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What I learned from cramming for a language exam

Firstly, I'd like to clarify that I am in no way condoning last minute exam preparations. But, I did learn something (about language learning) when I did this.

Three days before my French exam, I realized that I didn't really know my tenses and various other grammar rules as well as I had thought and so spent the next days studying hard. It actually wasn't even that hard, just about 1.5-2 hours per day. That isn't even drastic!

Now, I didn't perfect anything in those three days, but I learned a lot more than I thought was possible. I learned things that I didn't think I could learn, and had been avoiding. For example, I can now use the targeted tenses and grammar rules more or less correctly. I learned the exceptions to the rules, which is another thing I didn't think I could learn. In just three days, I improved a lot! I didn't jump a CEFR level, but I am a bit more comfortable with those tenses and am now less likely to doubt my writing, or to not even know what tense I am writing in (I've done it before). I even, accidentally, learnt another tense (and a bit).

Now these three days not only differed from my usual study time in terms of how long I studied, but how I studied. Normally I do some flash cards, some Duolingo, chat with someone online, watch a video, and read. Now that's all good, but it's even better to once in a while do what I did next. I targeted specific grammar and tenses that I had formerly believed I would learn through osmosis. I read about the rules, wrote down the rules, and I did exercises targeted specifically to learning those rules (just googled something like, passé composé practice quiz). Things that I had been half-a§§ed in learning for the past year, I learned in three days.

The reason I share this, is as a challenge to you. Take one day, not even a whole day because 2 hours should do, and see how much you can learn. The rules you always thought were too hard to memorize, or the grammar that makes no sense? Learn it! It's not as hard as you might think, especially if you focus on one target and don't stop until you aren't getting any of those practice quizzes wrong.

March 8, 2019



What an inspiring suggestion you shared with us, EmmaLou. I was always a bit of a crammer myself (SO long ago!) but I find that starting an 'exercise book' such as I had at school really helps me with verb endings and vocabulary. Thanks for your suggestion; have a lingot!

March 8, 2019


I do this every day! I want to push through beginner level into intermediate as much as possible, so I study for 6+ hours almost every day. Days I can't get that much in get at least an hour or so. I wouldn't suggest doing what I do for everyone, I'm only able to get into it because I was forced to study Spanish in high school, so it's easy for me so far.

March 8, 2019


"I targeted specific grammar and tenses that I had formerly believed I would learn through osmosis. "

That's how duolingo really let me down. I'd read their recommendations of not reading the tips and tricks unless one really needed to.... they believe that people will naturally pick up this just through the exercises here.

So as per their advice, I did not read it and hence I did not even know what I was missing out on.

It was not not till much later did I realise that I had no understanding of the Grammar at all and was just learning certain sentences here by rote with no understanding why they were being done the way they were and why words were changing on me.

By the time I realised I was missing a heap of very important Grammar stuff, I'd moved way from the original lessons which had been supposed to teach me that and then had to set up intentionally to learn what I needed to know with the Grammar. In my case it took me months to get a grip on. I wish not been lead to believe that the info would probably just filter through as per osmosis.

This whole thing had caused me to struggle in the duolingo lessons way more for 4-5mths (and hence slowed my progression here a lot) than I would have otherwise done had I learnt that Grammar and the rules with the lessons supposed to teach it.

Anyway, it really really helps to focus on the actual Grammar rules as one learns.

March 9, 2019


I didn't know that Duolingo recommended not reading the grammar. That's ridiculous! Thanks for sharing your story, and good luck with German!

March 9, 2019


Thanks very much for the suggestions, EmmaLou. I similarly need to study the rules about when to use which tenses (in Spanish), so I'll be taking your suggestions and finally really learning these.

March 8, 2019


Exactly. You can learn much more from focus than hoping bits will stick.

March 8, 2019


That's awesome, congrats!

Your story reminds me a bit of what happened with me. Not too long after starting here on Duo I got a grammar book, as I quite quickly realised I wasn't going to learn much of that here. Despite knowing I needed it, I left the book sitting on my bookshelf collecting dust for a good few months before I had a silly realisation.

I was consistently doing my Duo exercises every day, and was consistenly getting frustrated getting the same questions wrong every day, because I didn't know or understand the underlying grammar. It was after getting a question wrong and flipping out for the umpteenth time that I suddenly realised how stupid I would look to anyone watching.

Here I was, at my laptop, fuming because I had got the same question wrong for the fifteenth time in a row, all the while knowing that the answer was waiting for me on my bookshelf, but I just hadn't been bothered to study it. At that moment I realised I had two choices:

  1. Read the grammar book and learn what I had been consistently getting wrong; or

  2. Stop learning German.

Because it made no sense whatsoever to keep on with Duo and get angry (both at the German language as a whole as well as at myself), but be too lazy to actually learn what I was getting wrong.

So, I went to my grammar book, and I had a laser-like focus that I had seldom had before when diving into any textbook in the past. It was because I had a goal. I knew what I was looking for. I knew what I was trying to achieve. I didn't want to keep getting the same questions wrong over and over again!!!

And it was during this process that, in a wierd way, I fell in love with the German language—especially with its grammar.

Since then I've just dived headfirst into about as much German material as I can find, and I've really come leaps and bounds since then—but that will always be the turning point in my German language learning journey; when I took on the grammar head-on.

March 10, 2019


@AdamKean On the day I am reading your comment, you have a streak of 1111 days. Now that is something cool to look at. Have a lingot, will ya? :)

March 12, 2019


I had a similar experience yesterday, but opposite.

I used to follow a pimsleur course, but was increasingly frustrated because I couldn't 'see' the words and had to rely on my memory. In addition, the narrators were often unclear to me (in Italian, I often confuse 'b' and 'v' for example).

I realised that I had to start some additional learning, and came to Duo. It helps a lot to see the words spelt and used. I also found Memrise effective, especially the native speaker video clips.

After many months away from learning, I returned to Duo first. When I now go back to my pimsleur course, I have the exact same frustration as previously!

Although pimsleur is advertised as the best way to learn, and it is good, it does not teach spelling, and much of the grammar is not explained well, or sometimes at all.

I agree that you need to dig into other, more academic sources for certain aspects of any language that you do not pick up quickly.

March 10, 2019

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