How to Unlock Hidden German Vocabulary in Your Brain
German and English have many words in common. Often at times it is only slight changes that you would have to make to let you understand a German word. Do you think you can make out the meaning of the following words? Try to change the marked letters and be a bit creative with the vowels.
Buch – Rechen – wach – sprechen – brechen
Of course it’s not always this simple but it’s always worth a try. Did you find the letter k in the above examples?
This is just one example of how little it takes to make use of your knowledge to speed up your German learning. I will not bother you with a list of possible changes as that would be way too passive for smarter German learners. I would like to challenge you and make this an exercise:
Take a thorough look at the words on the next page and write them on a piece of paper. Write those that seem to follow the same change pattern in columns or groups and name the group like this:
Group Name: ch > k Buch book Rechen rake wach (a)wake sprechen speak brechen break
There are 8 categories in which you can sort them. Should you have more or less, check your results again. Feel free to post your results in the comments like this:
Group 0: ch > k (5) Group 1: …
The number in parentheses gives the amount of words that belong to that group that you have found. You will get my results when you post yours in the comments ^^.
Everything clear? Then here you go. Your list of German words. Find those who belong together and name the groups. Try to find out their meaning. Some of them are tough but not too many and others may appear in several groups. Those are marked with a little star (*).
By the way: The words are wildly mixed, not like in the above example. You will need a piece of paper and a pen. And you may want to print out the next page. Ready? Then unlock your hidden German vocabulary now:
Viel Erfolg and let me know how it went. Yours Michael
I am a pretty frequent visitor of my colleagues’ webpages and youtube channels and everywhere, really: everywhere I see German tutors who try to make learning German fun. This is like bringing sand to the beach. Learning German is fun by nature and doesn’t need any additional fun. Actually I even think that too much fun while learning German can be harmful. And I have good reasons for my claim.
Do you remember the last time, that you have learned something really good? I mean that moment when you realized that you had learned it right. That might have been a trick on a skateboard (Yo!), a guitar play that you have been practicing for weeks, the moment when you finally found that nasty bug in your program or simply how the German adjectives work (my German grammar course makes that a wonderful experience) Anything that you have learned will have caused you pleasure, right? Now, what motivated you to practice, to try again and again until you finally got it right? Was it that someone promised you something for it? Might be. Or simply the eagerness to master it, to have achieved something on your own? Rather, right!?
There is only one kind of effective motivation
My point is, if you don’t feel an inner eagerness to master the German language, you are motivated by outside sources. Many learners say they want a better job, meaning more money, better standing in society. Others have a partner and feel obliged to learn his or her language. Or they are forced to study by the German government in so called Integration classes. And many just want to learn a language because it would look good on them. Who doesn’t admire a person that speaks four or five languages, of course fluently.
Truth is, all of these outside motivators can surely push you a bit towards learning a language but rather sooner than later you need to find your love for what you do or you will simply burn out and try to get it over with as quickly as possible. The results of your German learning depend on many factors but don’t you think that one who loves to learn German simply because she or he finds personal satisfaction in mastering it is more likely to produce better results than any German learner motivated by external factors?
Why are teachers trying to make German lessons fun then?
Groups are rather suboptimal
Groups are boring when either the teacher doesn’t show enthusiasm about his or her job or is simply incapable of teaching a group. Or when other students either slow things down or try to get the teacher’s attention and thereby stealing it from you. Or you might be a slow learner and simply be annoyed by being left behind. By the way: there’s nothing wrong with being slow.
The group setting is an unfortunate one as we all learn in a different speed, have different interests -besides learning German- and also different skills. Throwing more than two closely related people into a group will always dilute the quality of teaching, and sometimes even two are too many. That’s the nature of any group. The frustration students experience in such a setting sooner or later has to be dealt with. And keeping students entertained during the many German lessons that they are forced to take at once is a hard job. And in addition to that it is only covering the pain, not changing the cause of it. Its the student who brings in the motivation or not. As a teacher you can only add fuel to the fire. If there’s no fire, your fuel goes to waste. And by fire I mean at least a 9 out of 10 on the motivation scale. Sure, the students would sometimes have fun if the teacher is good at this but how is that exactly contributing to your German learning?
What’s with private German tutors?
Most of the above applies to private tuition as well but as those taking it are usually highly motivated and willing to pay a lot of money, the fun factor is not as important. From what I have heard structure and connection are way more important. And it is much easier to connect to one person than to ten or even more.
Where’s the harm?
The harm lies in the misconception that German lessons have to be made fun due to the nature of the German language. It is the nature of the class and/or the non-enthusiasm or inability of the teacher to keep the students’ fires burning that needs to be coated with sugar. Though if the teacher is good at entertaining the class or student chances are high that the language becomes less important. To make a lesson more fun usually songs, games, group or partner-activities are used. I love songs but they don’t bring over the correct pronunciation. Games are just a waste of time as the few words or phrases that can be learned with them could be learned much faster with other techniques. Group and partner-activities mean listening to and practicing of faulty German as it is impossible for the teacher to correct all of the students during such an exercise and therefore the students are at risk to establish a wrong pronunciation and structure.
If that’s no harm in your eyes, you might be on the wrong blog. ^^ I know I am taking things pretty serious and it’s fine if you differ with me. But for me there is only one kind of German and that’s correct German.
You might have been expecting some tips and tricks on how to motivate your students or yourself. I am sorry to have deceived you a bit. In German you could now say: Ich bin enttäuscht. I am disappointed. But actually that means des-illusioned and that’s a good thing as you probably were under an illusion, the illusion that learning German needs to be spiced up. But there are factors that help students to overcome a motivational low that I will talk about in another article this weekend. Stay tuned and thanks for bearing with me.
