learners in social settings, but a “serious” language learner doesn’t want to go through life saying “I to go to the shop at tomorrow” without so much as having heard of the grammatical rules that make this sentence wrong.

The Man

The Man

This is hogwash: only people with the opportunity to full immerse themselves can learn all the necessary phrases parrot fashion to achieve fluency. Some people actually enjoy grammatical complexity and find that the level of grammatical complexity in a language quite logically alters the way it is used, i.e. more complex languages show meaning through inflection rather than prepositions, and more someone with a full understanding of grammar this is far more comprehensible. Know the grammar and you know how to say an almost unlimited number of things, vocabulary permitting of course, but do what you advocate and you can only say each of the things someone as told you to say.
Schools in the UK follow this blind phrasebook style approach, and people studying A levels in languages can barely string sentences together.

Darren X

Darren X

I’m inclined to agree with you. I don’t understand the advantage of exposing yourself to the necessary *thousands* of examples, so that your brain will somehow magically reverse engineering the underlying grammar of the language from first principles....when there are perfectly good grammar guides that will *explain* it to you in five minutes. You’re an adult, you already have a language and therefore can understand explanations. Why not take advantage of this fact?

Sure, you’re still going to need lots of input and lots of practice speaking in order to internalize the rules so that they are effortless in conversation, but it’s a lot easier to internalize the rules if you’ve at least heard of them. Nobody ever played Rachmaninoff without playing a lot of scales first.

Henrick Waters

Henrick Waters

Hi Donovan Nagel

Thanks a lot for this blog. I really liked all the honest-sharing of your experiences and for not sticking to the over optimistic side about learning a language, because it has it’s difficulties. I loved the metaphor you used for learning a language like learning to ride a bike. You just have to go on the bike and not even pay attention to the mechanism of it. Or also the “social risk-taker” part. I just finished my trimester of school and last night I met someone from Russia doing a language exchange here in California. He’s being hosted by my neighbors and I ended up meeting him at a friend’s party. He was impressing all of us with his long trip and it totally fits your metaphor of “social risk-taker.” He was telling us he met the family through a site for language exchanges called Swapasap. Anybody heard of it, can tell me another experience they might have doing their language exchange with it? Did you find your host family through this site Donovan? Any insight will help! Thanks and wish you luck for your visa situation!



well.. i think it is an interesting approach to learning russian, and i can learn something from this, because i shy away from speaking grammatically incorrect, despite that this probably hinders my speaking capabilities..however, i learned russian verbs of motion, pretty much from just repetition of exercises and memorizing prefixes. it took a couple of weeks but now i am more comfortable (despite not being very advanced or correct all the time). i am not a polyglot or an expert language learner either, so i don’t think this traditional route is as difficult as one might think.



I’m a tad disheartened to hear this; I love grammar practice! XD But whatever works, right? Guess I’m off to misuse verb tenses! (My ninth grade Spanish teacher would shoot me in the foot for writing that sentence)



Hi Donovan!
I recently started learning Arabic.
I can read and write Arabic letters and pronounce them decently. I took the advice of focusing on the pronunciation in the beginning. Also, I am taking that advice that you and Benny gave and intend to learn the Saudi dialect. Now, although it seems unlikely to visit Saudi Arabia anytime soon, I’ve been able to talk to few Saudis for some time now and i am enjoying getting to know more about the Middle East and what not. As of now, I have few books like Ultimate Arabic from Living language, Colloquial Arabic of the Gulf and Saudi Arabia, Teach Yourself Complete Spoken Arabic of the Gulf. With this “chunking” or lexical approach, are you recommending me that I solely focus on the dialogues from those books and get out there and use it with the native speakers as much as possible? Is that all there is to it? Or am I missing something?



Natalie—I have only anecdotal evidence, but when I went to Tallinn, I heard Russian spoken as much as Estonian, if not more, in many parts of the city. There may be some social stigma attached to it, but basically everybody there speaks and understands it, so if Russian is the language you can communicate with people in (and many of the Russian speakers there don’t speak English or German very well), I say use it!

As for grammar vs. no grammar, I have to insist as always that telling someone to stay away from grammar until they’re fluent is no better than telling someone they have to learn the whole grammar before they can become fluent. Neither is true.

Some people (like me) can learn to speak a language quite usably just by systematically learning how the grammar works—I did it with Irish, and it worked fine. Others find that a systematic study of grammatical systems bogs them down and confuses and hinders them.

Whatever type you are, though, you CANNOT learn to speak a language without also learning the grammar. It is simply impossible. The only difference is in HOW you learn the grammar. When you say that using a simple sentence as a key to hundreds of other similar sentences, THAT IS GRAMMAR. That is recognising that all utterances in any language are built up from building blocks that form patterns and systems—and that is the definition of what grammar is. So when you’re telling someone they should reuse familiar patterns and make them more familiar, you’re essentially telling them to study grammar, only in a different way than how many childhood teachers have made us think ‘learning grammar’ works.



Interesting perspective. I may have to write a post semi-disagreeing with this. :)

I’m glad to hear Russian is going well for you. Rumor has it that Estonia is extremely anti-Russian so I’ll caution you against speaking Russian there! :)



Hi Donovan, I re-read those articles you linked on grammar study and the lexical approach. Do you really wait until fluency before looking at grammar? I sometimes feel obliged to look at grammar at the intermediate stage but I’d prefer not to :) I like your approach. Are you advocating listening and repeating as a core language learning strategy? I think I respond well to this approach so I’m actually in favour. Would love to hear your thoughts, Fintan.



I love your comment Donovan about using the incorrect verb tense if it’s the only one you know. I’m sure you’ll get some people screaming about that!

I’ve said something similar before and many people cannot understand or accept that type of language learning. Yet, I agree, it’s the best way to move forward. Don’t get hung up on being perfect, just start talking.



I have just moved to France with no prior knowledge of the french language, this has been the most helpful and encouraging thing I have read since arriving!

Judith Nagel

Judith Nagel

I am a language teacher and although normally taking the traditional approach this makes a lot of sense!

"The limits of my language mean the limits of my world."
- Ludwig Wittgenstein
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