Let’s Talk “Failure”

Language learning can feel full of setbacks if we start with super-high, new-year style goals. In an ideal world, you take up studying, speaking and writing in Spanish, and 18 months later you’ve got a mountain of vocabulary and speaking confidence. Most online resources – including bloggers like me – don’t often acknowledge lost motivation and ‘lost’ skills.

Snow in Berlin

Instead of goals, here’s my language failures and ‘abandoned’ languages:

French ||
My first – and worst – foreign language! Like most British kids I started French aged 11, and I always liked the language but I really disliked learning it. There were two classes sorted by ability, and it really put a nail in my French ambitions when, in my final year, I was moved from the ‘good’ class to the ‘less good’ class. The mandatory classes ended when I was 14 and I never looked back – until Summer 2017 when I spent a month cramming basic French for a vacation using Memrise… that convinced me French was still tricky but that I could actually enjoy it.

German ||
My school made us take two languages, which was a nightmare for some of us. I was randomly assigned to take five years of German (other option: Spanish), and I liked it, but by the end I had a B grade and could tell someone I had two sisters and lived in a detached house. Since 2015 I have gone from apps, to evening classes, to intensive courses, to using German at my job. But those feelings of inadequacy are hard to shake – while my understanding is 100%, I often second-guess myself or feel self-conscious when speaking. I know lots of people who are fluent in English but they focus on tiny weaknesses or small errors. It sucks that imperfections and anxieties feel like failures, but it happens to everyone.

Spanish ||
The second foreign language I can actually speak! I started an evening course a year ago, and I am at the intermediate stage – so still optimistic. Nevertheless, every day I regret all the learning I’m not doing: I started a diary in Spanish – stopped that! I have a lovely tandem partner to learn with – but when did I last see her? Where are the handmade flashcards? Why am I not reading El País every day? Will I ever finish ‘El Ministerio del Tiempo’? When I do pick up my phone to learn, I enjoy it, and that’s the important thing.

Okay here’s one resolution for 2019: there’s limited resources to learn Swedish (because it’s not super useful) but there’s course for German speakers called ‘Sprich mal Schwedish’ and my Noble Goal for the year is to have a crack at it. (I don’t know, I can enjoy the Scandinoir better? I’ll have a leg up if Sweden ever invades?)

My advice: keep your goals flexible, don’t feel guilty about taking a break from a language, and download a dictionary onto your phone!

Everything You Need to Start Learning a Language

It is almost the new year and if you are thinking about your language goals, here’s all the most useful languageuntangled tips for apps, podcasts, books and vocab.

Everything You Need
to Start Learning a Language

Resources

Game Plan

German Vocab

The German Teacher Who Makes Mistakes

I learned about the accidental German teacher/life coach Jaime Beck from this article in the German newspaper Der Tagesspiegel (in German). Jaime came to Germany from Colombia aged 14, with barely any German, and eventually became a hotel owner and business consultant. In 2015 he visited a shelter to make a donation at the start of the refugee crisis, where he was mistaken for a German teacher … and so he taught, even though he sometimes confuses the dative and accusative cases.

Broadcaster Deutsche Welle did a story on him in English, which can be seen here.

Jaime offers students mime, energy, and plenty of his time. This ranges from acquiring theatre tickets to helping them fill in applications, accompanying them to the job fair, and on one occasion driving a woman in labour to the hospital. While respecting their backgrounds and the terrible trauma many of the refugees have been through, he gets annoyed if a capable student is not doing their best inside or outside the classroom, and argues about topics such as sexism and LGBTQ rights.

I was deeply comforted by Jaime’s ability – despite minor grammatical errors – to motivate language beginners in quite desperate circumstances. He does not have to teach, let alone act as a lifeline for scores of people, and his energy is amazing and touching.

9 Ways to Stay Motivated

The desire to learn a language is the first hurdle – and not every 14 year old in French class gets over that hurdle. If you have chosen advanced Spanish in school or beginner German as an adult, you understand the appeal of languages, what they bring us and why they matter. How, though, do we keep it going?

