Searching for Patterns in Language

A rancorous argument continues to rage in the field of foreign language acquisition. What, you haven’t heard of the Great Grammar Debate? Traditionalists hold fast to their claim that grammar study must proceed acquisition of a new language. Other language educators maintain that grammar study should be delayed until the learner knows enough of the new language to apply grammar information. The Great Grammar Debate is a continuum, with methods and materials for foreign language study falling along a scale.

Because I adhere to the less grammar at the beginning contingent, when I began language study on Duolingo about four years ago, I made a vow to use only sparingly the “Tips and Notes” (grammar information) provided by Duolingo.

I wanted to challenge myself to work out the grammar of new languages in my own head.

As I began working with Spanish, then Portuguese, then French, I had no problem turning up my nose at grammar explanations. To be fair, years of classroom study in these three languages had already given me a hefty dose of traditional grammar in each of them. Then I decided to add Irish, Welsh and Romanian to my daily language study regimen. Instead of zipping through the Duolingo exercises in a few minutes, I found myself really having to concentrate and, heaven forbid, THINK!

No traditional grammar explanations for me! I was going to conduct my own mini-research in the new languages to discover grammatical patterns. After all, as much as new languages may seem random to us, all language is rule based. My job was to discover the rules.


Exercises with Irish prepositions were driving me crazy. You see, Irish prepositions contain not only the preposition itself but also the object of the preposition, all within the same word. For example, “in front of him” is expressed in Irish by the one word “roimhe.” I was faced with the double task of translating the prepositions, which seem to take on unexpected meanings in Irish, with the more mundane task of recognizing the person referred to. As I wrote down sentences containing prepositions and their English translations, a pattern began to emerge.

Tá fáilte romhainn. We are welcome.

Tá muinín ag an múnteoir asainn. The teacher has trust in us.

Conclusion: the -asainn refers to the first person singular (we or us)

Baineann tú díot do hata. You take your hat off.

Dlíodóir atá ionat. You are a lawyer.

Conclusion: the -t ending mark the second person singular (you).

Tá an ceapaire roimhe. The sandwich is in front of him.

Is as Éirinn di. She is from Ireland.

Instead of comparison, contrast revealed an -e ending for third person singular masculine (he) and an -i ending for third person singular feminine -i (she), which is supported by the Irish words for he, se, and she, si.

Finally, I am fairly confident that the ending for prepositions referring to third person plural (them) is -bh because Bainimid na madraí díobh translates as “We take the dogs from them.”

Unfortunately, I have yet to discover the pattern for prepositions referring to first person (I). But isn’t that the way natural language works? We have no guarantee that normal conversation will provide us with every single grammar possibility. I can be patient.

Are you still awake, reader? Not everyone is quite as fascinated with the way languages are constructed as I am. But for those of you who enjoy puzzles and codes, discovering grammatical patterns is a bit of fun and a great help in deciphering new languages.

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