Sentence Structure and Substitution Techniques in Language Learning

ordesa-02Most languages have a basic structure that can be recognized, learned and taken advantage of when learning to speak them. This structure is often diagrammed into grammatical components, such as nouns, verbs, subjects and predicates. However, at any level of language learning, you can take advantage of the most simple of sentence structures and develop practice material that can not only aid in fluency in speaking the language, but also in vocabulary acquisition.

Sentence structure

From the beginnings of language study, you will be presented with basic structures that prove useful in accumulating proficiency. The most common structures learned at first are the greetings. Using English as an example, a student may learn to say “Good morning”, “Good afternoon”, “Good evening” and “Good night“. The structure of these greetings is clear:

Good” + time of day word

Further structure is presented in “How are you?” “I am fine” exchanges. Leaving the question structure aside for the moment, “I am fine” gives us the basic structure of:

personal pronoun + be + adjective

Almost any sentence learned in the language class can be broken down into its basic structure. Once you recognize the structure of the new sentence, you are ready to practice with substitution.


Substitution is self-explanatory. It is the substitution of one part of a sentence structure with a similar type part to create a new sentence. You’ve seen this with the greetings. By simply changing the time of day in the “Good” + time of day word, you have four basic greetings, all based on the same structure.

In the case of the response to “How are you?”, again you will substitute the adjective for one that expresses how you are feeling at the moment:

I am fine.
I am sad.
I am happy.
I am tired.

Substitution also assists in verb conjugation. Instead of memorizing charts of conjugations, you simply learn to substitute the personal pronoun with its verb form and then complete the sentence:

He is fine.
They are sad.
She is happy.
We are tired.

In this way, you are not only sticking verb forms to the appropriate person but also practicing complete, useful sentences instead of simply memorizing, by rote, a chart of words. By putting meaning into the sentences you are contributing to better remembering both the vocabulary used and the verb conjugations needed.

Vocabulary study

You must be careful of the words you use in your substitution exercises. In a sentence such as “I drink milk”, personal pronoun + action verb + noun, you must be careful that the noun you use in substitution is actually something you can drink. It would be of no use to practice “I drink grass”, since “grass” is not appropriate for the action verb in this sentence. However, by substituting “drink” with “cut” you have a totally new sentence.

By carefully choosing the words that you will be using in substitution, you are also making cognitive connections with the language itself. You will begin to learn that “Good morning” is okay, while “Good 3 o’clock” just doesn’t make good sense, even though both “morning” and “3 o’clock” make reference to a time of day.

Finding material

You will find material for sentence patterns and structures and possible substitutions in many places. The first place may be your textbook. A lesson may begin by presenting a particular structure. It will then follow with different vocabulary that can be used in this structure.

The present continuous structure in English, for example: personal pronoun + auxiliary be + present participle may be presented with a sentence such as “I am singing“. A list of action verbs may be presented: dance, study, eat, drink. Your practice will be to substitute “singing” with the correct form of those verbs to make new sentences.

In the case of immersion, where you have moved to a country that speaks a language other than your own native tongue, ample substitutions exist in day-to-day life. Going to the market, for example, you may have the structure “I need…” or “I’d like….” which would be followed by whatever fruit or vegetable you are wanting to buy, along with the quantity. “I’d like 3 kilos of potatoes” can become “I’d like 5 kilos of apples” with the simple substitution of a number and a food item.


If you practice the new structures you encounter in your language study using the substitution method, you will discover that with one simple structure you can construct hundreds of different sentences. As you practice these sentences you should get a feeling for how they sound, what are the best words to use in the substitution, what is the correct conjugation of the verb in the sentence.

Before class or before going out with friends for a drink in your new language, imagine several of these sentences that will be useful and practice substituting. You may find yourself recognizing the structures that your friends or classmates and teacher use. It is not a secret key to learning your new language, but it is certainly an active way to put the language you are learning to use.


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