the happy linguist

the two types of rules when learning a language

There are two sorts of rules that govern languages: “important rules” and “not-so-important rules” and knowing the difference can save you a lot of time and stress.

The reason I call the rules “important” and “not-so-important” is because when you’re learning a language, you should focus your attention on the important ones first.

When you start out learning a language, your aim is to be understood. A lot of people want to be able to speak the language perfectly, but being understood is a wonderful place to start. The “important rules” are those rules that help you to turn your English thoughts into a foreign language so that somebody who doesn’t speak English can understand what you want to say. The “not-so-important” rules also do this, but if you get them wrong, it won’t mean that you’re not understood. This might sound a little strange, so let me explain.

An example of an important rule in English is that if you want to talk about the past tense, you should add the letters “ed” to the end of a verb.

I watch TV – I watched TV

I walk to school – I walked to school

I listen to music – I listened to music

This rule affects only the verb in the sentence; none of the other words change at all. This may seem like a small rule, but if you get it wrong, it can make the sentence mean something else completely or it might not even make sense. If you say “I watch TV”, it doesn’t mean the same thing as “I watched TV”, so this rule is an important one for people studying English to learn.

Another rule in English is that if you put the word “will” in front of a verb, you get the future tense:

I watch TV – I will watch TV

I walk to school – I will walk to school

I listen to music – I will listen to music

Again, this rule only affects the verb, and nothing else in the sentence changes. If you get this rule wrong, it can again make the sentence mean something else.

So, those two are “important rules”, but what about the “not-so-important rules”? In English, you can put “a” in front of any noun to show there’s one of something:

There’s a horse.

There’s a tree.

There’s a shop.

However, there’s a rule that states if the noun starts with a vowel, you should put “an” in front of it instead of “a”.

There’s an apple.

There’s an ostrich.

There’s an umbrella.

I call this rule a “not-so-important rule” because, if you happen to get it rule wrong, it won’t change the meaning of the sentence at all, it’ll simply sound a little odd. But you’ll still know what the sentence means.

There’s a apple.

There’s a ostrich.

There’s a umbrella.

All three of those sentences might sound a little bit funny to a native speaker of English, but the meaning of the sentence is still perfectly clear. Hence, the “a/an” rule in English is not so important.

Of course, just because it’s not so important, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to get it right. If you get the “not-so-important rules” wrong, you will still be understood, but the person you’re talking to will know you’re not a native speaker. It’s always nice to get things completely right, whether you have to or not, because there is no greater feeling in the world than when one of the locals in a foreign town you’re visiting thinks you’re actually a local too!

A lot of language courses tend to start with the “not-so-important” rules, and this can tend to put people off right from the get-go. An example of this is in courses that are teaching a language that contains something called “Gender”.

Every noun in French, Spanish, German, Italian and Portuguese has something called a gender. That makes them either masculine or feminine (or neuter in German). This has nothing to do with sexual gender; it’s just a grammatical term. In many language courses, a huge emphasis is placed on getting the gender right, whereas in actual fact, rarely would a mistake in a noun’s gender make it hard for another person to know what you’re saying. I would say that, most of the time, the gender rules are “not-so-important rules”.

For example, in French, there are two words for “a”. “Une” is used in front of feminine nouns, and “un” is used in front of masculine nouns. The word for “a house” is “une maison” because “maison” is classed as a feminine noun. Often, students of French get so confused as to how or why something like a house can be given a gender, and then they worry about mixing up the gender, which makes them worry about speaking and puts them off practising their language. Yet, if for the rest of your life, you went around saying “un maison” instead of “une maison”, nobody who speaks French would ever not understand you. It might sound a tiny bit odd to their ears, but chances are, they wouldn’t even notice. It’s the same as somebody in English saying “a elephant” instead of “an elephant”. It might sound a little peculiar but it doesn’t change the meaning at all; nobody would think you were talking about a giraffe!

There’s no point in worrying about getting the “not-so-important” rules wrong when you start learning a language; it’s more important to try and get the “important rules” right. Another example of a “not-so-important rule” in many languages is the differences between the many words for “you”. Many languages have more than one way of saying “you” – a word for when you’re talking to a friend, a word for when you’re trying to be formal, and a word for when you’re talking to a group of people. If you got this wrong as a new learner of a foreign language, rarely would it cause you a problem. If you accidentally used the friendly form of “you” when you were talking to somebody you weren’t friends with, it wouldn’t cause an issue because they would know you weren’t a native speaker and so would make allowances. In fact, in most countries, the locals will be so impressed that you’re trying to speak their language at all that they will overlook all and every error you make!

In my 3 Minute Languages courses, I introduce the important rules and the not-so-important rules but I always say “Don’t lose sleep” when it comes to the not-so-important rules. If you panic too much about all the rules in a language, you’d never speak at all! It’s through making the errors that we learn to stop making them.

If you learn a language with 3 Minute Languages, you will quickly see that rules are not really such a big issue in any form. Most of the time, you simply learn a few words and you can put them together without doing anything to them. Only occasionally, do you have to fiddle with some things and alter others. I can tell you that in French, the word for “fantastic” is “fantastique”, and that’s it. You don’t have to think about anything else; if you want to say something is “fantastic”, then you now know that you just say “fantastique” and that will never change. You’ve learnt that. The issue arises when you want to put the word “fantastique” into a sentence.

Here are just a few sentences you can make with “fantastic”

La nourriture est fantastique.

The food is fantastic.

La nourriture était fantastique.

The food was fantastic.

La nourriture sera fantastique.

The food will be fantastic.

La nourriture sent fantastique.

The food smells fantastic.

La nourriture semble fantastique.

The food looks fantastic.

The word “fantastic” and the word “fantastique” don’t change in either language. In fact, neither do the words “the food” or “la nourriture”. The only bit that changes in all the sentences above is the word in the middle, and that word is called the “verb”. To make a sentence, you need a verb, and verbs are, for the most part, what the important rules in languages are for.

And actually, even the important rules can occasionally be considered not so important. The most important thing is that you have a go and try to be understood as early as you can in your language learning journey. If the person you’re speaking to doesn’t quite understand you (you’ll know this because they’ll look confused, or they’ll have a blank expression of they may just shrug their shoulders) then have another go. Keep having more go’s until you are understood. It’s perfectly normal to be misunderstood when you’re learning a new language. In fact, if anybody who has ever learnt a foreign language says that they haven’t been misunderstood, they are lying to you.

Sometimes, even the important rules can still make sense if you get them wrong. For example, if somebody meant to say “I spoke to Maria yesterday” but instead they said, “I speak to Maria yesterday”, the chances are, you would understand what they meant, or you would manage to work it out in the end.

So, as I always say, “Don’t lose sleep” and just enjoy learning a language. It should never be considered a chore or a pain to do; as soon as it stops being fun and enjoyable, stop and switch to a 3 Minute Languages course instead!!!