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How To Use Sentence Structure To Learn A Foreign Language

Answering just a few questions about sentence structure can help you figure out a lot about your new language.
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How To Use Sentence Structure To Learn A Foreign Language

Learning sentence structure is not exactly the most fun part of language learning. Tackling vocab is pretty straightforward, because it’s just introducing new words. We still learn new words in our mother tongue every day! Learning a new sentence structure? That’s different. We were never even explicitly taught specific rules for sentence structure in our native tongue — we just kind of got it after a while. In a second language, this becomes a whole new challenge.

Sentence structure can sound boring, but it is at the heart of many common mistakes beginner language learners make. It is very easy to impose English grammar onto other languages. If you’ve never been exposed to languages that have fundamentally different word order, it can be a major blind spot in your learning. While you might be understood if you mess up word order, it will still hinder your communication. 

Before diving too deep into a new language, you’ll want to ask a few questions that’ll help you avoid confusion later on. Here’s a quick guide to what you should know when you start studying a new language.

What Order Are The Subject, Verb And Object Placed In?

As you may remember from early English classes, almost all sentences have at least three elements:

  1. The subject (doing the action)
  2. The verb (the action)
  3. The object (what the action is performed on)

As an example: He (subject) pet (verb) the dog (object). In English, the order of these elements is almost always the same. It will always be the subject, and then the verb, and then the object, so it’s called SVO. About 41 percent of languages use SVO, which might make them more straightforward for an English speaker to learn.

The most common sentence order is subject-object-verb, or SOV, which is used by around 47.5 percent of languages. This would be more or less like “He the dog pet.” This is used in languages like Korean and Turkish, as well as in most languages spoken in India. This is fortunately not that different from SVO, but it will still take some getting used to.

For every possible ordering of subject, verb and object, there is at least one language. The least popular orderings put the object first: OSV (“The dog he pet”) and OVS (“The dog pet he”). Unless you’re studying very small languages, like Warao, these would probably never come up for you. But noticing these overarching patterns will help you avoid frustration when the grammar of a sentence just doesn’t make sense.

How Strict Is The Word Order?

Some languages have a much more liberal word order than others. If you’ve taken a Latin class, for example, you’ll know that the words can pretty much appear in any order. Latin does tend to use SOV, but it also takes advantage of its complex suffixes.

The reason word order is useful is because it explicitly shows you what is doing the action, and what the action is being done to. In English, you can pretty much be assured that the first noun you run into is going to be the subject of the sentence. For a language to have a looser word order, it needs to show this a different way. Latin, as mentioned, uses suffixes to differentiate subjects and objects. Hungarian uses a -t at the end of nouns to mark a direct object, so this also allows for the order to change. Having a free word order isn’t very common, but worth looking into.

Does This Language Use Prepositions Or Postpositions?

You will probably notice that not every sentence is as simple as “He pet the dog.” Often, prepositions will come into play, like in the phrases “on the table,” “in a year” or “with a dog.” Prepositions are a whole, in-depth topic you’ll need to tackle with a new language, but here we’ll deal with one part of it. Some languages don’t use prepositions, but rather postpositions or circumpositions. These are all types of adpositions, which encompasses the whole category. English uses almost exclusively prepositions, but languages can also use some combination of the adpositions. Here’s a quick breakdown:

Prepositions

Where They Occur: Before the phrase they describe.
Some Languages That Use Them: English, Spanish, French and most other European languages use these almost exclusively.
Example: In English, “He went with me.”

Postpositions

Where They Occur: After the phrase they describe.
Some Languages That Use Them: Turkish, Latin, Chinese, Japanese and others.
Example: In Turkish, “Benimle gitti” literally translates to “Me-with he went,” which means “He went with me.”

Circumpositions

Where They Occur: Circumpositions have two parts, one before and one after the phrase they describe.
Some Languages That Use Them: Pashto and Kurdish are the main languages that use circumpositions almost exclusively, but they pop up in other languages from time to time.
Example: In Kurdish, “Ew bi min re çû” literally translates to “He with me went.” The circumpositional phrase “bi min re” appears before the verb, and both “bi” and “re” make up the circumposition “with.”

Where Do The Adjectives Appear?

Lastly, we can’t forget the lovely, fascinating, complex adjectives that make up language. In English, adjectives either come before the noun, or appear in sentences like “The dog is brown.” You would never say “the dog brown.” But, as you can probably guess based on every other section of this article, other languages are different.

Most of the time, Spanish has adjectives that appear after the noun, like in el perro negro (lit. “the dog black”). There are exceptions, however, like with the Spanish word for “good,” which can appear either before or after the adjective. French is even more complicated, with lots of exceptions to the adjective rules. Again, each language is different and has its own set of exceptions, but here are a few more examples to get you oriented:

  • English: “The dog is good” or “The good dog”
  • Spanish: El perro bueno (lit. “the dog good”) or ebuen perro (“the good dog”)
  • French: le bon chien  (“the good dog”) but le chien rouge (lit. “the dog red”). They can also come both before and after: le bon chien rouge (lit. “the beautiful dog red”)

This article would grow to an enormous length if we were to discuss the intricacies of every language. Being aware of the many ways in which other languages can differ from English is important in itself, though. Knowing that the language you’re learning is SOV instead SVO, or that there are separate rules for adjectives, will make your life a lot easier.

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