How Watching the movie Arrival can make you a better German Learner

I watched Arrival together with my 15 year old son, whose attention span is even worse than mine. We both were captivated by the wonderfully written story about humans trying to communicate with aliens who visited earth. Throughout the movie the humans try to figure out what the aliens’ intentions are by trying to establish some form of communication. If you want a more detailed description of the plot I can only recommend Wikipedia or even better, just watch the movie. The main focus of Arrival lies on linguist Louise Banks.

Show and Tell

Louise approaches her task to establish a form of communication first by trying to understand the spoken language of the Heptapods but soon realizes that that would take too long. So she decides to learn their language with help of written language and initially a show and tell approach. She finds out that the written language of the Heptapods is not a phonetical representation of their language. Linguist Betty Birner compares this with Chinese. You should read her interview after this article (link at the bottom).

Im Zweifel für den Angeklagten – Benefit of the Doubt

It takes a couple of months until Louise gains a basic understanding of the new language but at one point things turn around. This is when the Heptapods use the word “(offer us) weapon” as an answer to “Why are you here?”.

I don’t want to spoil the movie for you so I leave it at mentioning that Louise is warning the military, which is of course now even more alert, to come to quick conclusions as they are not yet certain whether both species have the same understanding of this word.
An approach I usually recommend when you are in a foreign culture and feel offended or notice that someone is offended by what you have just said is not to take things personal unless you are absolutely sure they are meant that way. And to also keep in mind that people who don’t know you well usually do not abuse you without reason. If they do, it’s also rather their problem, not yours. I wish I didn’t have to gain this insight the hard way.

Language is not as Deterministic as one Might Think

While the language hypothesis that underlies this movie, namely that language determines your view and perception of the world and even the perception of time, is not very scientific (after all Arrival is a Science Fiction movie – see also interview with Betty Birner below), after more than 10.000 hrs of teaching German to over a thousand human beings from all over the planet, I fully agree with at least one conclusion of the movie: that knowing a foreign language can be a gift. And it’s not only a gift for you.

A new Language is a Gift

It’s a gift in several ways. Above all when you start learning German, you will get to know the real you. The part of you that is hidden behind your mother tongue. Without any (or almost no) means to express yourself, what’s left is who you really are. For most of us this feels very uncomfortable for a long time.

The Secret of good Language Learners

With growing knowledge of German you will build up a extended identity of yourself step by step. It is almost like taking yourself apart and putting yourself together again. This sounds worse than it is. It can be very exciting if you accept this instead of fighting it.
And therein lies the secret of good language learners. They do not identify with what they can not express but with what they are able to communicate no matter how little it seems.

Knowing their Language Alone won’t make you Understand the Germans

In contrast to Arrival’s fictional deterministic assumption, knowing the German language alone won’t really give you any significant information about how Germans think and feel. For that you’d have to actually experience their culture and behaviour over a longer period of time and you’d have to analyse and compare it with your own culture and behaviour. And what a gift this is because it is like looking into a mirror of truth, in which we can see our true selves.
A good starting point to take a safe look at the German culture is the book “Doing Business with Germans”  which presents several incidents that non-Germans had with Germans and tries to interpret these carefully.
Don’t worry about the “business” in the title. It will give you a solid range of possible interpretations for the behavior of Germans.

A good gift Always Makes two People Happy

When you are learning German it is also a gift for the ones that you are learning it for. Germans highly appreciate when someone makes an effort to speak their language. It will establish a whole different kind of contact between you and them which will also make you feel a lot better. After all, if you live in a German speaking country I assume you want to feel as much as home as possible. And the more you understand the world around you, the more at ease you will feel. The more at ease you feel, the easier your life might be.

Worauf wartest du noch? The best moment to learn German is now. We at smarterGerman are happy to accompany and support you on this exciting journey. Talk (German) soon.