Have a good day and enjoy your German lessons slash learning. Michael
When we get older, some of us become wiser and gentler 😉 Therefore I have rewritten my review about Duolingo & Co. as quite a few readers have perceived the old version below as a bit too harsh. I and therefore sG strive for constant self-improvement and we have become much more stable and confident over the last 2.5 years. While a certain aggressive energy was and still is important to get your company to its feet and to keep it there in a highly competitive market, this aggression shouldn’t be reflected in our work. I leave this article here so that you can see my development and striving for a more peaceful communication with German learners and those who love the Duolingos for their own good reasons. You will realize though, that my conclusion of my analysis is still the same. It might now simply be a bit easier to digest. Inspired by a few commenters, I would like to clarify a few things beforehand.
As for now, I do not offer a product or service similar to Duolingo or any other language learning platform. My videos solely focus on German grammar and my tuition costs 3.500€ or more. So my videos are rather a supplement to any other German course or software out there and it is highly unlikely that a Duolingo user switches to my services. I personally don’t have any benefit from criticizing other people’s hard work. Everybody is free to evaluate my material under the same standards and I welcome any constructive criticism as it helps to improve my material and my work. And I hope that is also the attitude of other producers.
Therefore it should also be clear that I do not compare my products or services to those mentioned in the article.
As for the intention to raise attention, sure, I would love you to check out my material, yet I sincerely figure that those programs do more harm than good. Yet, it is still up to you to use whatever program you like. After having read this article you can make a more educated decision.
All my claims follow solid reasoning. Should you have a better and proven argument, I have no problem, updating mine, as that is what improves my work. So far I have not come across better arguments. The challenge is still on.
Language Learning Softwares like duolingo claim to help you learn German
While in the following I will refer to duolingo, much of the criticism applies to any other language learning software out there. I would like to call them duolingos as they all kind of have or better cause the same problem. But let me make one thing very clear at the beginning: The idea behind duolinguo is remarkable and absolute worth being further developed and supported. Watch this entertaining and impressive TED-talk by duolingo’s CEO Luis von Ahn to find out what it actually is all about. The following article wants to show that even in 2014, learning languages via any software is not living up to its promises. Duolingo is next to Rosetta Stone one of the most popular ones and serves as an example.
In my opinion no software should be used by anyone who is serious about learning proper (i.e. least faulty) German. Not even as an add-on. If you don’t have access to better resources or simply can’t afford it, then yes, you might want to play around with duolingo, Busuu, memrise, babbel, verbling, livemocha etc. and you might even like it. But please be aware that they all suffer from similar flaws that I will describe in the following minutes. Let’s get started then, shall we?
Exercises? What am I Exercising Exactly?
Duolingo is a nicely programmed and optically well designed platform to learn a few languages. I am mostly concerned about German so I took a closer look this weekend and here is what I found:
I wondered and still do what this exercise is about. There is nothing achieved by performing this task as you could still successfully solve this task even if you wrote anything in marsian below the photos. You will come across such introductions every once in a while and they are pretty common among such programs. Rosetta Stone e.g. uses four pictures with solely the German term written below each photo so you associate the German word directly with the image. I can find some sense in that although it still lacks depth. But more about that later.
This is also a good example for the shallowness of many of the exercises that I have found in duolingo. Often there are only three options given as a possible answer. Which then can simply be guessed. A 33% chance is far to high to let anyone be sure about her or his achievements. Even four or five possibilities wouldn’t do the job properly as besides still being pretty easy to guess, they require no thinking but are mere acts of visual recognizing. And that’s the easiest task to perform. Your mind is a recognizing machine. You can recognize a man or a woman from pretty far away solely by certain clues that you have been trained or born to see. Recognizing visual clues is necessary to understand but it is a very weak form of learning. After all you want to be able to understand and use language and not only recognize it visually, right?
Lost in Translation
But I have to say that there are much more challenging exercises in duolingo that make up for this a bit. Although these have their own flaws. Take a look at this screenshot here:
Again, the execution of the exercises is lovely. I especially like the ‚almost correct‘ and that they take it easy on the capitalization in the beginning while mentioning it. But as soon as there is more than one kind of mistake, duolingo goes down on its knees. Do you see the ‚is‘ in the German translation? This even more serious mistake is overlooked by the machine and can as easily be overlooked by the man or woman in front of the screen even though the correct transcription is given in the green field.
Don’t add More Randomness than There Already Is
Another problem I have with these translations is that they are random. There is no context at all, except maybe a grammatical one later on, that could help to make sense of things. But although the supposedly trained grammar is mentioned in the name of later exercises, it doesn’t get clear in the exercise itself. Anyhow, our mind loves context, sense, logic. It simply hates to learn random things that seem to have no deeper purpose. That’s why motivation is one of the most important factors when it comes to fast German learning.
The duolingo team had some university execute a study about the efficiency of their program and they mainly came to the same conclusion: motivation is crucial. But more about that study later.
To give you an impression of what I am talking about here a few examples. The following sentences were taken from consecutive exercises:
Meine Freundin macht Internet-Seiten >> Darum sehen wir einen blauen Himmel. >> Ich spreche mit meinem Freund am Computer >> Ich habe keinen Hunger gehabt.
My friend creates webpages. >> That’s why we have a blue sky. >> I speak with my friend at the computer. >> I wasn’t hungry.
