How to Learn (German) Grammar with Anki

A reader who was getting a pretty good vocabulary base asked me how to start developing a base in German grammar, and I took the opportunity to write out a pretty complete reply.  The principles should apply to any grammar you’re learning (and if you don’t see how, please post a comment or email me so I can make sure that I’m not missing something).  Enjoy!

You need a collection of explicit grammar cards for each grammar rule.  These can be broken down into two categories:
Morphology cards (where one root word changes depending on its context, a.k.a. verb conjugations depend on the subject (I/you/we), adjective endings/articles depend on the case and gender of nouns, plurals (need to be learned individually, though there are some patterns), etc.
Syntax cards, which cover word order – where to put what in the sentence.  German has particularly difficult syntax issues like separable prefix verbs, and the tendency for verbs to fly to the end of the sentence.
You’ll want to get a decent grammar book that shows you all of these rules, tells you exceptions, etc.

Morphology cards:

You want to have at least one model for each and every basic morphology challenge in the language.  This will look like a lot of cards and you might be tempted to group a few together (For example, putting the 6 conjugations of “sein” on one card, or all the singular pronouns on another card).  Every time I do that, I regret it.  You save a lot of time in the long run keeping them all as separate as possible.  It makes each card very easy to remember, very separate in your brain, and as soon as you forget something, Anki will make sure you see it often again so that you remember it.
The basic idea is that you pick a model sentence, change some small aspect of it, and see how the other words respond.  Get yourself a small collection of nouns in each gender and use them in your examples.  Write out your cards, and make sure to double-check them on Lang-8 (or make your examples come from 100% proofread sources).  Let’s say our model sentence is: “Das Auto ist klein” [The car is small]
You can generate quite a bit out of this one:
1.  4 cards for der/die/das
(der/die/das) Auto ist klein.
(der/die/das) Stadt ist klein.
(der/die/das) Wagen ist klein.
(der/die/das) Bücher sind klein.
2. 10 cards for (sein).  We’ll switch the adjective to reich, just for fun.  You’re training conjugation here, but maybe more importantly, it will also help substantially for keeping the pronouns separate in your head. You won’t need to do all 10 like this for every verb (or even ever again; but doing it once is important.):
Ich ___ reich (sein)   [I am rich, you are rich, etc…]
Du ___ reich (sein)
er ___ reich (sein)*
sie (singular) ___ reich (sein)*
es ___ reich (sein)*
Sie (singular) ___ reich (sein)**
wir ___ reich (sein)
ihr ___ reich (sein)
sie (plural) ___ reich (sein)**
Sie (plural) ___ reich (sein)**
*Make notes on the back side of each card that er = sie(sing) = es
**Make notes on the back side of each card that Sie (sing) = sie (plural) = Sie (plural)
Your main goal here is to form 6 boxes in your head that fit the 6 parts of speech, and start to group pronouns with the same part of speech together (so every time you see Sie(sing), it jumps to the same box as the two plural sie forms, and every time you see sie(sing), it jumps to the same box as es and er).
3.  4 cards for adjective endings  in nominative case:  The pretty car/city/etc. is small.
das (schön) Auto ist klein
die (schön) Stadt ist klein
der (schön) Wagen ist klein
die (schön) Bücher sind klein
4.  A few more sets of cards for ein/eine/ein/– (plural card is just “Bücher sind klein”), kein/keine/kein/keine, dieser/diese/dieses/diese
That should give you a decently solid base in the nominative case after a few repetitions in Anki.  I’d wait a little while for that to settle, then head into the next cases:
Accusative model: Ich sehe den Mann  [I see the man/a man/no man/that man]
5.  16 cards for indefinite/definite articles.  After this case, you’ll probably get a sense that ein and kein share forms and diese/die share forms and you might be able to move down to just 8 of these sorts of cards for future cases :
Ich sehe (das Auto)
Ich sehe (die Stadt)
Ich sehe (der Wagen)
Ich sehe (die Bücher)
Ich sehe (ein Auto)
Ich sehe (eine Stadt)
Ich sehe (ein Wagen)
Ich sehe (Bücher)
Ich sehe (kein Auto)
Ich sehe (keine Stadt)
Ich sehe (kein Wagen)
Ich sehe (keine Bücher)
Ich sehe (dieses Auto)
Ich sehe (diese Stadt)
Ich sehe (dieser Wagen)
Ich sehe (diese Bücher)
6.  8 cards for adjective endings [I see the pretty car/city/car/books]
Ich sehe das (schön) Auto
Ich sehe die (schön) Stadt
Ich sehe den (schön) Wagen
Ich sehe die (schön) Bücher
Ich sehe ein (schön) Auto
Ich sehe eine (schön) Stadt
Ich sehe einen (schön) Wagen
Ich sehe keine (schön) Bücher  (switched to keine since there’s no plural ein)
7.  10 cards for pronoun transformations + 2 questions:  [Johannes sees me/you/him/her…]
Johannes sieht (ich)
Johannes sieht (du)
Johannes sieht (er)
Johannes sieht (sie (sing))
Johannes sieht (Sie (sing))*
