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September 28, 2014
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October 17, 2014

How I’ve Been Teaching Myself German


I arrived in Germany (Berlin to be exact, which feels a bit like a country of its own) two years ago. Despite feeling initially a bit resistant to the idea, I started learning German a few months later and have been making a slow but more or less consistent effort since then. I can’t say my German is that amazing yet, but I’ve started saying that I “speak” German when asked about it, and I’ve become an impromptu translator for some of my friends, so I suppose that means I’m getting somewhere.

It’s a bit hard to say how many languages I speak (three if I’m being really conservative, seven if I’m being really generous), but this is the second time I’ve had to learn a language while living in the corresponding country. A decade ago, I moved to Spain and had to learn Spanish pretty much from scratch.

Being “Forced” To Speak A Language

Compared to then I’m liking this experience much more. They say that the best way to learn a language is to go to a country and to be “forced” to speak it. This describes my experience in Spain pretty well, as there were very, very few good English speakers where I was living. However, I didn’t enjoy learning this way, as I had no real respite from having to make a constant effort to be understood, and I became rather isolated. I had to balance my loneliness on one hand and my frustration with the language on the other. If given a choice, I would definitely not learn a language this way again.

Berlin is a pretty nice place to learn German because it’s quite easy to find friends who speak English, so isolation is not an issue here. I still do get quite a lot of contact with the language though; it’s kind of inevitable. I have to speak German in the supermarket, when dealing with beaurocracy, when asking for directions, and so on. I learn words here and there when reading advertising and food packets. (This is surprisingly effective; the first words in German I learnt were the food-related words, as, being vegan and gluten-free, I have to check ingredient lists all the time). As well as all this, it’s not hard to find a language exchange partner — or practice on some patient friends — if I want to.

Self Learning

People often seem a bit surprised when I mention that I haven’t gone to any German classes. I just don’t like learning that way: I constantly rebelled against school when I was younger, hating the way I was being trained to depend on an external source of motivation rather than learning the things I wanted to learn on my own initiative. While there is an obvious difference between obligatory school and elective German classes, I feel like I can expect the teachers to still have a similar mindset to teachers in obligatory schools, simply because that is what they know. More importantly, I think it’s the obligatory school mindset which drives people to seek German teachers in the first place; school taught them not to learn on their own initiative, and they need someone else to “make” them learn now.

It’s cheaper to self-teach and I think possibly more effective. Certainly it’s more effective in the sense that I can afford to spend an hour every day teaching myself German, which I couldn’t do if I had to pay for classes. I also have the feeling that I depend on myself, and of course I’m not bound to a timetable; I can learn whenever I feel like it.


Motivation For Learning Languages

Using my non-coercive self motivation philosophy, I made sure not to “force” myself to learn or to use self discipline. Instead, I tried to find more positive sources of motivation for myself.

It was a bit harder in the beginning and might have seen a bit more like I was “making” myself do it then; I had to push against my initial dislike of the aesthetics of the German language and its needless complexity. But I didn’t push myself overly hard, just made a sort of gentle, constant effort. I don’t think I’ve ever spent much more than two or three hours a day learning German. I think this is important, because if I pushed myself too hard I’d burn out and give up, but if I make a little effort regularly, then that adds up over time.

After a while of this, I feel like my motivation became more self-sustaining. Mainly, I became motivated by the sense of progress I was feeling. I think this is a very natural form of self motivation. Each step forward you make gives you a little high, and this gives you the energy to keep going without it feeling like an effort. You keep naturally seeking out more of those little highs.

Methods Of Self-Learning German

Over time I’ve used many different ways of learning German. I started with Duolingo, a free language learning site that I can recommend. Duolingo kind of tries to make language learning feel like a videogame, and to some extent succeeds. I eventually got tired of it, but I think it can be a great way of picking up the basics of a language.

I think the important thing with Duolingo is not to think that just because it’s game-ish you don’t have to make any effort. You do, but perhaps it can still feel a bit more fun or addictive than other methods of language learning.

At about the same time as I started Duolingo, I installed Anki on my phone, an intelligent flashcard system. I looked for a good basic vocabulary list and found one of about 2000 words, and created an Anki deck out of it. I’ve been using that deck ever since, and have found the vocabulary from it very useful. So far I’ve learnt about 1500 words from it.

Over time I became more skilled at using Anki, and it has become even more effective for me. I sometimes study it in bed or in a sunny park, though most of all I use it while on public transport. I find Anki to be a very comfortable way of directing my attention on public transport, less unwieldy than a book and easier to get back into if I get distracted. Because of Anki, I never feel bad about those 45-minute-plus metro rides from one side of Berlin to the other.

