Five Ways to Learn Adjectives

Adjectives modify a sentence’s meaning, sometimes significantly. Take the sentence “My husband put a sock in the dishwasher,” for example.

If you say, “My funny husband put a sock in the dishwasher,” the meaning changes a little. If you say, “My estranged husband put a sock in the dishwasher,” the meaning changes a lot.

Here are five tips for learning adjectives.

1. Keep it simple at first.

Many languages have tricky rules for adjective usage. German is notorious for its complicated adjective endings, but even relatively straightforward Spanish adjectives can be difficult for people not used to the idea of masculine and feminine words.

In all of the languages I’ve studied, though, the following sentence construction is the easiest to pick up: [Noun] is [adjective]. Examples: John is tall. The building is crowded. New York is fun. The leaves are green. She is small.

Across most languages, the form of the adjective in this sentence construction is close to being the “default” form–kind of like the infinitive is for verbs. The form might vary a little bit from one sentence to the next, but it will usually have fewer conditions or modifications than in phrases such as “the crowded building” or “the green leaves.”

(By the way, some languages, such as Arabic and Tagalog, don’t have a “to be” verb per se and will omit the “to be” verb, but they have sentences that express the same idea.)

The important thing is, before you get too wrapped up trying to learn adjectives in all their forms, learn them in the most basic way possible. Knowing the word in its simplest form will reduce your cognitive load down the road when you are trying to learn it in all its forms.

2. Make it real.

Adjectives have a lot of oomph to them. They’re often used to praise (“You’re a good dog”) and to criticize (“Bad dog!”).

And since adjectives are, by their nature, used to describe people and things, I’d go so far as to say they are judgment words. When you utter an adjective, you are passing along your assessment of something, whether you realize it or not:

  • “I was talking with an old woman.”
  • “The sky is gray.”
  • “Which guy were you talking to earlier?” “You know…the fat one from corporate.”

So describe the things that are most important to you: Yourself, your family, your pets, your home, your work. When you take an adjective, a word loaded with meaning, and use it to describe something that is important to you, you’re creating language that means something to you. And I firmly believe that this emotional connection to the language will help you learn the words better.

3. “I am not _____. I am _____.”

I’m using this drill to learn Tagalog adjectives, and it’s been pretty effective. I’ll say something I’m not, and then counter it with something I am. For example:

Hindi ako mayaman. Mahirap ako. (I am not rich. I am poor.)


Hindi ako Pilipino. Amerikano ako. (I am not Filipino. I am American.)

This combines points 1 and 2 nicely. Also, I personally like learning adjectives and their antonyms. That seems to help my brain give the words some linguistic context.

4. “This is [noun]. It is [adjective].”

This is another drill I’ve used in the past. I’ll point to something and say what it is, and then give it a one-word description. For example, in Spanish, you could say:

Esto es un televisor. Es viejo. (This is a television. It is old.)

Este es un perro. Es flaco. (This is a dog. It is skinny.)

This is a great beginner’s drill because you’ll know whether you know the noun and also whether you’re able to say something about it.

5.  Learn a few a day.

Some courses or textbooks will bombard you with a whole bunch of adjectives at once. That’s fine, but I don’t think you should put pressure on yourself to memorize giant lists of adjectives.

Like I said, adjectives are powerful words. But if you see them in a list with little to no context, you’re not taking advantage of that power. There’s nothing wrong with the lists in and of themselves, and I think the Backwards Method could be used with adjectives just as with any other word.

But limit your load by learning maybe 5 to 10 a day–at the most. Learn a few, give them time to sink in, and repeat.

Wrapping Up

Any specific techniques that you guys use to learn adjectives? Let me know in the comments!

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