PS: I recommend that you read this lovely interview with Betty Birner, professor of linguistics and cognitive science at Northern Illinois University

Typical Mistakes of German learners


Typical Mistakes -German Learners
ausrutschen – to slip / Image from Pixabay

Typical mistakes of German learners

Someone recently asked, what are common typical mistakes German learners make. Here is my analysis of the last 20 years of dealing with all kinds of language learning and learners:

  1. Setting realistic goals: Many German learners simply don’t set SMART  goals, nor do they plan their learning properly or at all.
  2. Underestimating the necessary effort necessary to be able to use the language freely and effortlessly. These learners begin to struggle and suffer as soon as their expectations are not met (and that’s very often pretty soon).
  3. Learning the language for the wrong reasons: Learning a language because you hope (!) that one day you will find a better – i.e. better paying – job is like buying 50 packages of butter because you might get a 10% discount. While it certainly is true that learning a language might (also) yield such benefits, that path is an extremely cumbersome one.
  4. Using inefficient tools: As a layperson it’s almost impossible to judge right away what works well and what doesn’t. There is an abundance of online-learning tools and even a bigger abundance of “experts” who recommend them even without financial but the more psychological benefit. Sure, those tools do something to your language learning, or better: they at least do not hinder your learning significantly at best. Our brains are learning machines and it is hard NOT TO LEARN something. We often associate random events with our successes and failures. You might know this phenomenon as “superstition”. And when it comes to language learning superstition is widespread.  A bad advice is a bad advice, even if well-meant. Better than nothing doesn’t necessarily mean good. With the right tools you could save a lot of time and later frustration. Memrise is such a lovely tool for German learners. Another is Meister der Konjugation. Other than that you need a text book, a dictionary  and a source for grammar (more formal approach or easier to understand), et voilá: you are set up at least regarding all necessary tools.
  5. Using language learning techniques from school: Not many of us learn any significant language learning technique in school or university. We usually stick to those techniques that we have “invented” ourselves and that did the job. But doing the job is not the same as being efficient. Learning a new technique or following an approach that differs from what we know raises suspicion and causes discomfort. Yet, just like with almost anything else (except with eating icecream) all beginning is difficult. We can compare this phenomenon with learning how to type. You can certainly go through life (and university or both) by typing your way through with two fingers. But it makes the hell of a difference to be able to use all ten blindly.
  6. Saving money at the wrong point: 1h with a professional private tutor might be worth the same as 10hrs in a group stuffed with random language learners. No amount of money can substitute quality of teaching. From a learning point of view what matters is the teacher and the group that you are learning with. So whether you spend 1.200€ / month at the Goethe Institut or 250€ / month at the Hartnackschule, what you get from it is not mainly determined by the price. What makes a good teacher you can look up here.
  7. Believing in miracles: Yes, it’s possible to reach B1 in many languages from scratch in 14 days as I have proven but mainly for the pretty gifted and with a specialist at hand. 99% of learners will simply need more time than that, especially (!) when on their own. Estimate one year of constant (!) effort (3hrs/day) if not two years.
  8. Overestimating oneself: That is not meant in any arrogant way. Learning a language just somehow without worrying too much about mistakes or pronunciation is simple and quickly accomplished even on one’s own. But learning a language properly on one’s own is a very strenuous and delicate undertaking. From my experience it’s rather a minority who is good at this and/or enjoys this. Of course this is just my subjective observation and feel free to prove me wrong as that would mean that you have achieved something really great. I couldn’t want more to be wrong in any other area of my life.
  9. Last but not least:  I wouldn’t mark “being afraid of making mistakes” as a mistake as this actually is nothing that you can consciously influence and is rather part of your psychological set up. If you are too afraid of communicating with others you might simply want to focus your language learning efforts on the other skills. Yet, I personally am a strong proponent of psychotherapy for overcoming inhibitions that hold us back to become who we truly are. That can make an immense difference for your ability to acquire a foreign language. But that’s stuff for another post one day.

So these are my two cents to the question of typical mistakes German learners make. Maybe you find yourself in some of the points above. I certainly have made all (!) of the above mentioned mistakes myself in the past and have paid with invaluable lifetime and suffered more frustration than I should have. Luckily I didn’t mess up my languages. But I’m highly analytical which is a huge benefit when learning languages. Yet, I have met many who have to walk around with broken German or English for the rest of their lifes (!) and I feel with them as that is hard to fix. Be wiser than me and try to avoid the above mentioned mistakes and you will experience your German learning as a wonderful journey with many surprises on its way.

In diesem Sinne

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