These are just random sentences even though the CEO claimed in his very interesting TED-talk that the examples in duolingo would be ‚real content‘. He can only have meant the exercises in which pretty advanced learners are confronted with translating real life articles into the chosen language. But until you get there you will have spent plenty of hours with the kind of information mentioned above.
Reden ist Silber…
All in all, duolingo offers all necessary kinds of exercises. There’s reading, writing, listening and even speaking. But the latter still seems to be in its beta phase as I wasn’t able to get the computer to understand what I was saying (just to remind you: I am a native German testing their German learning program) nor was I able to replay what was obviously recorded. I tried it on a fully functional 2012 Macbook Air with the newest OS, so that might be a specific issue with my machine. But I also tried it on a new iPad Air where it understood my speaking but I also could have said just anything and it would have been accepted as correct. So, when I was asked to repeat: ‚Ja‘ I would say ‚Nein‘ and get away with it, meaning the machine accepted it as ‚correct‘. I tried that several times with the same results.
And simply getting one’s utterances through the voice-recognition is not yet proof of correct speech as they usually have a quite high level of tolerance. Rosetta Stone seems to be a nice exception and also offers two modes of strictness. Then in duolingo one just has to repeat what was spoken by the computer a few seconds ago. That’s not really thrilling nor efficient as you still are not using the language but merely copying what you hear. You don’t get corrected and that’s bad. No software is yet capable of correcting your pronunciation or sentence melody and that’s often crucial to be understood properly.
I am a big fan of dictations. Duolingo offers mini-dictations that also give the learner the opportunity to slow the pace of the spoken sentence. But whyever, they have chosen to let a computer read the sentences that you are about to type. While often that sounds surprisingly good, often individual words are mispronounced and what’s worse lack a natural sentence melody. That is simply a no go. Here just one sample. Try to understand first before you read the transcription at the end of this article.
Discuss with the Right People
Democracy is surely a nice concept but I am not a big fan of it, when it comes German teaching. Often in duolinguo you have the opportunity to discuss the translation of a sentence or even a word. You click on ‚discuss sentence‘ and there you can find users that ask questions or help others with their answers. You can rate each answer like in Reddit by voting it up or down. So far so good. This is a great idea for upper intermediate or advanced learners but for beginners that’s simply too confusing. It might simply be too overwhelming and you can not really be sure about the quality of an answer as you don’t know who has given it. Even the best German learner might have a few blind spots here and there that they then transmit to others. And this leads me to my dearest point: the lack of grammar explanations and learning aids.
Grammar: The Ugly Stepchild
I won’t discuss the necessity and usefulness of solid knowledge about German grammar here. I told you, Democracy… But joking aside: I found some grammatical explanations while browsing through my learning tree but wouldn’t be able to find them again nor were there too many of them. Duolingo introduces tiny bits in little speech bubbles as you can see in the second screenshot ‚all nouns are capitalized‘ which is a very nice idea but I can nowhere search for grammatical explanations except in the Discussion-forums which besides being rather risky also is exhausting and time-consuming as I would have to search through whole threads until I find what I am looking for although the search function is very nice.
No Instruction on how to Learn Anything Whatsoever
None. I haven’t come across any instruction on how to learn things quicker except of course in the main forum and even there rather not too precise which is easy to understand as those are not too wide spread which in the end is to my advantage but to any learner’s disadvantage. In German such a behavior is called ‘Unterlassene Hilfeleistung’ and is punishable.
How to (not) proof Efficiency
I understand that duolingo heavily relies on a numerous user base and the money of VCs. Providing both interest groups with an official study that ‚proofs‘ that the program is helping people to learn languages is surely beneficial. But when it comes to numbers I am always skeptical. I have read through the description of the study and don’t want to go too deep into detail here. Just a few questions to the duolingo team or better the researchers that haven’t been answered but are crucial to derive any (!) worthwhile information from that oeuvre.
If ~100 out of ~200 participants bailed out of the study, doesn’t that also say something about the quality of duolingo or simply about the clientele that believes to be able to learn a language with its help?
Which elements of duolingo are actually relevant and how are they relevant for the progress that was measured?
What does the result actually say? I mean, what do I do with that information that after working 34 hours in average with duolingo the average of participants showed progress that is comparable of one semester in a language course at any college. How many hours of language instruction does a college student get? How important are those classes for his or her success at the college? Where do I find the control study/group that was instructed to work the same amount of time with their own or even without any (if such a thing is possible) method or help?
Isn’t the goal of most language learners to be able to speak that language? Why wasn’t the oral skill tested as well?
There were many other questions that came up while working it through but without the above questions answered any conclusion drawn from that study is merely baloney. If you claim to have scientific proof, better make sure it is scientific.
I am sorry to have taken apart such a good idea and also technically well executed product (with the exception of the audio/speaking part on my machines). But it is not duolingo alone that doesn’t hold up to its claim to teach us the German language. All other softwares are suffering from the same basic flaws: under- or overcharging exercises, lack of greater context, lack of instruction (i.e. grammar and techniques) and an impersonal approach. These programs are made for millions of learners so they are earning their makers money which is not wrong per se but doesn’t provide the individual with what she or he needs.
And I have nothing against any of these platforms by nature. I am looking forward to a future when we have our translator-implants and can communicate freely with any person on this planet (or others). I simply would like to make German learners aware of the fact that they can easily harm their German skills if they are not aware of the flaws of these softwares, especially by their speaking/pronunciation training.
Also I feel as if thousands, if not millions are seduced to ‚learn‘ a language in a specific way that doesn’t even pay toll to established knowledge in learning psychology and neurology and in the end fail (‚best‘ case scenario) or -worse- get stuck with crappy German. Please forgive my lack of euphemism here.