Also at the beginning of my language learning process, I tried to listen to the radio or audiobooks in German. I’d listen passively to it while doing physical tasks such as cleaning dishes. I understood almost nothing of it at that point, but my theory was that I’d absorb some German unconsciously. It’s hard to tell how well that worked, though I guess it counted for something.

Because I seem to have a good visual memory, I also got a picture dictionary to study German with. It wasn’t as good as the picture dictionary I used to learn Esperanto, but I learnt some words from it, particularly in the couple of weeks while my phone was getting repaired.

Later, when I knew a bit more German, I tried learning by watching series in German. I would pick series that I had seen before multiple times (Avatar: The Last Airbender and Heroes in my case) so that I would know what was going on even if I didn’t understand the German. Then I watched and tried to understand as best I could.

As with Duolingo, I found that it was best for me to try not to see this as a relaxing activity, even though it did involve seeing my favourite shows. I got some enjoyment from it, but it wasn’t a way of winding down. I still had to make quite a lot of effort to understand what people were saying.

I also read some books in German. I started out with some children’s books, occasionally sharing them with my German-speaking then-partner who helped me with the words I didn’t understand. I also tried pushing myself to read a few articles online, newspaper and magazine articles, posts on Facebook and similar items. Recently, I’ve tried reading a more complex book, which is hard for me but which I get the gist of.

Right now, asides from Anki, I’m mainly learning by reading a parallel text, something which a friend of mine gave me. It’s a book I’m reading on my computer screen, with the original German paragraphs matched in HTML table cells to the equivalent English paragraphs of its translation. As I read, I listen to the audiobook, in order to absorb the pronunciation. I get rather a lot out of this method, and find it less frustrating than reading a book without a parallel text and having to do a lot of guessing from context. I can work out words very quickly by checking the English translation, and seem to learn them quite fast this way.

After all this, I’d say that in my experience, it doesn’t seem to matter exactly what method you use to learn a language. The important thing is that you pick one and get into it. It’s okay to switch around and go for whatever new method feels right for you in the moment. It’s more important to do something than to be doing the best possible thing. It’s all good, really.

No Rigid Schedule

I usually study German every day, but I don’t have a rigid schedule regarding that. I just study Anki on my phone whenever I’m on the metro, and if it’s sunny out I normally go to the park to absorb some light and simultaneously use Anki or read a book in German. When I feel like doing something “productive”, I might go for spending a couple of hours reading parallel texts. The thing is, I’m internally motivated, so I don’t need a rigid schedule. Simply, I’ve made learning German a part of my life.

After two years of studying German, I’ve found that I can make some real progress if I just put the hours in. Those times when I’m spending more time learning German, I notice my skills improve in little leaps and bounds, and it’s very motivating to see that. Instead of thinking about things in terms of following a schedule, I now see it in terms of “X hours in, X learning out”. Each hour I spend on learning is valuable.

From here on I’d like to try and get into more conversations in German. I notice I shy away from speaking German because I’m scared of making mistakes, and I don’t think that is a good attitude. Instead, I should do as a friend told me and try and “make 100 mistakes a day”. The more mistakes I make, the more I learn. Developing that attitude seems to be a skill, though.

On that note, I’m seeing that as I study more, I become better at learning. I think the next language I learn after German will be easier than this one, simply because of the learning skills I’ve picked up. I suspect that there will be a point where I want to stop learning languages so I can have some energy to spend on other things, but it’s very tempting to keep going after I’ve done German just to take advantage of this. Still, I guess it’s some years yet till that time comes, so we will see.

Incidentally, it’s frustrating to me what an immense amount of time one has to spend in order to learn a new language. I really would like for us to all to learn Esperanto already (which is around 40 times easier than a natural language), and give up this ridiculous farce. That said, it’s satisfying to make progress with new languages and I enjoy my status as a relative polyglot. I must admit, I feel proud when I get to show off my language skills.

Hopefully, I’ll soon have a good enough level of German to be participating in conversations more naturally, whereupon I expect to start learning much faster. As it is, I already feel much more empowered than I used to, able to do most transactions in the language without a friend to help me. The more German I learn the more comfortable I feel living here, and the less stress I feel. So, I’m definitely going to keep going with this.


 

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1 Comment

  1. Justin says:

    Hey Sophia!

    Being to subscribed to your blog and reading the articles you post (which are great btw) I notice there’s a general, sometimes very specific overlap in where my thoughts are at and where yours are as well apparently, except you just happen to transcribe them onto this blog and it’s always refreshing to see someone on the same wavelength with sound advice. However I was particularly surprised when I saw how similar your language learning methods were to the ones I’ve been trying out the past year myself. I took four years of German in high school and about three years of German in college, but even after all that “traditional” learning I still didn’t fully start absorbing the language until I started really digging in with my own self-teaching methods over the past year (as you did) and you’re absolutely right – the out-dated bureaucratic/systematized method of basically memorizing grammatical rules is ineffective and it seems everyone, including teachers and professors, are admitting more that this method is terribly flawed.

