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?

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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.

How hard is German vs Spanish?

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There is a lot to love about German and Spanish. If you are a native or fluent English speaker, it’s easy to see that German is from the same language family. If you live in certain areas of the US, you probably hear Spanish frequently and have a feel for its rhythms. Finally, all three languages share a lot of vocabulary, mostly via Latin/French.

I am seriously impressed if you have learned or are learning a language from a totally different part of the world, but it is comforting to know that a word like information works all over Europe. If you master the accents then all the “-ion” words will fall into your vocabulary-lap.

Here are the similarities and differences to watch out for if you choose to learn both Spanish and German:

SIMILARITIES

  1. Gender: German has three genders. Spanish has two. Learning German first, then, is a good way to ease yourself into el vs la! Nevertheless, they have similar rules. Some things are always feminine, and overlap across the languages – such as die Information and la información.
  2. Spelling: is easy! English spelling, to an outsider, can be a bit of a nightmare. Bear or bare? Where or wear? Spanish and German both follow regular rules of spelling and pronunciation, and in standardised speech, you should pronounce all the letters. (Classic example: the German word for fries is pommes, from the French, but it has two syllables).
  3. Sentence Structure: Okay, sentence structure is not exactly the same. But in both Spanish and German you have to get used to the idea of ditching English structure and realise that a direct translation does not work. You can train your brain to think in the target language and learn how to build sentences differently.

DIFFERENCES

  1. Pronunciation: okay, if you show someone a phrase like Öffentliche Verkehrsmittel (public transportation) then you might get the idea that German is a hideous pronunciation nightmare. But I have always found German much closer to English than Spanish – I can make myself understood in Spanish and French, but way more than with German, I will always sound like I am super mega obviously British.
  2. Cases: Nominative, Accusative, Dative, Genitive – the four horses of the language learner’s apocalypse. German cases took me years of school to get my head around and they are not worth explaining here. Needless to say, Spanish wins this one (even accounting for indicative vs subjunctive).

At the end of the day, these are both wonderful languages and talking with native speakers in their own tongue is amazing.

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