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I'm trying to figure out what the most natural position for an adverb in a dependent clause is. For example, which of these two options is more natural?

Ich studiere Deutsch, damit ich Sprachen besser verstehen kann.
Ich studiere Deutsch, damit ich besser Sprachen verstehen kann.

The first sounds a lot better to me, because besser should be closest to verstehen kann, because besser is modifying the verbs. Is that right?

In general, is an adverb’s most natural position just before the verb in a dependent clause (the first option above)?

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In your example the first variant sounds better to me, too. But in this case both sentences will have nearly the same meaning. But let me provide another example:

..., damit ich Wache besser schieben kann.
..., damit ich besser Wache schieben kann.

Here you can see that the action Wache schieben (to be on guard) has a strong connection that should not be broken by besser. So I think it depends on the context.

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    I wonder what the downvote is for? I mean, it's not really a thorough answer but there's nothing wrong with it. – Em1 Aug 3 '15 at 9:37
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First, the "rules" for setting adverbs are independent of what kind of sentence it is. That is, it's irrelevant that it is a subordinate clause. So, if it were a main clause, you would have the same issue.

Ich kann besser Sprachen verstehen (als meine Eltern).
Ich kann Sprachen besser verstehen (als Mathematik).
Ich verstehe Sprachen besser (als meine Eltern).
Ich verstehe besser Sprachen (als Mathematik).

Adverbs are placed according to what it modifies to. Does it modify verstehen only or does it modify Sprachen verstehen? That's the question you need to answer and then you can decide where the adverb belongs to.
For the main clauses that I listed above I added a comparison in parentheses to show a different use case. This is what feels most natural to me, but especially in spoken language besser might be put at the other position, though.

However, this general question is very broad and I can hardly give you a thorough answer on that.

In your very example with the subordinate clause the first sentence is more natural. The thing is that you – so to say – already understand languages, but by learning German you understand (them) better.

Still, if you would add a comparison with maths, you'd go with the second sentence. And as said, in spoken language this is often swapped anyway. And finally, the connotation is so subtle in that example that it really becomes almost irrelevant.

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I'll only talk about the issue in general since the particular example has been discussed in the other answers.

It's impossible to make a general statement. Why? Because it totally depends on several factors:

  • What does the adverb stand for (place, time, manner, reason)
  • What is the verb
  • What other elements are there and in what form (pronoun, adverb, full phrase, definite article, indefinite article)

Here are a few examples. I'll use main sentence, but it doesn't make a difference.

adverb of location:

In den Bars im Zentrum ist es teuer.

Da bezahlt man schon mal 5 Euro für ein Bier. (super natural)
Man bezahlt da schon mal 5 Euro .... (super natural)
Man bezahlt schon mal da 5 Euro.... (quite unnatural)
Man bezahlt schon mal 5 Euro da für ein Bier. (okay in spoken)
Man bezahlt schon mal 5 Euro für ein Bier da. (okay in spoken)

adverb of manner:

Ich glaube, ich trinke schneller Bier als du.
Ich glaube, ich trinke Bier schneller als du. (both equally natural)

And now note what happens if we change "das Bier" for "es" while keeping the rest the EXACT same.

Bier ist lecker. Ich trinke schneller es als du. (only "works" under poetic license)
Bier ist lecker. Ich trinke es schneller als du. (natural)

adverb of reason:

Mein Bad war dreckig. Deshalb habe ich es geputzt. (natural)
Mein Bad war dreckig. Ich habe deshalb es geputzt. (poetic license needed)
Mein Bad war dreckig. Ich habe es deshalb geputzt. (natural)
Mein Bad war dreckig. Ich habe es geputzt deshalb. (quite unnatural)

adverb of manner 2:

Gern mache ich sowas am Freitag. (only in specific contexts)
Ich mache gern sowas am Freitag. (okay)
Ich mache sowas gern am Freitag. (natural)
Ich mache sowas am Freitag gern. (natural)

Note how in the last example having the adverb final is fine while in the example for reason it is super unnatural.

I hope it's visible how it completely depends on the sentence.
You cannot understand adverb position in isolation. You need to understand the complete German word order paradigm because everything is interconnected. If you're interested in a detailed look at this paradigm you can check out the article on my blog.

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