Johannes sieht (es)
Johannes sieht (wir)
Johannes sieht (ihr)
Johannes sieht (sie (pl))*
Johannes sieht (Sie (pl))*
8.  You’ll want a few cards in each case to deal with question words:
Front of card: (Wer) ist er? ––> Back of card: Wer ist er?  [Who is he]
(Wer) seid ihr? ––> Wer seid ihr?  [Who are you?]
(Was) ist das? ––> Was ist das?  [What is that?]
(Wer) sieht Johannes?  ––> Wen sieht Johannes?  (Whom sees Johannes?) [Whom does Johannes see?]
(Was) sieht Johannes? ––> Was sieht Johannes?  (What sees Johannes?) [What does Johannes see?]
You’ll want Dative and Genitive versions of how “wer” and “was” change in different cases (or don’t change, for “was”)
*After these, you can start grouping the plural sie forms with the formal Sie singular in future cases if you want.
Dative Model: Ich gebe einem/dem Mann ein Brötchen.  (I give the man a bun/bread)
Same as above #5-8.  You’ll need to change up some of your nouns to they make sense in context.  (“Ich gebe der Stadt ein Brötchen” or “Ich gebe den Bücher ein Brötchen” is a pretty weird idea, maybe better to use “die Frau”, “das Mädchen” and “die Männer” or something)
The questions (#8) will dance around in terms of syntax a bit
(Wer) gibst du das Brötchen? ––> Wem gibst du das Brötchen?
These are the sort of thing you should try out on lang-8 and see if you get it right.  At this point, you should be using Lang-8 as a testing ground.  Just write individual sentences, change something, and see if you know how the rest of the sentence will respond.  If you don’t know, guess.  Lang-8 is mostly about making informed mistakes.  You’re looking for where your current sense of the language doesn’t quite work, so you can find out what does work.  Try this out to generate the Genitive questions (once you get there); make something up and see if it works or not.
One thing that’s important here, is that you should make sure each sentence you write makes sense  to you before you put it in.  If it doesn’t, change things around (like using Frau instead of Stadt, for example) until it makes sense.  You’re learning grammar, but you need to connect it to meaning.  If you absolutely can’t think of how a given example could logically work, then skip it for now and come back to it later.  For example, “(Was) gibst du das Brötchen?” doesn’t work.  If you want to force “Was” into dative case, you’ll eventually find that you can do it with prepositions, but it’s a subject you’ll hit later on and will form a new topic in grammar (zu + was = wozu, for example.  It’s a weird construction).  So skip that one for now.
Genitive Model: Ich habe das Buch des/eines Mannes (I have the book [of the man])
Same thing, just you’ll need an additional 4 cards to deal with the changing morphology of the noun, too:
9.  4 Genitive noun cards:
Ich habe das Buch des (Mann)
Ich habe das Buch der (Frau)
Ich habe das Buch des (Mädchen)
Ich habe das Buch der (Männer)
(For readers dealing with languages where the nouns do this all the time [aka most slavic languages], this is what most of your grammar cards will look like)
Give that a bit of time and get that decently memorized.  Now add a series of cards that go backwards:
10.  12 reverse cards (identify the case)
I’m putting the examples in 100% German.  You can stick to the English, but I like to keep English entirely out of my decks wherever possible.  I’ll generate questions like this one with google translate if i have to, then doublecheck them on lang-8)
Welcher Fall?  (Which case?) (I’m pretty sure, though I’d check this on lang-8)
der Werfall: nominative, der Wenfall (accusative), der Wemfall (dative), der Wesfall (genitive) z.B. or zum Beispiel: for example 
Two examples:
Front of card: Welcher Fall?: der Mann Back of card: der Werfall/Nominativ:  z.B.: “Der Mann ist groß”
Front of card: Welcher Fall?  “die Frau” Back of card:  der Werfall + der Wenfall.  z.B.: “Die Frau ist groß” “Ich sehe die Frau”
You’ll need 12 of these: 4 masculine, 2 feminine, 3 neuter and 3 plural  (because feminine is only die or der).  It’s your choice as to whether you also want 12 more for ein/kein for reinforcement.  The endings are the same.  If this was my very first foreign language and I was early in the process, I’d probably add them.  More reinforcement with slightly different variables helps your brain generalize, so that when you try to play with “dieser”, for example, you will be more likely to pick the right ending naturally.
Generating the examples may seem like a lot of work; keep in mind that this is where and how you actually learn the grammar.  The Anki cards are just a reminder of that learning process.  Even if all of these cards were pre-written and you could just download an appropriate grammar deck (and I’m not aware of such a thing), I’d strongly recommend writing your own – it turns the abstract, external idea of “German Grammar” into your grammar and your examples, and it’s potentially the most important step here. If my book becomes successful and I get the opportunity to write a German-specfic book, my goal is going to be to make all relevant information as accessible as possible, but stop slightly short of actually writing out each and every card; there needs to be enough interaction with the grammar to make these cards your own.  (I hope that makes sense; I’m going to have to expand on that topic quite a bit at some point soon)
