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Minding Your Accents and Umlauts

  • Peter Groth Home School Enrichment
  • Published Apr 02, 2009
Minding Your Accents and Umlauts

“What in the world is a verb in the conditional perfect? Is that a verb that’s perfect under the right conditions?” I asked myself, staring at my French textbook and hoping the answer would come to me.

So, you’ve decided on a language to study and found a good language curriculum, but now find yourself vexed and perplexed by huge lists of vocabulary, and grammatical terms that seem to be exercises in philosophy rather than definitions! Have a seat, take a deep breath, and congratulate yourself, because you have now joined the ranks of language students all over the world who face periodic bewilderment in their quest for language mastery. Fear not! With the right approach to language study you can master every adjective and hanging participle you encounter.


One of the primary challenges involved in learning a foreign language is the memorization of vocabulary. To simply communicate at an elementary level requires the mastery of a significant number of words, and to speak fluently requires a breadth and depth of vocabulary that, to the beginning student, can often seem like an unattainable goal. Furthermore, the idea of rote memorization brings to mind dull hours filled with endless mantras of new words and phrases. Fortunately, there are many creative ways to study vocabulary that will not cause you to fall asleep from the droning of your own voice.

Flash It

Flash cards are a valuable tool for the study of any subject, and for the study of foreign languages, they are indispensable. To make flash cards, all you need are some standard index cards and a pen or pencil. If you want to make the cards a bit smaller, you can cut the index cards in half to make two. Take your cards and write the English word on one side, and then flip them over and write the word in the language you’re studying on the other side.

A great feature of flash cards is that you can arrange and study them in any way you like. When you get a large list of vocabulary and make the new words into flash cards, try studying with a small amount of them at first (five cards, for example); this will make the task much less overwhelming than simply diving into the entire stack of cards right away. Study your five words, and when you feel comfortable with them, put them aside and grab another five to study. When you’ve gone through all of your cards in small groups, put them together and try doing them straight through. Pick out the words that you had trouble with and set them aside to study more. When you think you have a better grasp of the words you had trouble with, throw them back in the pile again and go through them again.

Make sure that you study the cards both ways; starting with the English and flipping to the foreign word, and then starting with the foreign word and flipping to the English. This will help you translate the word either way.

Flash cards are also a valuable tool for review. From time to time, take out your piles of old flash cards and go through them to reinforce the words you have already learned and refresh yourself on the ones you may have forgotten. Once again, take out the cards with words that you have forgotten, and set them aside for more study.

Say It

Reciting vocabulary out loud can increase retention while also improving speaking ability. By saying a word aloud, the student is not simply memorizing words on a page, but forming them with the mouth and hearing them with the ears, giving the mind more cues with which to retrieve the word. This also helps improve pronunciation, because the repetition will accustom your mouth to forming words that may have unfamiliar sounds. I like to say the words on my flashcards as I’m studying them.

Another great way to help in the memorization of words is to place them in a sentence. For example, if I am studying the word “coche,” which means “car” in Spanish, I can say “El coche es rojo.” By putting the word into a proper context, you may have an easier time remembering it. If you don’t remember the word by itself, you may still remember the sentence, and will remember the word by reciting it.

Move It!

Our minds are not wired to only record information when we are sitting still at a desk, so enjoy your mental flexibility and work some calisthenics into your memorization! Moving around is a great way for students to stay alert while they are working on vocabulary, and for some students, it may help them memorize much more quickly. The movement can consist of walking around or more structured routines. Try making up a specific pattern of movements that the student does every time they try a new word.


Mention verb conjugation to students of foreign languages and you will often be met with looks of distress and quiet groans. Mastery of verbs is vital to the mastery of any language, but it is an area of language study that proves to be difficult for many students. In many languages, students are not only required to learn all the forms of verbs in the present tense, but also in the past tense, future tense, and several other forms called moods.

Verbs Revealed!

First of all, begin to demystify verbs by explaining or studying how they function in English. We conjugate verbs all of the time (I speak, you speak, he speaks, etc) in our own language. Beginning students often think that verb conjugations are the result of some sort of verbal alchemy, and explaining their function in English will help the mastery of them seem more possible. In many languages, including English, verbs fall into the categories of “regular” and “irregular.” Regular verbs follow particular patterns of conjugation that are replicated in other regular verbs. To conjugate a regular verb, the student needs only to start with the stem and add the proper ending. Once they learn the endings, they will be able to conjugate hundreds of verbs that follow the same pattern.

Regularly Irregular

“Irregular” verbs do not follow the patterns that regular verbs do, so they must be learned individually. A good example of an irregular verb in English is the verb “to be,” which is conjugated as “I am,” “you are,” “he is,” “she is,” and so on. Students of English learn “to be” on its own, because it does not follow preset patterns. Now, in spite of this, many of the irregular verbs in Romance languages (French, Spanish, etc) have patterns of irregularity! This means that many of the irregular verbs are irregular in similar ways, so that while they differ from regular verbs, they are still similar to the other verbs in their specific group. This fact allows irregular verbs to be studied in groups, even though they do not follow regular patterns.

