Was ist die Deutsch für…?

It turns out that my mother was right. (Oh man, she’s never going to let me hear the end of this…)

My mother has a fair amount of foreign language experience behind her. She did an undergraduate degree and PhD in French literature, clocking up several years worth of life in Paris, then working as a French lecturer for several decades. In between academia and her current job she did some tutoring of English as a foreign language to people in the local area.

Anyway, I remember her showing me some of the tasks she’d prepared for the learners, one of them involved a recent supermarket receipt from our weekly food shop. She remarked that she always tried to use “real life props” in her teaching, because it made the exercises more engaging/effective.

She didn’t know the first thing about why messy bedrooms were perfectly acceptable…but the woman was certainly right about languages.

***

Following on from my last language post (Sprechen Sie Schottisch?) I’d put out a request on Twitter if anybody knew of tips & tricks for learning a new language. A friend-of-a-friend, Adam, sent me the link to Antimoon.

The founders of Antimoon have come up with what seems a radical approach to learning a language: don’t bother with the language classes, don’t bother with going to the target country because neither of those will help you. My immediate instinct was to disagree vehemently with such statements. However, I read through their articles and realised that the arguments weren’t as radical as they first appeared. The main arguments run as follows:

A. People think that all they need to do is sign up for language classes or live abroad for a year and they’ll be able to speak a foreign language. This is in fact completely misleading. In a beginners language class you will learn only basic phrases, bad pronunciation and bad grammar from interacting with your beginner colleagues. You’ll make mistakes that you won’t be able to shake off later on.

B. If you go to a foreign country and try the “immersion approach” to language learning, you may learn how to communicate in a foreign tongue…but you’ll never become fluent like a native. This is because you’re learning survival language skills: the basic amount of grammar and pronunciation to convey meaning. If a native speaker understands what you’re wanting, they’ll help you but won’t bother to correct your speech. It will become really difficult later on to improve grammar & pronunciation once the mistakes are ingrained.

C. The best way to learn how to speak a language is to learn how the natives speak it. This requires what the authors call ‘input’. It means to listen to foreign language movies, read foreign language books and don’t try to speak until you’re sure you’re not going to make mistakes.

I agree with the gist of them, but I personally would rephrase these arguments a little bit:

A.  People think that all they need to do is sign up for language classes or live abroad for a year and they’ll be able to speak a foreign language. This is in fact completely misleading. You need to work your ass off, and do it in your own time and of your own volition. THEN you’ll start to speak the language.

B. If you go to a foreign country and try the immersion approach to language learning, you may learn how to communicate in a foreign tongue…but you’ll never become fluent like a native. You need to balance up short-term communication goals with a long-term understanding of grammar and word choice. 

C. The best way to learn how to speak a language is to learn how the natives speak it. This requires what the authors call ‘input’. It’s so much cheaper than language classes, five times as effective, and probably ten times as enjoyable. 

I’m not sure I agree 100% with the author’s assessment of beginners’ language classes as being worse than useless. I’ve found the German classes vital as a focus point: right, I’m attending the classes, I am officially in the process of learning German. They ensure that you have got the basics: numbers, verb endings, objects you’ll encounter in your day-to-day life. I’m statistically more likely to understand what my German tutor is saying because he knows to speak slowly and clearly: the boost you get when you actually understand what somebody is saying in a foreign language shouldn’t be underestimated.

***

In my last post I mentioned how I’d go about attempting to learn German numbers. The attempt has been quite successful. I knew the numbers were starting to stick during my GRE Chemistry test: in the last 10 minutes of my test I realised that I was counting questions numbers in German AND I COULDN’T GET MY BRAIN TO STOP. When I realised that I was counting the numbers correctly I ceased panicking. Reading car number plates out loud on the way to and from work is mentally exhausting, but as far as strategies go it works.

The beginners classes are going well. While last time around in Edinburgh I was one of the least confident in the class, I’m now feeling a lot more willing to speak up and do the exercises. I’m getting the listening and grammar exercises more right than wrong, too.

I need to do a lot more to absorb the German I’m picking up. Of course I do. I’m still a long way off expressing ideas or speaking in a way that doesn’t make me sound like a stuttering beginner. It takes time, and I’m busy with PhD applications over the weekends.

I’ve got some strategies though.

I can't quite believe I'm reading the Swiss equivalent of the UK Metro for "educational purposes"...

A. Vocab Expansion. Try to think in German a bit more. Go to the stationary cupboard up on the 3rd floor of the building and name the contents. Come up with adjectives for objects you see walking to work: vehicles, animals, shops, people. Get the German circulating.

B. Immersion. ‘Blick am Abend’ is one of the local daily newspapers you can pick up for free at tram stops. It is filled with short news and lifestyle articles. It’s a quick, cheap & dirty way to learn sentence structure and common German phrases (“Beat the night to the ears.”). A talk-heavy German radio station could come in useful too. I’m not short of props over here in Switzerland…

C. Speak German aloud. Then I’m using not only visual but aural learning patterns.

Learning a language certainly won’t bore me. Thankfully. Again, any ideas, anecdotes & fun suggestions on language learning are always welcomed…

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