On Learning German

I’ve been in Germany almost a whole year now. I came here being able to say “hello” in German. That is all. I didn’t take GCSE German (though in hindsight I should have because if you took both French and German you didn’t have to take as many PE lessons…). For a while I took German lessons on Skype. They were pretty good (if anyone is interested, I can pass on the details of the teacher as she’s really good) but with the breakup and so on, since the spring I’ve not really had the energy or motivation to learn.

Finally I’m back on track and I signed up for (gasp!) real life German lessons at the same school where I study Chinese - A-Viva (which I can also highly recommend).

The thing with German is that it’s very grammar heavy. With Japanese, and even Chinese, there’s not much grammar to deal with. As long as you’ve mastered the “te-form” in Japanese and can switch between dictionary forms and “masu” forms, you’re pretty much set. Chinese is even easier still. It’s a language of building blocks.

But German… (sigh). I bought a grammar book for it and the first 10 pages were lists of rules for knowing when words are masculine, feminine or neutral. I put the book on the shelf and there it has sat for the rest of the year. It’s just not nice, or motivating to go into a language wanting to learn how to communicate and to be met with a wall of rules.

As I’m a teacher myself (my degree was half TESOL) I can now see how exactly I want to study. The ways in which I want to learn don’t suit everyone – I have friends who would eat my grammar book for breakfast – but they suit me. I like to learn languages as blocks, and learn grammar intrinsically as opposed to memorising grammar lists. It was the same with Japanese. I don’t even think I knew the “te-form” perfectly before I went to study in Japan. But when I did go, and I had Japanese around me all the time, my brain just absorbed it and I could do it all.

With German I started off with Michel Thomas (who I’ve written about before here). The method is great because there is no grammar to be learnt, just building blocks. Just 10 minutes a day and within a week you’ll be able to say things and communicate with people!

I try to explain all this to my German teacher but she still gave me a stack of printed goods to go away and memorise… (cry). I guess I have to put my back into it sooner or later. However, in her lessons it’s pretty surprising how much grammar I have picked up by not studying grammar. I told her that I’ve never studied German grammar at all, but I was able to describe picture prompt cards in the past, present and future. Look at me go. And my level is at that wonderful level where every breakthrough is a Eureka Moment and I feel such a rush.

Language learning is really really fun. And I hope that people can see that it’s not that hard – even with German. One of the most frustrating things about language learning is that we are taught at school to sit down and do boring drills and tests which take all the fun out of it. Japanese elementary students are by far the best English speakers in the whole of Japan because they can learn English in a relaxed setting, focus on communication and don’t have to worry about tests. We should learn from them. In this day and age, there are so many ways to learn languages without trying. I hope that anyone reading this who is thinking “ah, I’d like to pick up such and such language” will take my lead and leap into Language Lagoon. Because it’s awesome. Ok?

Language Learning – Lang-8

If you know me personally, and have spoken to me about language learning, you’ll know how passionate I am about Lang-8. I’ve been using it for years and years to learn Japanese and consider it the one learning aid that has given me the most advancement in my studies.

In Lang-8, you write diaries in the language(s) that you are studying. Here is some Chinese I wrote some time last week. For beginners like myself, it’s best to put your native language underneath – even when I write in Japanese now sometimes people request the English. I feel kind offended when it happens with Japanese but I need it for Chinese because half of the time I’m pulling sentences out of my brain that may or may not even make sense!

Once you’ve finished your diary, you can publish it – then native speakers will come and correct your sentences. I remember the very first time I used it for my Japanese, when I was in my second year of uni. I felt so confident that my Japanese (a simple self-intro) was pretty decent, but then it got ripped to shreds by the Japanese users. This will happen no matter how good your language is, because the community gets pretty competitive about it. In order to thank the people correcting your sentences, you can award them with stars.

If you get a really friendly user, they might leave a nice little explanation for you as well. I find that the Chinese users are more prone to do this than the Japanese ones.

Once you’ve written your own diary and you’re waiting for some more corrections, you might like to thank your new friends by correcting their diaries too. If you see someone else’s corrections (like above – these aren’t mine) and you think they are good, you can click to say so. If you have a comment about a correction that you think is incorrect, you might like to quote it and show your concern – as I did with that last correction there. There is a lot of discourse between UK English speakers and US English speakers with some arguments over what is correct… did I mention that people get really serous about their corrections?!

It’s easy to make corrections too, with colour coding and other elements to make sure that your corrections are easily understood.

I don’t use this now as much as I used to – I’m just getting to the point with my Chinese where I can write things like this – but especially at uni, Lang-8 was a really good resource with essay writing, and then when I was in Japan I used it as a correction service when I wanted to write things like letters of complaint. These days I use it to write in Chinese, then I print out the corrections and work through my mistakes and the corrections with my Chinese teacher.

If you’re learning a language, I highly recommend this site – you can use it for free too (paid elements are also available but I never use those). If there’s anyone out there who already uses Lang-8, let me know how you find it!

App Review – MindSnacks

As is probably now well known, I love language learning tools that are anything but a textbook. I often spend out on, or sign up to things that will give me an edge on my language studying hobbies.

A few months ago I read a great review on International House of Geek about the app MindSnacks. So, I decided to give it a go.

The app is free to download, but for the full version I think I paid about 3 Euros (tried to find the price on their website and on iTunes but found no info).

It’s pretty good for basic vocabulary. They build your knowledge with a series of games – the above one is Fish Tank, which is infuriatingly difficult. Even when I was practising only months, which are the same in Chinese as they are in Japanese, I was getting so much game rage that I kept messing up. You have to click on the answer that corresponds to the prompt before the water runs away and the fish dies.

