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Grammar. To many people, the word is almost synonymous with “boredom”. Does that make “grammar games” a contradiction? I'm going to say not. More on that in a moment.
True, the average grammar book is more useful as a cure for insomnia than it is as a tool for language learning.
And in school you probably spent more time buried in those books (and trying to stay awake) than you did actually using any of all that fancy grammar for its actual purpose: communication.
So, does grammar really matter?
Why Learn Grammar? Does it Really Matter in a Foreign Language?
My view is that speaking a language is much more important than good grammar, especially for beginners. That’s why I advocate Speaking from Day 1, even if you do sound like Tarzan.
Even so, it's obviously important to learn good grammar – especially once you’ve reached the intermediate and advanced levels of a foreign language.
But getting all those conjugations and declensions into your head doesn't have to be a yawn-inducing activity. Believe it or not, learning grammar can be fun! (No, really.)
When learning is fun, not only are we more likely to attempt it, but we're more likely to remember what what we've learned.
So how can we make grammar fun? The same way we make most things fun: we turn it into a game.
What are Grammar Games?
Say you're learning German, and you want to memorise the present tense conjugations of the verb sein (to be). The most obvious approach is rote memorisation – just repeat ich bin, du bist, es ist, wir sind, ihr seid, sie sind to yourself over and over again until they're burned permanently into your brain.
This is an approach that’s often taught in language classes. It can work, but it's extremely time-consuming and boring, especially when you have another 100 irregular verbs to learn in multiple tenses and moods.
A better but still imperfect approach is the classic learning method “look, cover, write, check”. Look at the correct verb forms, cover up the screen or piece and paper, try and write down all the forms from memory, then uncover the correct answers and see how well you did. Rinse, repeat.
In a way, you can think of this technique as a simple form of game: you play by writing down your target words (in this case the different forms of sein), and you win if you can remember them all with no mistakes. There's a reason this “game” is taught in schools everywhere: it works. But it's still rather boring. We can do better!
A “grammar game”, then, is essentially any technique for memorising or practising a particular aspect of grammar – be it verb conjugations, sentence structure, spelling and punctuation, or any other intimidating feature of your target language – that's at least slightly more fun than rote memorisation or “look, cover, write, check”. The category could include group games that you play in a classroom or with a language partner, grammar review games played online or on your phone, or even grammar practice games that you play in your head in spare moments.
In this article I'll give a brief overview of some easy grammar games that you can try.
Let’s get started… and don’t forget to have fun!
Grammar Games for Kids
When I worked as an English teacher, I always enjoyed getting the class involved in games (and as far as I could tell, the kids enjoyed it too). They were a fun way to keep everyone engaged while still learning something – and just because children enjoy them, that doesn't meant that adults can't also enjoy them.
Describing and Drawing a Person
Give everyone a piece of paper, and nominate one person to be the “describer”. It's their job to think of someone they know, or a famous person (it's more interesting if they pick someone who's in the room), then to describe that person's appearance.
At lower levels this helps practice simple adjectival phrases like “he is tall” or “she has red hair”, and the descriptions can get more advanced according to your ability. For example, more advanced learners could describe what someone is wearing or what their personality and mannerisms are like.
As the nominee gives more detail, everyone draws on their piece of paper what they think the person being described looks like. When they've been given enough detail, they can try and guess who they've drawn. The describer then reveals who they were thinking of, and everyone can show their drawings to the rest of the class to see how well they did. This last step often produces huge laughter, since most of the drawings will be hilarious caricatures of the real person.
Just in case you've never played this game before, it works as follows: you pick a celebrity or an object, and the the other players have to figure out who or what you are. To gain information, they ask you yes or no questions (usually a maximum of twenty, hence the name, but you can pick whatever arbitrary limit you like) to try and narrow down the possibilities: “Are you male? Are you American? Are you an actor? A singer?”, and so on.
A variant on this game was made famous by the film Inglourious Basterds where it’s played in a bar by Allied spies and an unwitting SS Officer (just watch the movie, it will make sense). In this version, everyone writes a celebrity's name on a piece of paper and passes it to the person on their left, who then sticks the paper to their own forehead so that everyone except them can see what it says. Now instead of the group asking questions to figure out who you are, you ask questions to the group to figure out how you are.
Whichever version you play, it's a good way to practice forming and answering questions. To expand the range of potential grammar practiced, you could permit questions that require a more in-depth answer than a simple “yes” or “no”.
You could also insist that the answer replies in full sentences each time – “Are you male?” “Yes, I'm male” – which also helps practice switching between different forms of the same verb.
Mister Wolf and other Classic Children's Games
Telling the time is something that varies slightly from language to language, and always takes some getting used to. For example, to a German “half four” (halb vier) means 3:30 (half before four) while to a British person it means 4:30 (half after four), and to an American it makes no sense at all – two o'clock, maybe?
What’s the time, Mister Wolf? is a classic game for young children that exposes them to the different ways of describing the time. One player is “Mister (or Miss) Wolf”, and stands at one end of the playing area with his or her back to the other children, who stand in a line at the far end of the area. The other children walk forward while calling out “What's the time, Mister Wolf?”. Mister Wolf then turns around and responds with a time (e.g. “it's 4 o'clock!”). This repeats, with Mister Wolf saying different times as the players get closer and closer, until on one round he replies to their question with “it's dinnertime!” and chases the players back to where they started. If Mister Wolf catches another player before they've reached the starting line, that player becomes Mister Wolf for the next round of the game.
