Following on from the last post on why grammar is useful, one thing that’s really helped me crack certain elements of Japanese (and subsequently Cantonese) sentence structure is a little something I like to call “Progressive Grammar”.
It’s an intimidating name for what’s fundamentally a very simple thing. Take a sentence (that you might want to SRS) and rip out all the adjectives, adverbs and other non-essential words and start with just that – that’s one Anki card.
As an English example, we might start with “That afternoon, the kind professor gave her a beautiful bouquet of flowers”; this can be stripped down to “The professor gave her a bouquet of flowers” without losing the fundamental meaning of the sentence. The adjectives and adverbs are peripheral, and whilst they make for more interesting writing, they’re not necessarily easy to digest for a learner.
What we want to do next is to add back in the sentence each word, one by one, and create a new SRS card based on each:
“The professor gave her a bouquet of flowers”
“The professor gave her a beautiful bouquet of flowers”
“The kind professor gave her a bouquet of flowers”
“That afternoon, the professor gave her a bouquet of flowers”
“That afternoon, the kind professor gave her a beautiful bouquet of flowers”
It’s good practice with SRS cards to try to make each card test you on only one piece of knowledge. By deconstructing sentences in this way, one can gain a much better appreciation of how sentences are typically formed, without being overwhelmed by having three or four comparatively new words/grammar points to contend with. It’s also great for quick repetition of words, which in turn makes leaning new vocabulary easier. Here’s a Cantonese example:
“lei5 bong1 ngo5” (you helped me)
“hai6 lei5 bong1 ngo5 ge3” (it was you who helped me)
“gam1jat6 lei5 bong1 ngo5″ (today you helped me)
“gam1jat6 hai6 lei5 bong1 ngo5 ge3” (today it was you who helped me)
“kam4jat6 hai6 lei5 bong1 ngo5 ge3” (yesterday it was you who helped me)
Notice you can also sentence hack, by substituting words that are grammatically equivalent (in the last example, a time-adverb). Because you’re practicing the same pattern over and over, the precise meaning can be absorbed quickly – and you don’t even need to trawl through verb tables, since all you’re learning is “this sentence type in L2 corresponds to this sentence type in L1″.
It’s really all just the same ruse that Heisig uses to teach you Chinese characters – break something complicated into its constituent parts, and work up from there – adding a single element at a time and doing so in a logical order. One logical step at a time is always the quickest way to learn anything. Promise.
P.S. As a side note, you can also apply a similar sort of thing to tricky musical passages – rather than trying to play an entire difficult phrase in one go, it can be helpful to play just the first note, then just the first two, then just the next three, and so on, until the phrase is under your fingers. Using some tricks for practising scales wouldn’t hurt either.
 Work on just one clause at a time too. It might be helpful to work with a cap of six words for the most basic version of a phrase.