Conclusion: Anyone serious about learning German should stay away from any software-course designed to help users learn German. Only if there’s no other alternative -as little as a good book like those of the Assimil-German with Ease series with audio of course would do- one might benefit from such a tool but still would need a very strong motivation to make it through all the senseless exercises that they all provide. Developers are still decades from successfully translating the process of learning a complex thing like the German language into code that will satisfy the need for proper language acquisition.
If you are serious about learning correct German, there’s no way around grammar. Have you already experienced how nice and sweet German grammar can be? But be aware: it might be addictive.
Transcription from audio above: Eine Ente frisst. A duck is feeding.
German-Lingua Franca in less than 50 Years from Now
Many people complain that learning German is a hard task. I disagree. In fact, I am working on a masterplan to make German the lingua franca of this lovely planet in about 50 years from now. Check out my ideas below. Of course as a German I am obliged to work properly. That means all data has been researched meticulously and all claims and ideas are meant absolutely seriously. If you find a trace of irony somewhere in the lines below, please let me know and I will give you a free lesson (on irony, not German of course). Now go and enjoy and contribute your share to make this a better world.
Don’t Mention the War
It’s not what you might think: I am not fed up with teaching that beautifully simple language to lovely people. Quite the opposite. I think everybody should learn it. And while -or rather because- I can see why many learners are struggling with learning it, I think there’s no excuse for not studying German any more. So I am schmitzing a plan that aims at making the German language the most spoken lingua worldwide in about 50 years from now. No worries, I will not mention the war… until later.
Idea 1: Forbid Learning German
What is forbidden seems to be attractive (see pot). I mean you shouldn’t lock illegal learners away nor destroy any books -Gott bewahre- but why not letting them pay a small fine when they are caught learning German? Or even make them quote Schiller’s Glocke (poem from middle-earth created solely to torture German pupils for hours or to have a justification to give them lousy grades) as a punishment. Just thinking out loud here.
Idea 2: Create a Computer Virus
that changes any PC’s system language to German. Macs are mostly immune but luckily still only cover some 10% of the global market. In every language learning forum that I have dwelled, sooner or later someone suggests that you should change your settings to German, so that you are forced to learn the meaning of such useful words like: nicht stören (do not disturb) or Datenschutz (data privacy) or the word Einstellungen itself (i.e. settings). Unfortunately it neither translates your incoming nor your outgoing messages automatically into German. I admnit, the reach of this method seems to be pretty limited. Nevertheless one would reach most of this planet’s civilization and about 100 German words would be understood wherever you went. The sentence Einfügen-Ablage-Darstellung could be understood as: I would like to book a room in your hotel. A single bed. Nice view. Just saying.
Idea 3: Pay People to Learn German
I don’t mean people should only get their courses or teachers paid as they already do for many immigrants or unemployed but literally pay them a solid salary for half a year in addition to that and let them study six to eight hours per day. It is incredibly hard to learn German while you are working on a full time job. And if you are in a half-time job you might be having a hard time getting by which makes it more difficult to focus. The benefit would be obvious: a much better and faster acquisition of the German language. And for sure there’d be no more motivational problems.
Idea 4: Let’s buy Apple Inc.
… and only accept apps in German. We have so much money to spend on airports without airplanes that acquiring Apple is easily covered by the government’s budget for the first quarter of next year. I admit, it’s pretty similar to that idea with the virus but like this people would actually want to buy a German language device. And Siri would be obligatory tuned to German. Sorry, I don’t think that would work with Android devices. Their users like to change everything to their own liking and would just boycott our honest and forward thinking endeavor.
Idea 5: Let’s talk About Sex
Add some sex to it. Make the stuff people learn German with sexy, folks. I mean, look at your German teacher and ask yourself, couldn’t he look better? Look at the books. Their topics and characters. They are often so damn pc that it bores everybody to death before they can say: What the… in German. And it still might take this planet another 50 years to become a bit more hippiesque again but it’s definitely worth a thought. But you don’t really want to question the positive effect of sex on learning faster, do you?
Idea 6: Get rid of Language Learning Groups
I mean it. No more than two learners should allowed together and then only if they lived together and could practice together. Not only would that prevent German learners from getting their ears and tongues infected with lousy Germanitis, it will also keep those sad foreigners away that take comfort in having found the perfect companion in you, that helps them avoiding getting in touch with real Germans.
Idea 7: Let’s Copy the Success Story of the English Language
What made English so successful one might ask. Next to the rather infamous colonization of many parts of this planet by the former British Empire, and the unceasing struggle of the US to bring peace to the world by waging war (not implying that Germany is innocent here as it produces some of the finest weapons for this masterpiece of dialectic), Hollywood comes to my mind.
99,99% of the most seen movies worldwide are in English language (sorry, India, Bollywood is not meeting everybody’s taste as much as them). So assuming we all prefer love and peace on earth, why don’t we simply buy Hollywood or flood it with our immense choice of splendid actors and solely produce one blockbuster after another but this time in German language? The world will understand German in no time. Trust me. Of course dubbing will have to be prohibited.
Idea 8: PPL: Provocate Potential Learners
… that they will never be able to learn proper German. Some really get off when they are being challenged. I bet that you will never be fluent in German.