    I like Duolingo because it kind of reminds me of Khan academy but for foreign languages instead, and I love that it’s free. Free language software (or free software in general) to me means a step in the right direction as far as helping the world the communicate and understand each other even more, and to add I think it’s awesome how enthusiastic you are about Esperanto and promoting a language that’s easy to learn and could do wonders as far as connecting people globally. I actually didn’t even know about Esperanto until I started reading this blog and I thank you for that. I didn’t know about Anki either but it sounds like it’s working really well for you and I think I might give it a try. I’ve been using Memrise, which from the way it Anki sounds, is similar as a flash card style memory program that you can use on the main site or as an app. I’ve been trying to learn American sign language and other languages that aren’t offered on DL (Japanese, Russian, Arabic, etc.) with Memrise and it’s proven be to pretty effective. A little bit slower depending on how you set up your prefs, but pretty effective nonetheless. I think I bite off a little more than I could chew sometimes when taking on learning new languages sometimes – I like to dabble and try different ones to see if I like how each one rolls off the tongue, but I tend to get sidetracked from learning the one I originally started on (German in this case). I think I just get overwhelmed because I get so excited that I might get to connect with a brand new culture, new people, and all the possibilities that arise with learning/knowing a new language, but it’s also like you said in that learning a language can be very time consuming and can soak up most of your day if you’re focusing all attention on solely language learning. I have heard as well that after learning a few languages it eventually does become easier to start picking up new languages as you fine tune your memorization/absorption techniques (and work your mouth/tongue/throat in all sorts of unique ways), which is sort of the intention I had in mind as far as eventually working my way up the polyglot ladder. Someday. Someday…

    I was going to mention too that I think listening to songs in German (or whichever language) is a really fun way to take learn, especially modern phrases and slang depending on how recent the songs came out. And being music by itself, it’s very easy to memorize simple/catchy lyrics or use a melody to help words stick better (the same method used by manipulative advertisements/commercials that exploit this otherwise useful memorization technique for their “catchy jingles”). I’ll write lyrics down too just to sort of touch on learning the written words, but otherwise I still try to stay focused on just picking up on the lyrics through listening and word association alone. I’ve never actually been to Germany but I plan on getting over there someday to test my skills and just plunge into the culture. I’m sort of envious as far as practice goes since you actually happen to be living there haha, so at least you have that going for you. I looked into some free chat programs that pair you up with partners on about the same level in your respective languages, but a lot of them aren’t that user friendly, but I might try one eventually. Bindaloo, Babel Village, The Mixxer, Tandem Buddy, and Interpals were I few I found that didn’t seem too bad and some were completely free to use.

    Sorry for the long comment but again it’s very exciting to see someone equally enthusiastic about promoting new languages and different learning techniques. I love everything you do with this blog and I hope you continue to keep writing articles that are as informative and passionate as the last. Being the first time commenting on this blog I also wanted to say that I found your articles on indigo children very comforting and refreshing, knowing that there are very like minded people equally confused and searching for clarity and purpose in this world filled with people who all too often misunderstand you for something you’re not. Your words are very inspiring and have helped awaken a drive in me that I was never fully aware of until I began to slowly piecing all these universal/synchronizing clues together. In fact this blog and friends of mine that begin writing publicly again have helped me realize that my true passion is indeed writing and is one of the easiest ways I can share myself with the world, and even help change it, being as socially awkward as I am in person. After much debating on whether to drop out of college or switch my major for the umpteenth time (I’m 27 now and still have nothing to show for the past 6 attempted years of a traditional four year program) I’ve decided to try my luck with a BA in English, which I should have just done in the first place as writing has always been my passion. But, worst case, I finally drop out and stay out and continue to write, but either way I want to thank you and others like you that have made me aware of who I truly am and why I shouldn’t be afraid displaying my true identity that’s deeply rooted in writing and the arts. I’ll probably start up another blog soon, which, thinking of it now surprises me why I haven’t written any public entries in so long. So again, thank you for your work and I hope you continue to write the words that seem to flow naturally from your heart and offer truth and inspiration to people that are in desperate need of hearing it.

    ~ Also here’s a piece pertaining to the old, dry teaching method that’s still implemented in most schools today, and why it’s so disheartening to people, like this author, that believe math and other subjects could be learned in a more natural, playful, artistic way. It’s a little lengthy but it’s a great read and I highly recommend it if you have the time. https://www.maa.org/external_archive/devlin/LockhartsLament.pdf)

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