The key to learning a language is context. Learning in context gives meaning to the vocabulary and grammar one learns. If you just learn vocabulary by using lists, you are likely to use the words wrongly. Grammar often only starts making sense, when seeing it used in example sentences. Learning vocabulary as part of a sentence, helps with connecting new words with words you already know. But German grammar exercises need to be carefully thought through and well designed.
One way to learn with context are cloze tasks. They can be effective in increasing recall. When filling out gaps one has to consider the meanings of words. Once the meaning of the word is involved a different level of learning is engaged. Cloze tasks add a deeper level of processing because they embed the words in a particular context. Completing them will expose you to actual language usage.
When does one say zahlen rather than bezahlen? What’s the difference of können and dürfen? How about bringen and holen? If you check the dictionary, both of them essentially mean „to bring” or „to get”, the differences are subtle. All these differences are mostly based on context.
At smarterGerman we make use of Learnclick for creating cloze quizzes. Learnclick is a great tool for asking questions in context. Check out our interactive exercises for Lesson 01. When you hover over the i-icon, you will get a tip of what you have to enter into the gap. For instance, you will need to ponder which verb to use and how to conjugate it. Other exercises give you options as a dropdown list and you have to choose the correct German translation for a sentence. If you’re stuck, click on the button „I give up! Show me the answer(s)“.
Do you find yourself always making the same mistakes? Why don’t you try our German grammar exercises for free? You can access them in lesson one of our Everyday German online course here.
In summary, when learning a new word or grammar point try to understand the context and practice using it yourself more often.
Often at times I have come across students that used three different colors to mark the different genders of German. What colors they used does not really matter. While colors are excellent to show and clarify certain structures of any language, and also provenly has the potential to enhance your memory retention in certain contexts (read this overview here), I do not consider them helpful for learning the German gender. Here is why I think you shouldn’t color German articles:
Colors are abstract
All by themselves colors are not much easier to remember than the article itself. As they only have to serve as temporary help, that might not be too problematic. Yet, how exactly do you remember that the horse was yellow and not red after a day or a week? If you only had a few words to learn, that might still be possible but as you have to study ~25 words per day or 125 words per week (weekends are off), of these 1/3 or 40 words might be nouns. I know there are learners and teachers out there who would swear on this technique and sure some have a better memory for colors than others. Some even smell colors. But those are rather the exception.
But don’t take my word for granted. Proove me wrong and I’ll update this article with your results: take a list of forty nouns and learn their gender by applying red for masculine, blue for feminine and yellow for neuter or any other color or order you like. Then review them after a seven days and let us know how many you still remember.
Please note: The research mentioned in the beginning focusses on the use of colors as an overall cognitive enhancement of learning tasks and not on the very specific task of individually associating isolated words with colors. That’s why I say that colors are great to show certain structures of any language.
Better means Good, right?
Well, it is still better than if I learned them without any technique right? Well, yes & no. Just because one bad technique is slightly better than another bad technique that does not mean that it is a good technique, right?
The problem I see here is that by applying the color technique you might miss out another one that is far more efficient than this one. The substitution technique which you might have come across before. This is the technique where you replace the masculine gender with the image of a lion e.g. You can find that technique explained in detail in my A1-B1 video course.
It’s highly impractical
…if you actually try to colorize your nouns. Those students -and even teachers- I have come across that were using this technique actually colored the articles and/or nouns with different crayons. That means that each time they wanted to write a masculine noun they picked up the red crayon and wrote that word in red. And when the next noun was feminine they picked up a blue one. That is a colossal waste of time and very likely causes a loss of concentration. Some students had those fancy ball pens with different colors all in one, still…
The cost-benefit ratio of such a technique would let any economist shiver. If colors are your thing and you’ve got to do it then do it on the go, meaning, color German articles in your mind, not on paper. That would be way more reasonable.
If all good things are three…
bad things might be as well, too. The research shows that the benefit from using colors might be due to the fact that learners simply focus their attention onto the colored information. That undistracted attention is highly beneficial for learning anything seems indisputable to me. Yet if your attention is attracted by a different color every seventh word in a text or word you learn which also has no other information than the gender of a German noun, then no, I do not think that you are making good use of colors as it takes your focus away from the overall meaning of the information that you are trying to remember. And that is actually worse than if you were not using any color.
Do you think that I am overcritical and that as long as learners are d’accord with their doing, I should let them work any way they want? Hell, no. Wrong learning techniques are wrong, no matter if learners like them or not. Of course I would not take their crayons away or consistently nag them for working like this. In the end it is the learners’ choice if they prefer to learn German efficiently or rather colorfully.
Now go out and study some beautifully grey but efficient German. Viel Erfolg Michael