Idea 9: Make Learning German a Piece of Cake
I am not talking about making learning German fun. Why would you do that? That’s like bringing sand to the beach, carrying owls to Athens or thriving snails to Metz. Learning German doesn’t have to be made fun. Learning German is fun by nature. If one does it right. What’s the right way then? Here you go:
It has to be explained simply and clearly. That means in your mother tongue. Any lesson conducted solely in German is a crime to Germanity. Those few remaining parts that simply don’t make any sense can be easily dealt with with the right memory techniques at hand. And last and most important: Context, context, context. Look at all these books to learn German. There is no natural context. Just chapters. One after another. As exciting as it sounds.
People will soon abandon such insignificant languages as Spanish or English. Learning Chinese? What for? It is German that will be spoken worldwide sooner than you think. smarterGerman is already there and growing stronger.
Idea 10: This one is for You
What do you think would make the world speak German? Leave a comment but remember: We all love peace and the illusion of freedom.
Whatever path the world will chose. I will not rest until you also speak proper German. Trust me, there is no other language out there that’s as beautiful as German. There’s no more excuses, there’s only smarterGerman.
The most difficult skill to master when learning German is writing texts. There are quite a few problems to overcome before one can produce a readable or even enjoyable text. Let me do a quick analysis of the difficulties that you will come across and then present to you what I think is an excellent tool to get started with your German writing practice: Dictations!
Could you spell it please?
One of the main two problems of written language is the fact that German is spoken differently than it is written. The word ‚Vater‘ e.g. is spoken ‚farter‘. The ‚r‘ is never pronounced at the end of a syllable. Also in everyday’s communication Germans tend to ignore the second last ‚e‘ like in ‚kaufen‘ e.g. which then sounds like ‚cow-fn‘. Or the ‚ig‘ in ‚mutig‘ turns into an ‚ich‘ just because it is at the end of the syllable making it indistinguishable from the ‘ich’ in ‘glücklich’. There are surely many more examples and the good news is that in German the gap between the spoken and the written language is much narrower than in English. But yet the differences certainly will cause you trouble. Please see also the article about how to practice listening comprehension to understand the physiological side of this issue.
The other big challenge is the German sentence structure that often differs from the English one (or your native language’s structure). As you have already internalized your mother tongue’s patterns and melodies you will find it hard to switch to something totally different. Let me illustrate:
Maria geht ins Kino. Gestern ging Maria ins Kino. Maria goes to the cinema. Yesterday, Maria went to the cinema. >> identical structure >> different word order
Or the side-clauses: Ich fahre nicht in Urlaub, weil ich kein Geld habe. I don’t go on holiday, because I have no money.
and when you put the sideclause in front: Weil ich kein Geld habe, fahre ich nicht in Urlaub. Because I have no money, I don’t go on holiday.
Understand that your mind will always be tempted to use the structures that it got used to over the last twenty to forty years. It will take quite some effort from you to overcome this tendency.
Dictations will help you to overcome these problems
You might remember dictations from your time at a regular school. I never really liked them that much as I wasn’t really the king of orthography at that time. But later on, while learning French, I realized that writing dictations helped me to improve my writing skills. Nevertheless, it took me many years to realize why it helped me and why I should use it in my classes. A dictation has several benefits:
You train several skills at once: vocabulary, reading, listening, writing and structuring
They can be done on your own.
They reveal your progress almost instantly
I won’t go into detail here as I would like you to simply try it for a few minutes a day for just one week and then see for yourself if what I have experienced also is true for you.
How to do proper dictations
Before you start listening and writing, prepare the text that you are going to work with. That means, read it, mark the new words, write them in a list and look them up in your dictionary. Then read the text again until you get 80% of its content. You may use your vocabulary list in the beginning.
Only when you understand what you are listening to, can you learn from it. That’s why I do not recommend listening to the radio as it provides too little backup for beginners to work with. When you are clear about the text, get ready for the dictation. There are a few steps that you should always follow to establish a working routine:
Note the time when you start with the following routine.
First listen to the whole text. Do not write anything at that stage.
Listen a second time but this time: sentence by sentence or at least part by part. Listen as many times to a sentence (part) as you need to get a grip on what is being said. Later on you will widen your attention span automatically. Pause after what you consider a fair amount of words and write down what you have just heard.
When you are through with the text, take a deep breath, or take a one minute break and then listen to the text again while going over what you have written. Correct mistakes that become clear to you.
Now take the original text and compare with your work. Mark the mistakes with a highlighter. Do not use a pencil or simple blue pen. Your mistakes have to be clearly visible. Don’t listen to those who claim that one shouldn’t mark mistakes but the correct words. That’s nonsense. You are a smart human being and can easily differentiate. To learn from your mistakes you must notice your mistakes.
Write the number of mistakes and the time that you needed until step 5 onto the paper.
Write it again after several hours or better one day break.
Repeat this routine until you are only making a few minor mistakes.
This is it. Give it one week with one text. Check this link to get to the links with the dictation material. I wish you success and would love to read about your experience with dictations in the comments.
More to come as often as I find time. Don’t forget to subscribe to be up to date.
Yesterday I have spoken about the importance of improving your listening skills and how to train them. Today’s article will close the trilogy on how to master the German language. If you want to build a house, you will need bricks (at least here in Germany). Your house is the German language and your bricks are German words. Let me provide you with a few invaluable hints on how to make sure that those bricks make a beautiful and solid house.
You do not need many words to beginn with
The German government recommends to learn 2.700 words to pass the B1 exam. Now it is one thing to simply understand a word but another to be able to use it. But more about that later. To reach B2 just add another estimated 2.000 words and you will be able to cope with 80%-90% of information you have to deal with in everyday’s life. Let me share the good news with you: You don’t need that many words at all to get to a satisfying conversational level. I would say you’d be fine with about 500 words.
