Idly keying out some Duolingo practice phrases this weekend, an interesting sentence popped up in Polish. Kiedy śpię, to nie mówię. When I sleep, I do not speak. Hmm, I thought. That looks like a good addition to my Polish sentence frames.
Sentence frames are short, recyclable chunks of language with repurposable slots you can swap items in and out of. The idea comes from primary literacy teaching, namely the writing frame. Early schoolers support their writing skills by memorising reusable chunks with customisable blanks.
To get started on your own, all you need is a beady eye to spot sentences you can strip down for potential reusable frames. Take my Polish sentence, for example. Removing the content stuff, we’re left with:
Kiedy X, to Y. When X, (then) Y.
At this point, it helps me to read the stripped-down sentence aloud, substituting X and Y for a meaningful mmmm…. Kiedy mmmm, to mmmm. It sounds daft, but it prepares the brain for step two.
Doing Your Lines
The next thing to do is go to town with it. Like Bart Simpson (semi-)dutifully doing his lines on the board, scribble out a whole bunch of sentences using the same pattern. Slot in whatever comes to mind to start cementing it into memory. When I go to town, I visit my friend. When I get home, I turn on the TV. And so on, and so on. Soon that pattern will be tripping off the tongue as easily as a native phrase.
The reason these sentence frames are so valuable is that they supply that native phrase structure, rather than unordered, abstract dictionary knowledge. Instead of fumbling to piece sentences together from scratch, you have something to hang words onto before you start speaking.
They’re also easy to mine in your day-to-day language contact. You can spot potential speaking frame fodder anywhere and everywhere. Duolingo throws plenty of short, snappy examples at you, for instance. But billboards, TV ads and social media posts are excellent sources too.
Short ‘n’ Simple(ish)
Just like writing frames, sentence frames work best when they are simple. Some might only have a single slot, but represent a really frequent but language-particular pattern, like the Gaelic:
‘S e X a th’ ann. It is an X.
Others can be equally short but a little more complex, fitting in a third slot, like the German:
Wenn ich X hätte, würde ich Y Z. If I had X, I would Z Y.
Note the word order there. By memorising that frame, you’re drilling that very particular verb-final order of German subordinate clauses, too. That’s a lot of useful material packed into a nice cosy space.
Wherever you find them, however you drill them, sentence frames are a great tool to have in your language learning toolbox. For sure, it’s a case when doing your lines can be very good for you.