Additional Practice

A useful tool for mastering verb conjugation is a verb workbook. These can be bought at large bookstores and through online sellers. A verb workbook focuses primarily on helping a student master verb conjugation through diagrams and exercises. I prefer verb workbooks that often require students to use conjugated verbs in context, thus increasing vocabulary and reading comprehension at the same time. Verb workbooks can be a valuable supplement to any foreign language curriculum and are often obtained at a very reasonable cost.


Along with verb conjugation and vocabulary, grammar is another integral part of language learning. If you are using a foreign language course designed for home study, it will most likely have at least brief explanations of each new grammatical concept that is introduced. If it’s a good language course, this explanation will often be enough to help your student comprehend the new concept. However, your student may occasionally be confused or need further explanation of something before continuing. There are several strategies that can be used in this situation.

Say It in English

First of all, try finding an equivalent example in English to provide clarification. As I mentioned, students who are wary of verb conjugation in a foreign language often understand it much better when they are presented with a comparative example from English. The same strategy can be used for other elements of grammar. For example, if you are studying pronouns, begin by discussing what pronouns are in English. This will help your student to better understand the language they are studying, as well as reinforce their knowledge of their native language. I was familiar with English grammar before I began to study foreign languages, but I gained a much deeper understanding of it through my language studies.

Further Explanation

Another strategy you can use is to find a dedicated grammar book for the language you are studying. A grammar book may have much more thorough explanations of grammatical concepts than a general foreign language course will have. There are many grammar books available for many different languages, and the most important thing to look for while choosing one is usability. Some grammar books contain exceedingly complex explanations, and since you are looking for illumination instead of frustration, you will want to find a book that addresses concepts in a way that you are comfortable with.


Instead of being reduced to dry, academic drudgery, foreign language study should be fun! Certainly, there is repetition and dedicated study involved in learning any language, but by adding some variety to study routines and embracing the colorful culture your chosen language belongs to, you can keep things fresh and interesting.

Play Games!

There are some board games that are designed for language study, but many more that can be easily adapted for the purpose. For example, take any board game that has players rolling dice, spinning a number wheel, or picking a number card to determine how far they move, and add a rule that they have to translate a flash card before moving. For example, if you’re learning French, you show them the side of a flash card that says “maison,” and they tell you that it means house. Or, you can show them the English side that says “house,” and they have to tell you what the word is in French. You can do the same thing with grammar. For example, before each player rolls, you can have him conjugate a verb through in all its forms. Incorporating games into your language study can provide variety and entertainment.

Watch Movies

Watching movies in a foreign language your students are studying is a great way to help them appreciate the vibrant culture and new world that is opening to them. Sometimes a student may start to feel that foreign language study is just a dry, academic exercise involving memorization of exotic syllables, but showing him a movie can give him an appreciation of how exciting living languages are. Additionally, even if your students only possess a basic level of comprehension, they will be training their ears by simply hearing the language spoken, even if they don’t understand what most of the words mean. When they do understand a word or two, you will likely hear them excitedly proclaiming the fact to everyone in the room! Your public library is an excellent place to find foreign films in a variety of world languages. Even if your library branch doesn’t carry many foreign films on-site, they can often order them from other libraries. You can also search online; however, before purchasing a foreign film, it is wise to carefully look at the rating and description of the film, or read a review online, to make sure it is appropriate.

Additionally, if you’re studying French or Spanish, you can often watch the DVDs you already own in those languages! Most DVDs now come with options for dubbing the dialogue in French or Spanish. To find out whether a DVD you’re watching has this option, you can simply go into the “options” section of the menu and see if there are other languages available. Sometimes the voices chosen for the dubbing don’t match up with the English voices, but this only adds to the entertainment! A student can also benefit from watching films they are very familiar with in a foreign language; since they already know the storyline and the dialogue, they will know the context of all the scenes and be able to catch more of the words and phrases.

Read Children’s Books

Reading children’s books in a foreign language is a great way to practice basic vocabulary and learn new words. Since they are geared towards children with developing vocabularies, these books are often accessible and understandable to foreign language students early in their studies. Often, the stories are fun and short, which keeps them from being overwhelming. If your student is studying a major world language, you might be able to find children’s books in that language at your local library. If your library does not have any on the shelves, ask a reference librarian if there are books available on inter-library loan. Many public library systems also have Internet sites that patrons can use to order books from other libraries. If you’re not sure whether your library has such a system, check with a librarian.

Putting the Pieces Together

I think there is truth in the idea that to learn a foreign language, one must first learn how to learn a foreign language. Many multilingual individuals remark that their first foreign language was the easiest to learn, which I think is a testament to this fact. Foreign language study requires the understanding of concepts, memorization, and the ability to synthesize knowledge into a whole. Just as there are many learning styles, there are also many methods available to learn. A student’s ability to understand their own learning style and find study methods that cater to their strengths will greatly increase their level of success in language study—and help them keep those accents and umlauts straight! 

Published on April 3, 2009

Peter Groth was homeschooled K-12 by his parents, and is the creator of Adventure Languages, which produces foreign language programs designed specifically for homeschoolers. You can check out Adventure Languages at, and read more of Peter's writings at

This article was originally published in the Mar/Apr 2009 issue of Home School Enrichment Magazine. Get more great homeschooling help by downloading our FREE 8-page report entitled “The Secret to Homeschooling Freedom” by visiting