What words should I learn?
You have to understand what language is all about to be able to pick the right words. Language is about communication. I know, I know. Let me finish. We communicate usually about things we see or have seen and that we usually are dealing with. We give orders or make requests. We ask for the meaning or function of things and like to express our attitude. More abstract topics can wait a bit longer. So, if you usually do not spend time in hotels or do not own a car that you could bring to the garage for maintenance, than simply do not learn vocabulary associated with such situations.
Obvious, right? But then, why do you find so much useless vocabulary in German teaching books? Well, they have been made for thousands of customers. And the publishing houses prefer to please as many learners as possible a bit to pleasing a few of you fully. So when you come across new words, be a censor and decide whether that word is important for your life right now or not. Don’t be afraid to be to strict. You will always come across the more important words again and again.
Love what you do and you will never work another day. Konfuzius
How should I learn vocabulary?
Always in context and always with pleasure.
Never learn words because you might one day be able to use them or because someone recommended you to read this or listen to that. Your mind is seeking satisfaction. It hates saving words for later so it will fight against your efforts. Read and listen to what you are normally interested in. Just in German. That’s it. You don’t need simplified material. You need the real thing as this is what you want to be able to communicate with and about. Don’t read children’s books unless you genuinely like them.
I work with Jojo sucht das Glück, a video series by Deutsche Welle, something like the German BBC. Videos are excellent for beginners to associate words with visual information like a certain scene or actor. But one has to be careful and be instructed well not to waste time. I will explain how to work with Jojo these days (place link here).
Use a vocabulary trainer for your mobile or computer
Most of you have access to electronic devices. Also most of you might have heard about paper flash-cards and about how good they are to learn vocabulary. I, myself, always hated them although I understood their incredible value. I lost interest quickly and also lost the overview over my cards soon. But now that computers are taking over, they offer us wonderful possibilities to revive that old gem among the learning techniques. The big advantage of such programs is that they can save you a lot of time. Simply because they keep track of your progress and four failures. They only repeat, what you have not yet learned sufficiently and will repeat the words after a certain amount of time until you can safely assume that you have memorized them. But remember: do not just learn any vocabulary. It must have a high priority in your life.
The next level
Once you have established a base vocabulary, you can start to expand your knowledge and also use the words you have learned already to memorize the new words. Yet it is still crucial to have a genuine interest in the topic otherwise you are about to sabotage yourself.
This is it. You now have all the information you need to get a solid start into learning the German language. Subscribe to not miss future posts on how to learn German the most efficient way. Thank you for reading this far and have a good day.
Yesterday I have spoken about what to look for in an excellent private German tutor. For 99% of German learners there is no way around having a professional guide. But a guide is just a guide, the actual work still has to be done by you. But there is an incredible way to reduce your daily workload and to learn much more in a very short time: conscious listening.
There is no such thing as passive learning
I have been researching ways to learn things faster for over 20 years now and have come across all possible promises. And none, I repeat, none has been kept. One of the most dangerous beliefs out there is the belief that you can learn a language by merely listening to it while you are doing other things. Those who promote that kind of behavior call it: passive listening. They claim that like that you simulate a stay abroad during which you would be surrounded constantly by the language that you are about to learn. And simply by exposing you to this ‚foreign-language-noise’ -because that’s what it is if you are not listening consciously to it- should help you to pronounce the language better and also to pick up a word here and there. I have very serious doubts about these claims.
You don’t hear what I say
If you are older than twenty, your listening is fully developed. You have fine-tuned your ‚ears‘ (actually it’s your brain doing most of the work) to pick up many, many nuances of spoken language in your mother tongue. That enables you to understand different voices or dialects in your own language and makes perfect sense. You have built a very efficient noise-filter for the sounds that you are usually exposed to.
Now comes along the German language e.g. which simply contains certain sounds that differ from everything you have heard before and were trained for. It is out of your listening range! Any word I would say to you would always be filtered through your English noise-filter. You will get the idea of what I say because your brain is actually a very powerful understanding machine, but you will not be able to hear the exact sounds that I have been using.
Don’t give up yet. There is hope!
The bad news is, unless you are a musician or grew up with several languages and therefore having a broader register of sounds that you are able to recognize, you will never be able to hear proper German. The good news is, that you don’t need to! Your brain is incredibly capable of understanding and imitating spoken language. All you have got to do is to recalibrate your noise-filter in your brain and imitate the new sounds.
But this recalibration needs your full attention. It is not going to happen on its own by simply exposing you to the German language. As I have mentioned before. If you don’t listen to a new language consciously, it is mere noise, doesn’t make any sense and your brain will simply filter it out.
How to practice conscious listening
From my own experience as both a language learner and German tutor I find dictations an invaluable tool to recalibrate your noise-filter, actually THE only tool promising significant results. Give it a try on one of the pages or with any of the apps in the link section below. It is extremely helpful if you do them right. But that is stuff for another post.
Where to find material for dictations
A book by Hueber Verlag
There is a book by the Hueber Verlag called ‚Deutsch Üben 12-Diktate‘ (click the title) that is worth every cent of its 26€. Over 80 dictations sorted by their difficulty from A1 to B2. Go for it.
An app made for German kids
Then there is an app for advanced students as it was written for German kids learning German in regular school. But it will teach anyone how to write properly. The only disadvantage is that you can not print out the texts and learning the vocabulary becomes a bit painful. But if you are after your B1 exam, you might want to go for it. Click here to come to the app description (iPhone only, I have got no idea if there’s an Android or Windows version out there. Let me know in case you find something.)
