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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.