How to Learn Grammar

May 11, 2024
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Most of my students come to me because they studied grammar way beyond their level, and now they’re so anxious about making mistakes that they can’t speak.

Even many quite talented and experienced teachers tend to reinforce this counterproductive paradigm of “grammar first, understand later”, which bugs me to no end.

A better model is: learn the grammar you are ready for, when you’re ready for it.

Key Takeaways

Don’t bother studying grammar on a schedule.

When you have a specific question, find an answer.

Learn grammar in two rounds: first for your receptive skills (understanding), then for your productive skills (speaking and writing).

Answer Specific Questions

It’s best to only study grammar that you’re ready for. But how do you know what grammar you’re ready for?

You’ll ask a specific question.

A specific question is a question that demonstrates that you were able to notice a relevant feature of the language. An easy test would be to try to add the phrase “in Swahili”, because if you can do that, the question is definitely not specific.

Here are some overly general questions - note the easy addition of Swahili.

  • What are the cases (in Swahili)?
  • How do you make a question polite (in Swahili)?
  • When do you conjugate verbs (in Swahili)?

A specific question will be something like:

  • What’s up with this -aði that I keep seeing at the end of verbs? (can’t add “in Swahili” here)
  • “I keep hearing gætir þú when people ask me for things, but I thought the conjugation was getur þú. What gives?”
  • “Why does the vowel change in the plural of barn?”. 

Not a Swahili in sight.

When you have a specific question like that, seek out the answer

Maybe your Icelandic friend will be able to help you, but maybe not; natives tend not to be able to consciously explain their own grammar (you try explaining why tock-tick, flop-flip, and toppity tip sound weird).

You might find your answer on,, or the Icelandic for Foreigners Youtube channel. You can try googling it, and if all else fails you can ask the wonderful community of the Facebook group Practice and Learn Icelandic.

Or just email me. I’m very open to answering questions.

Learn Grammar in Two Rounds

Receptive skills - understanding what you read and hear - always come before productive skills - speaking and writing. You can understand words and phrases that you wouldn’t be capable of writing or saying yourself.

This naturally leads to a conundrum: your hyper-advanced receptive skills lead to complex grammatical questions that your slower productive skills aren’t ready for. What to do?

We should learn grammar in two rounds. First for our supercharged receptive skills, and then again later when our productive skills have caught up.

Round 1

This round is for your receptive skills: your comprehension of what you read and hear.

Remember: you start with a specific question. Find an answer, look at some tables and charts and explanations, and go “huh, yeah, that makes sense, now that I see it all together like that”. Then go off on your merry way and keep reading and listening to lots of Icelandic.

For the next few days you’ll be weirdly aware of whatever-it-was-you-learned, suddenly noticing it absolutely everywhere. Enjoy it, and the improved understanding of Icelandic that comes with it.

For some things, that might suffice. If you just want to hit on sexy Stefán from accounting, you can probably make do without ever doing the rigorous study of round 2. If you study at the university level in Icelandic, you’ll need to do round 2 with almost everything to write to academic standard.

Round 2 might be days, weeks, months, or even years after round 1, if it ever turns out to be necessary at all. So don’t fret about it.

Round 2

This round is for your productive skills: your speaking and writing.

You’ll know it’s time to go into round 2 when you notice that a specific issue is giving you trouble when speaking or writing, and you know that you would understand just fine if you read / heard it.

In this round, you want to take a second look at whatever tables and charts and explanations you used in round 1, but this time it’s time to practise.

This practice can take any number of forms. You can recite the forms you’re learning (“ég vil, þú vilt, hann vill, við viljum, þið viljið, þeir vilja”), or do drills on if that floats your boat.

My personal favourite way to practise, though, is by making sentences. “ég vil fara í sund, vilt þú nachos?, Cthulhu vill borða þig”, stuff like that. You can write it or just say it, whatever you prefer; it doesn’t make a huge difference. Just remember to keep the sentences simple - you’re not going for the Pulitzer, here.


Don’t fret about grammar too much.

Find answers to whatever (specific) questions you think of.

Learn grammar in two rounds: first for your receptive skills (understanding), then for your productive skills (speaking and writing).