The Slowgerman podcast
And last but not least, partially for free: The Slowgerman podcast (click the title to come to their homepage). Plenty of interesting German culture related texts spoken slowly but not too slow with a clear and nice voice by Annik, the blog-host. She also offers ‚Learning Material’ for little money that you might want to consider buying. She also offers an iPhone app.
This is more than enough material to get started. Stay tuned until tomorrow for the last part of this series on how to master the German language in three steps. There will be an instruction on how to work efficiently with dictations by the end of this week.
Thanks for reading this far. Have a good day. Michael
Continue with Step III-Mind your words (coming 29th of October)
Learning German is mainly a handicraft like many other things. Of course there are many influences like talent, age, intelligence, experience just to name a few. But in general after more than ten years I can say that one can come very far with mere discipline and structure. After all the majority of us have already learned a language successfully so why should learning a second language cause problems?
If I had to break down the German learning process to three points this would be my advice:
Get a professional private German tutor (anything above 40€ per lesson)
(Learn to) listen attentively
Learn your daily dose of useful (!) vocabulary
Let me elaborate:
What to look for in a private German tutor
You learn German to be able to speak it properly and for the rest of your life. If you let someone guide you who is just out to make some easy money, you are going to end up with crippled German that will make you feel bad for the rest of your life. I am not exaggerating. You only have one chance to get it right. It is an incredibly painful struggle to correct bad German and in most cases an endeavor doomed to fail.
Good work costs good money
People charging a solid hourly rate are either smart frauds or people who know what professional guidance is worth. A fraud you can easily discover after a few lessons but I will not go into detail here. I will write a discover frauds guide these days. To make sure you get a good tutor you might simply go to accredited and certified schools. Don’t just pick a student that offers lessons for 20€ or less. It is a waste of money. Although that’s how I have begun *apologies*. A professional will have to pay taxes, insurances and taxes and her rent. To give you an estimate: I pay 1.700€ monthly and there is no way I am able to reduce this amount in any significant way although I am living a humble life. I would have to work over 100 (!) hours monthly if I only took 20€ per lesson to simply pay my recurring expenses. I wouldn’t have eaten anything yet.
The best Teachers teach from their own Experience
A very good tutor (why should you look for less for such an important task?) should at least speak English if not also another language so she has first hand experience of the language learning process. She should also be able to explain the German grammar in English (!) to you in a way that you afterwards could explain it to others. If she tries to teach you without grammar, run away. That is esoterical bs from the sixties and scientifically unacceptable.
You need clear Goals
After about three lessons she should give you an estimate of the time you will need to reach a certain level (B2 CER is the minimum to manage well even in a professional environment). If you don’t set a clear goal you are bound to waste time and money. To give you an idea of the usual duration in a class with 10-20 students: -B1 takes six months with 3h daily instructions and 1.5h of daily homework or ~720 lessons+ -B2 another three months of the same workload i.e. ~360 lessons You can calculate with half of this when studying with a private German tutor.
Learning German is an emotional and intimate process
And above all: You will have to like her. Learning a new language is veeeery intimate. You will sound stupid and imbecile trying to express yourself in a language that you are yet lacking the words for. That is totally fine but requires a trustful environment. If you are ashamed to speak right from the beginning it will take you much much longer to get established in the German language than if you learned with someone who creates a supportive and motivating atmosphere.
This is it for today. Let me summarize the criteria to pay attention to when looking for the best German tutor available. She should:
have learned another language herself
explain German grammar clearly in English
give an estimate about the time until a clearly defined goal is reached
be likeable and create a comforting and trusting atmosphere
I will discuss the remaining two steps the following days. Stay tuned.
I came to the café late. I am still new to Berlin and I get lost once in a while, trying new ways and shortcuts. I locked my bike outside, feeling happy that I managed to find a spot, which is not such an obvious thing in Berlin, as everyone here is riding a bike. I took a deep breath . . and entered. Thinking – how was it going to be?
The one I was attending was an English-German meeting. Located in one of central cafes. There were about 30 of us. Some really relaxed and familiar with the event already, some like me, completely new to this.
It took me only few minutes to realize that many of these people didn’t speak fluent English, so things were getting even more interesting that I expected. I wondered how many of us were determined to practice their German, and how many came here only for social reasons. But nevertheless here I was – with my basic German I was trying to get to know people and the reasons why are they here, and why they were in Berlin in general – only to learn German?
We were all struggling, making gazillion mistakes, but hey – I managed to meet a few interesting people. An Italian guy who came here for work, but couldn’t find one. Although he still loved the city, and was still hoping to meet the love of his life. An Indian man who decided to totally change his career and from being a flight attendant he became a project manager in the IT department of one of the many Berlin start-ups. A young girl from Canada who was having the time of her life here sharing a flat with two Germans and one Greek, but the prospect of an expiring visa was starting to take away all the fun from her. Then there were these two crazy Spanish women who almost didn’t speak any English and were afraid of the approaching winter. With these two there was no English speaking. I have to admit –most of us were using English, but we were trying really hard to use German whenever possible.
We were lucky to have had a German guy amongst us. He was an easy going guy in his mid-forties, wearing a well-fitted suit, sipping a macchiato. The ones that were regulars to these meetings called him “the Teacher” and laughed that he was a life saver. He was indeed in some situations, when some of us were stuck with some sentence and frustration was starting to fill the room. I didn’t know why he decided to spend his evening in such an unusual way, but he was a great support.