  1. Picture the long-haul. Accept that learning and refining a language can be a life-long (headache) journey.
  2. Understand your reasons for learning. Needing a language for work or life can be motivating but also intimidating – learning out of interest has freedom in that sense, but does not give you a driving force. Work out how to push yourself or how to encourage yourself in both situations.
  3. Use the native speakers in your life for their expertise and to remind yourself you can still chat with them!
  4. Find other people who are learning the language so you can commiserate (see quote below).
  5. Vary the tools you use, whether it’s reading and writing (books, newspapers, flashcards) or listening and speaking (film, TV, podcasts, apps, tandem partners, Meet Ups).
  6. If possible, give yourself breaks – be it one day or a few.
  7. Immersion is valuable, but so is making the learning time count. You could watch an episode of Narcos, or spend 15 minutes making notes on a podcast or looking up words from a newspaper article.
  8. Make use of professionals if you can, either in a classroom or through a tutor. They can correct you, explain well, and untangle the grammar. They can also praise progress when they see it!
  9. Go back and reflect on the basics. If you have completed any beginner or intermediate levels, go and test yourself online and appreciate what you have mastered so far.

… [I] never knew before what eternity was made for. It is to give some of us a chance to learn German.

Mark Twain, “The Awful German Language” 1880

Why are you learning your language/s? How do you find your motivation?

Wondering how to take your language to the next level?

img_0749-e1538836421523.jpg

If you have made your way past the travel phrases and greetings to an intermediate language level, well done! Maybe you’re wondering how to keep the momentum going – if so, this post is for you.

The intermediate stage of a language is pretty fabulous, because you can have a conversation and month on month you can improve very quickly. Later on, there’s a bit more pressure. I use German daily for my job, and the word fluent still seems very loaded, and I can feel guilty if I come across words I don’t know. (Side note, when reading about Aretha Franklin after her death I learned the word Urgewalt, which means an ‘elemental force’ – how perfect is that?).

The intermediate stage is still all about discovery and you should enjoy being free of that nebulous term ‘fluency’ and just enjoy building on your comprehension. If it’s an option for you, group classes are the most effective way to improve at this stage. (I did it for German, and after a year of solo Spanish I am in the classroom again).

That being said, classes alone are nothing if not accompanied by reading, listening and speaking in your spare time (Exhibit A: mes quatres ans de francais en l’ecole).

Here are some great habits to develop which will maintain and propel you towards advanced learning!

  1. Read! You can try simple novels or children’s books (here some German suggestions), but the news will be most helpful. It will connect you with what’s going on, and the language will be a mixture of conversation starters (politics, culture, scandals) and every day vocabulary. Spanish: El País, German: Deutsche WelleDie Zeit. Some papers have ‘easy language’ versions of the news, such as Taz (German).
  2. Listen! I follow a bunch of Spanish-language podcasts, but the mistake I usually make is passive listening. It is still quite beneficial, but if you feel motivated, write down a few new words or phrases and look them up. Better still, write your own sentences with the new words. Links: Radio Ambulante (Latin American news from NPR), Coffee Break Spanish (see season 3+), Españolistas, TED Talks en Español. All in the usual podcast apps.
  3. Speak! Make regular conversation in your language, if you can! Major cities will have meet up groups for exchanging languages. See also Conversation Exchange – it’s a super basic but widely used website for finding tandem partners, I found a Spanish friend in the city and we meet up fairly regularly so we can each practice our languages! You can correct each other, give tips and explain natural, native ways of speaking.
  4. Be Active. Your new language is going to pop up in your head at random moments of the day. You might also find yourself wondering ‘how could I say that in Spanish? Do I know how to conjugate the verb?’ Here’s an old list of super useful apps which will allow you to consult a dictionary or a grammar tool on the go, so you can learn something at unexpected moments.

All of this has worked and continues to work for me – good luck! Let me know your own tips and tricks.