ShutterBug is a game you can play after paying for the full version. It’s another of the better ones, as you are given an audio prompt as well, which helps me remember the new vocabulary.

Mystery Crate could be such a good and useful game with some tweaking. The aim is to press the incorrect crates and get rid of them before they reach the ground. Crates with correct words on them, that arrive safely to the ground will let the rhinos go free nicely. Ones that are incorrect that arrive to the ground blow up. Where this app goes wrong is that you are looking up at the top to spot incorrect words, when you see an explosion at the ground but don’t remember the word let alone have the chance to review what was wrong about it. Especially with Chinese, where an incorrect word could mean only one stroke going array, a review session after the game has finished is vital.

After being not 100% impressed with the Chinese version, I decided not to buy the German one, but to stick with the free games. One of those is this great spelling game called Word Birds. You click on the letters to spell out the word written above. If you click on the wrong letter, the birds are electrocuted. This is a really ace game and definitely one of their stronger ones.

Overall, although the games are fun and teach me new words, I’m not entirely sure I’m actually learning anything new from these apps. There is a nice tone game in the Chinese one, but again, me getting the answers correct seems to have little correlation to whether I am able to speak using the correct tones. I have just gone to a new level and have been bombarded with a load of new profession words, but since there is no review period it’s kind of hard to remember the words before I go into the games. I’d prefer to learn more verbs and things I’ll actually use before learning these kinds of words anyway.

Overall I’d say they are worth the initial download (they ask your level at the start so it’s not just for beginners). They seem to be aiming to improve the games a lot so it’s worth keeping an eye on the apps to see if they get better, which I’m sure they will. I really hope they do well though, because the designs are great and the idea to build these games is fantastic. They just aren’t for me right now.

Learning Languages – Michel Thomas

When I was living in Japan, time and time again I met (usually male) people who had lived in Japan for years and years and yet could not function in even basic Japanese. I really didn’t understand how they could be in a country for so long and not make the effort to learn the language.

Then I met German. It’s a challenge but I seem to be doing well with my lessons and also with the Michel Thomas tapes. I started with him in German and then I got the Chinese too.

His method is really good because he doesn’t teach grammar, but building blocks. So within 30 minutes of listening to his cd I was able to make a good number of sentences by myself. He starts with “Can you..” and “Would you like to..” and then builds up from there. It’s not just him talking to you, he is teaching two students at the time, and you can answer with them and feel like you are in a classroom setting. It’s funny because often I’ll make the same mistakes students, so it’s like Michel is correcting me.

With the German cd there is both a male and a female student. I’m not sure but I think he chose people who are purposefully a little dippy to make the listener feel better about themselves. The guy forgets words all the time (like he’ll forget the “now” in “can you bring me that now”) but I’m fine with that because I often forget the same things. I’m at the start of the second cd right now and he sounds really tired and pissed off, almost like a grumpy teenager. Michel is getting increasingly frustrated at how he messes up “mir” and “mich” all the time and there is a beautiful rant he has I think in the first track of the second cd where he says “DID I SAY TO ME?! NO! Then DON’T use MIR!!!”

The woman I think is a little deaf. She is really terrible at repeating things that are said to her. Her “nicht” grates on my nerves in particular, “ni h ku tuh” every single time. Again, Michel rants at her too, with her pronunciation of “haben”, where he says “haaaaaaaben” to which she replies “haiben”.

But enough bitching about the students, haha.

It’s an excellent course for German and I have found it really helpful in conjunction with my lessons. It really gave me confidence when I first got here that I was able to make so many sentences so early.

Unfortunately, I can’t really say the same about the Chinese cds. It’s not Michel Thomas doing them, but some American guy. It might be the same woman student again because her 想 sounds like a cat “shiiiiaaaaaaannnng”.

The American dude has a long winded and complex story for every single new word introduced. I am all for using stories to remember words (for example, lecture in Japanese is 講義 – kougi, which sounds like corgi. So, to remind myself I think of The Queen sitting in a lecture with all her dogs sat around her). But these stories are just embarrassingly long winded and cheesy. It’s also a shame they have the native speaker to back him up – it would be nice if they had a Chinese person who is able to teach well in the method. It’s a little complicated having the four voices going round.

I use the Chinese ones on the way to my classes on Fridays when I’m on the tram to get me in the Chinese mood. But I wouldn’t use them in the same way as I do the German ones since they simply are just not as effective.

Michel Thomas sadly doesn’t do Korean but I have the Pinsular cds for that. Maybe when I have some time I’ll sit down and listen to those too so I can compare and contrast.

German in Frankfurt

I have been in Frankfurt for almost 6 months now, and one of the things that makes me sad is that there is little to no chance to practice German here.

When I was in Japan, I used to get so angry when I met someone who had lived there for hears and years but couldn’t speak the language well, so I made sure that when I came to Germany, I would learn German. I take lessons online via Skype (my teacher is *excellent* – message me if you would like contact details!) and I’m getting to a stage where I can make simple sentences. But whenever I try and do anything in German, like order some food or a coffee or whatever, people always reply in English! :-(

BUT something cool happened. When I was in Japan I was taking Chinese lessons, and since I’ve been in Germany I’ve not studied at all. A friend of mine is studying Japanese here at a language school, so I decided to sign up for Chinese lessons. The teacher knows little to no English, and so I have to do things like translate from German to Chinese. EXCELLENT for my German skills, and studying Chinese at the same time!

I have my second lesson tomorrow, and I’m looking forward to it a lot. Yay for challenges in language!