After almost 2 hours of laughs, coffees, new stories and new German words it was time for me to go. I was out on the street again, taking a deep breath of fresh air, trying to figure out what these two hours gave me. Wondering if this was only a social experience or if I actually learned some German over there? It took me the next five minutes to decide that this Language Exchange was mainly a social experience, very nice and indeed needed, but with practicing a new language it didn’t have that much in common. You can not expect that such a session would teach you much German.
But it might give you something very important – some Confidence. Confidence in making mistakes in a way. This is something that all beginners struggle with – everyone is stressed about making loads of mistakes and very often this stops them from speaking at all. At these meetings you might learn one thing – you can make lots of grammar mistakes and even can miss a word every once in a while – but you still would be Understood. And if you are lucky enough, you will even be provided with a correct word or sentence. This feeling – to be able to manage to say a few sentences in a language that you are trying to master. This feeling when people understand you and respond to you – Priceless. You simply need to try, and try again. It will finally get into your system.
Back on my bike, I was trying to focus on my way back home, trying not to get lost this time. But I left inspired and had the weird feeling that I was going to come back to this meeting another day. It was a nice and relaxed opportunity to make use of my knowledge that I had gained from my private German classes in Berlin.
What is your experience with such meetings? Any interesting ones which are worth attending? Share it with us here, and maybe we will meet one day at one of them.
One of the most common complaints of German learners is that it is so hard to get to know Germans to practice with. And they are right. But let‘s be honest: would you want to be abused for language practice? Read on to find out how to get in touch with Germans.
Would you like to talk to someone that staggers around for seconds until s/he finds the right word or phrase or constantly makes mistakes that require a lot of concentration from you? Don‘t mistake this as a blame on your language skills. We all start a new language like this. And you have my absolute compassion and support. I guess you understand what I am aiming at.
Search for Purpose
If your main aim was just to get to know someone with whom you could exchange ideas and views, emotions and experiences than you‘d look for someone speaking English. Now many language learning ,experts‘ recommend to find a German tandem* partner to practice with. I did that, too, before and if you like it, go for it. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with it. But I often find that learners either don‘t have the time nor the desire to meet someone just for this purpose. And also half of the time would be speaking in your mother tongue and be lost for you (while the other half is lost to the other person). There are a few other flaws that I would like you to consider:
Tandems are boring
Conversation needs common interests. Simply wanting to learn a language is too little exciting to hold a relationship on an interesting level for a longer period of time. Even if you pick some topics to ,discuss‘ with limited conversational skills it would still be artificial and feel unnatural. I once had a Turkish-German tandem but she was only interested in Turkish soap operas, tennis and complaining about the bad weather in Germany. And I simply wasn‘t too much into sports. For a tandem to be efficient you would have to meet at least 2 to 3 times a week. Imagine meeting someone you don‘t have much in common with that often.
Tandems are not for free
Then there is the time and money you will need you would have to meet somewhere and most likely spend half an hour going there and another half hour going back. So assuming you meet for about an hour -plus 15 minutes not to end the conversation abruptely- a tandem meeting would take you 2 hours and 15minutes. Assume you drink two coffees during this time you‘d spend 5€ + 5€ for the train tickets. Supposed you would meet in a café half way, that would make up to 100€ monthly if you met 2-3 times a week as recommended before. << Continue on the next page .>>
Tandems need to match
If your foreign language skills are not the same level, your tandem is doomed to bore the more skilled one of you very quickly while making the slower one feel bad. Also what level you think you need to be to be able to have a conversation? Or are you going to (ab)use your tandem as a teacher? Is that his or her special skill then? Having a bad teacher is worse than having none, unless you try to learn all by yourself without really knowing how. The result of that can be seen in this video
From B1 on you will be able to have slow but more interesting conversations. Anything below that is a strain for all who take part in it.
Tandems require a lot of discipline
Not only needs the speaking time to be under control but also switching between languages has to be kept to a minimum. It can and should never be totally avoided as it is natural to use one‘s own language as a helper in times of need. And after an exhausting workday, keeping your appointment with a tandem is much more difficult than with a professional that charges you for his or her time. Also the professional has a better ear for what needs to be worked on and should have the appropriate material for you at hand to work it out.
So what are the alternatives, then?
We have a saying in Germany and I can only state its validity when it comes down to German learning: Was nichts kostet ist nichts wert. If it‘s free, it isn‘t any good. Pay someone to listen to your still broken German and make them tell you when you make a mistake. And you shall become aware of things you use wrongly repeatedly and look them up later on.
Don‘t worry, you wouldn‘t have to pay 30€ or more for someone professional. There are platforms where people are giving away their time for 12€ or even less. These might not be the most experienced ones but they might be motivated to become one of these. And they are interested in improving their skills as teachers. But at least you wouldn‘t have to talk English for half of the time making one lesson with the paid folks twice as valuable as a tandem session. And remember the costs for the drinks. That‘s 8€ alone, not counting the trip-costs. Also these session could take place via Skype and you would also save the way time. On the next page you will find several links that will help you to find a practice partner.
UPDATE: Especially when you are a beginner, you will not need more than 15-20 minutes of speaking from your side. So you should try to arrange shorter meetings with your paid or your German tandem partner. That is not only way more efficient, costs a lot less in case you chose the paid option but also makes and keeps the meetings more interesting. Many professional tutors might not be keen on just spending 15mins per day with you but don’t give up. Plus you don’t need the best tutor in the world for this. Anyone willing to talk and correct your German every now and then will do. Natives are a must though.
You might want to take a look at the following platforms and let us know about your experience one day.