This is just one classic game that children love and that has the side effect of teaching them a bit of grammar.
There are plenty of other children’s games you can use in this way. “Simon Says”, for example, is full of imperatives, while “I Spy” teaches you spelling.
Who knows how many other games there are that could be adapted for your target language!
What other games did you play as a child that you didn't realise were also teaching you something useful? Let me know in the comments!
Now we’ve covered grammar games for kids, let’s take a look at some grammar games for adults.
Grammar Games For Adults
Some of the above games might be too childish for your liking, but grammar doesn't have to become boring just because you’re an adult learner.
Here are some grammar games you could play as an adult:
Would You Rather?
This is a classic game that you've probably played before. One person poses an interesting and/or ridiculous choice between two options – would you rather fight 100 duck-sized horses or one horse-sized duck? Then each person in the group gives their own answer and a brief explanation of why they made that choice.
As well as prompting some thoughtful (and bizarre) discussion, these types of questions are a good way to practice some less commonly-used verb forms like the conditional, and can be adapted to any language.
If you run out of interesting ‘would you rather' questions to ask, you can visit either.io for an effectively infinite list of ideas.
Taboo is a classic parlour game where you have to help your teammates correctly guess the word written on your card without saying the word itself or any of the other words on the card.
For example your word might be be “car”, but you're not allowed to say “car”, “vehicle”, “drive”, “transport”, “road”, or “travel”.
Taboo is a great way to build vocabulary, not least because it represents exactly what you should do when you need to say something in a foreign language but don't know the word: stick within the target language and try to get your point across in other words, rather than immediately blurting it out in English and asking for a translation.
As well as vocabulary, Taboo will help your grammar, That’s because when the most obvious words aren't available to you, the only alternative is often a winding, roundabout sentence with a complicated structure. “It's the big metal thing you sit in and press the pedals with your feet to go fast from one place to another.”
Look at all that grammar!
Role Playing Grammar Games
At the end of the day, the point of learning all this grammar is so that you can use it in real life.
So why not get straight to the point, and play some role-playing games with a language partner that simulate a real-world encounter you're likely (or unlikely) to have?
Some common situations you might want to practice are: checking into a hotel, introducing yourself to new people, asking for directions, and ordering something over the telephone. You can surely think of many more examples based on your hobbies and interests and the daily experiences you're likely to have.
Since our focus here is on grammar, some other role-playing ideas you could use are:
- Fortune teller. One person is the fortune teller, and the other has come to get their fortune read. What does the fortune-teller see in their crystal ball? How does the other person feel about it? This is a good way of practicing the future tense.
- Alibi. The police suspect you of a crime, and they want to know if you have an alibi. Where were you on Friday night? Who were you with? What were you doing? The suspect won't be able to talk their way out of this situation unless they've got a good grasp on the different types of past tense.
- Late for work. One person is the boss, and the other is an employee who's just shown up late. What's their excuse? The boss should question the employee's story, pick holes in it, and try to figure out if they're lying. In the process, the boss practices asking different kinds of questions (why? how? when? who?), while the employee will practise answers and the past tense.
Whatever it is you want to practise, try and think of a “real” situation where it might get used, and see what role-playing ideas you can come up with.
Online Grammar Games
Go to Google or to the Android or Apple app stores, type in the name of your target language, and you'll probably find a zillion free grammar games (and lots of paid ones too).
For obvious reasons, each game tends to be focussed on just one specific language, and a detailed list of available games for every language are beyond the scope of this article, but two digital resources are worth mentioning:
Duolingo is one of the most popular language-learning apps out there today, and at the time of writing it offers free courses in over 20 different languages. There's already a detailed review of Duolingo on this site.
As well as being a fun and easy way to practise a language and build your vocabulary, Duolingo gradually introduces you over time to new grammatical concepts and provides detailed explanations of how to use them. Duolingo is no substitute for real face-to-face speaking practice, but it can make a nice supplement.
I'm a huge a proponent of using spaced repetition systems – more commonly known as “flashcards” – to learn languages, and the most popular digital SRS tool is undoubtedly Anki (for iOS, for Android, and for everyone else).
Anki lets you create totally customisable flashcards on whatever topic you like (not just languages!), and if you don't feel like creating you own there's an enormous directory of pre-made content on their website where you can download flashcards that other people have created.
The most basic way to use an SRS is to learn vocabulary; create flashcards with English words (or pictures) on one side and your target language's translation of those words on the other side.
But did you know that flashcards are also a fantastic way to learn grammar? Here’s a grammar game you can use on Anki:
Say you want to learn the present-tense conjugations of the Spanish verb “hablar” (to speak). Rather than trying to kill yourself with boredom by repeating hablo, hablas, habla etc. ad nauseam, it's much more interesting to come up with some sample sentences that demonstrate the different forms of the word (e.g. yo hablo español) and turn them into flashcards. On the “answer” side of the card, write the full sample sentence. On the “question” side, write something like yo ______ español – (hablar).
Now, when you review the card, your job is to figure out which form of “hablar” belongs in the blank space. Create a few sample sentences for each verb form (or whatever) that you want to learn, and you'll find that this is a much more efficient and enjoyable way of getting grammar into your head than beating yourself over the head with a verb table.
Go Forth And Play!
This list is by no means exhaustive, but by now I hope I've given you an idea of what grammar games are, how you can use them, and why they're helpful.
Whatever it is you want to practise, there are endless possibilities for how you can accelerate your learning by turning it into a game. Have fun!