You’ll need cards for verb conjugations as well.  I covered that briefly in a reader Q&A over here.
Prepositions tend to benefit from two or 3 types of cards, one shows the effect of that preposition on its neighbors, and one :
Wir fahren durch die Stadt.  (We drive through the city)
Card 1:   Front: Wir fahren durch (die Stadt) Back: Wir fahren durch die Stadt (Akkusativ)
Card 2:   Front: Wir fahren ____ die Stadt Back: Wir fahren durch die Stadt.
Card 3:  Front: durch Back: Wir fahren durch die Stadt (and maybe add Wiktionary definition, too)
Card type #3 is only for prepositions that have a pretty fixed definition.  Many prepositions have quite a few different meanings in different contexts, and for those, you’ll have enough card type 2’s to deal with that complication and can (and should) skip card type 3.  If a preposition has more than 2 significantly different meanings, I’d skip card type 3.
That should pretty much cover morphology.  Syntax is shorter, at least in terms of covering the basics:
The German syntax articles are not bad:
They cover the main issues you’ll run into, particularly that verbs are always in the second position in the sentence (and what it means for them to be in the second position: “Heute kommt Erik nach Hause”: Today comes Erik home, “Vor zwei Tagen kommt er nach Hause”: Two days ago comes he home), the time-manner-place order that German prefers (“Erik kommt heute mit der Bahn nach Hause”: Erik comes today on the train home), and the verb-last quirks of german (“Es gibt eine Umleitung, weil die die Straße reparieren wollen” There is a detour, because they the street to repair want)
You end up doing much same thing as you did with morphology: take some models, change a few things about them and see what happens.  You want a couple examples for each basic point of syntax.
Here are some models:
Erik kommt nach Hause.  (Erik comes/is coming home)
Erik kommt heute nach Hause. (Erik is coming today home)
Erik kommt heute mit der Bahn nach Hause. (Erik is coming today with the train home)
Heute kommt Erik nach Hause ( ‘heute’) (Today is coming Erik home)
Vor zwei Tagen kommt er nach Hause (Two days ago is coming Erik home)
Wie gesagt, Erik kommt heute nach Hause. (As was said, Erik is coming today home)
Der Hund beißt den Mann (The dog bites/is biting the man)
Den Mann beißt der Hund. (same meaning as previous, note use of accusative case)
Beißt der Hund den Mann?  (The dog bites/is biting the man)
Beißt den Mann der Hund? (same meaning as previous, note use of accusative case)
Erik kommt heute an. Erik arrives today.  (Erik comes today (arrival prefix))
Here’s what you can do with them:
Insert the word in the right spot: 
Front –––> Back
Erik, nach Hause (kommt) –> Erik kommt nach Hause.
Erik kommt nach Hause (heute) ––> Erik kommt heute nach Hause
Erik heute nach Hause (kommt) ––> Erik kommt heute nach Hause
Erik kommt heute. (nach Hause) ––> Erik kommt heute nach Hause Heute
Erik nach Hause (kommt) ––> Heute kommt Erik nach Hause (Betonung: heute)
Erik kommt heute nach Hause. (mit der Bahn) ––> Erik kommt heute mit der Bahn nach Hause.
Wie gesagt, Erik heute nach Hause. (kommt) ––> Wie gesagt, Erik kommt heute nach Hause.
Erik kommt heute nach Hause. (Wie gesagt,) ––> Wie gesagt, Erik kommt heute nach Hause.
Erik heute (ankommen) ––> Erik kommt heute an.
Transformations: Front –––> Back
Der Hund beißt den Mann (Ja/Nein Frage?) ––> Beißt der Hund den Mann?
Erik kommt heute an (Wann?) ––> Wann kommt Erik an?
Ich weiß nicht + Wann kommt Erik an ––> Ich weiß nicht, wann Erik ankommt.
There are two basic approaches to getting the grammar into your head – the systematic approach, where you go through each variable one by one and quiz yourself on the changes, using a very small group of models, and the shotgun approach, where you find examples of the grammar from all over the place and quiz yourself on those.  Use both.  Syntax will tend to use a lot of shotgun, because after a while, you’ve memorized “Erik kommt heute nach Hause” pretty well and your goal becomes trying to generalize that basic model to new contexts.
Remember to get a good grammar book and grab examples from it; it will make your job much much easier: it should give you a bunch of ready-made examples, it should give you a bunch of ready made questions that are basically already in flashcard format,  and it should have a sensible order with which you should learn each thing (learn nominative, genders and plurals before doing accusative, do accusative before dative, do 2-case prepositions after accusative and dative, etc.  Any decent grammar book will give you all of these things.  Use lang-8 when you want to test theories (what if there are 2 subjects? What if I combine “möchte” with a separable prefix verb like “ankommen”? etc. )

Enjoy what you're reading?
Sign up for more

Think In Any New Language