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.
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?
Picture the long-haul. Accept that learning and refining a language can be a life-long (headache) journey.
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.
Use the native speakers in your life for their expertise and to remind yourself you can still chat with them!
Find other people who are learning the language so you can commiserate (see quote below).
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).
If possible, give yourself breaks – be it one day or a few.
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.
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!
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?
Want to tell a friend they’re talking rubbish? Tell them “du spinnst”. It is related the English phrase “to spin a yarn”, but is more common and extremely colloquial – it basically means someone is “talking crazy”.
I like that it sounds whimsical in English, but vulgar in German. Don’t use it with strangers!
The previous post in this little series was a word from German history but this week I’m picking something from Austria:
This is Freud’s theory of psychoanalysis and a bloody hard word to pronounce. (Something like “puh-soo-show-anna-loser”, but quickly).
In researching these German words my starting point is my own knowledge of German history, which in school was focused on 1933-1945, and then later I became fascinated with the East German state.
Beyond Nazi history, Freud was included in my 2 years of school psychology – though don’t test me – and I think as teenagers we all found his theories a bit ridiculous but super interesting because of their drama and absolutism. He captured concepts in his work which are still part of our language now, such as defining the subconscious.
On a related note, there is a great fictionalised version of Freud in Robert Seethaler’s book Der Trafikant, about the elderly psychologist befriending a young man in 1938 Vienna. Short, charming and sad.