Tips For Learning A New Language

I have been rather sloppy at maintaining Mosel Musings over the last year and please accept my sincere apologies for that. I will spare you the excuses even though I do have my personal reasons for the absence. I also promised some time ago to give a review of the language courses I did last year and sadly I still have not got around to that, but they will happen as soon as I get more time.

However, a colleague is thinking of moving to another country and today I was chatting to her about my language learning experiences. I gave her several pointers of the things I found most helpful and I thought some of the readers of Mosel Musings might also find them useful if they are learning German or indeed any other language.

So, without further ado, here are my tips for language learning novices:

  1. We live in a digital age and there are so many applications (or “apps”) for phones and tablets available either free of charge or for a nominal fee. The one I tend to use the most is Duolingo, but Babbel is also popular and both are available in several languages. I personally find Rosetta Stone’s app a bit boring and it comes at a higher price, but it does work for some people.
  2. Continuing the digital theme, there are numerous websites which offer free or cheap courses such as the BBC or Deutsche Welle. For learners of German, the latter is particularly good.
  3. It may sound daft, but activity books targeted at kids such as word searches, cross words, etc. can be helpful. You can get them in supermarkets, newsagents and bookshops or as apps. Personally, I find books targeted at adult beginners still too complex and strangely condescending – the kid’s books are more fun!
  4. Search on the internet for the list of the 100 most common words in the language you are studying and print them out. You can then use this list to learn the words (with the translations) and also to test yourself. Once you have mastered the first 100 most common words, get the list of the 500 most common, learn those and then move on to the 1000 most common used words and so on. Do the same thing with the 20 most common verbs, but as well as learning the translation, learn the various forms of the verb (present, perfect, etc). Just doing that gives a good basic understanding of the language. Once you master the 20, you can move on to the 50 most common verbs and so on. This is an excellent way of building up your vocabulary and they are of course words which you will hear constantly daily in Germany.
  5. Target learning at least one new verb and all its various forms plus at least five to ten other words per day. Doing this means within three months you will know at least ninety new verbs and almost five hundred new words. Carry a small study list around you with the verbs and verbs you want to learn and whenever you have a moment free, whip it out and study – we waste so much time waiting for buses, daydreaming, heck, even sitting on the loo!
  6. If you like music in your target language, download the lyrics (in German) and try to learn those, starting with the chorus. Then, try and translate what you can, after which you can get a proper translation from the internet to fill in the gaps and to see where you got it right and wrong. I picked up quite a bit of vocabulary this way, and it also introduces you to some of the colloquialisms, dialects and things like that songs are rarely sung in “Hoch Deutsch”, they are sung in dialects or with slang. Purists will say that you should not learn dialects, slang or even swear words, but I disagree as it is those you will hear daily and will ultimately be using yourself. Besides, it impresses people when you know the words of a foreign song!
  7. Watch local TV with subtitles in the local language rather than in English. That way you can follow even the fastest speakers and often you will be surprised that you will be able to follow what is going on even if you can only understand 10% of the actual dialogue. Doing this helps you to “tune in” to how the natives speak – speed, dialect, local accents and slang all come into play but as mentioned above, whilst these are things you will be exposed to, few formal courses actually teach them.
  8. Don’t be afraid to talk to people in your target language. I find the best ones to talk to are those who speak no English at all. Older folk are usually a good bet as they will talk to you like a local (or at least they make you feel like that) and don’t get upset if you make mistakes, plus they have interesting stories to tell. The only thing you need to be careful of with older folk is to use the formal “Sie” form rather than the informal “du” – you will get away with it with younger generations, but older people may cringe! It really annoys me when I speak German only to get a reply in English – it is so patronizing, almost as if they are saying “nice try sunshine, but your German skills ain’t that good yet and I don’t have time to listen to you struggling”!! Avoid such people at all costs, or point out to them that you are trying your best to learn the language and it would be good if they could help by refraining from speaking English unless absolutely necessary.
  9. Avoid people who insist on correcting your every error. Being constantly corrected just kills your confidence as you feel like you are being criticized for not speaking perfectly, but the reality is even Germans get things wrong. The important thing in your early days of language learning is to be understood and you don’t usually need to be grammatically perfect to achieve that.
  10. If you and your partner or family are all trying to learn together, practice on each other. It is fun when you are both in the same boat, and sure you might be saying it all wrong, but learning is all about making mistakes and then recognizing when you have made them.
  11. As far as books go, I bought stacks of them but at the end of the day I personally get bored with most of them very quickly and they end up gathering dust in the bookcase. Exercise books targeted at younger learners are like I said above more fun and are great for beginners. For the more advanced stuff, I find the plethora of worksheets, grammar tables and other resources on the internet unbeatable. YouTube can also be good for video clips, and there are apps and websites which have video clips of things such as news reports, documentaries and stuff graded according to ability.
  12. For learners of German, consider a subscription to Deutsch Perfekt magazine. You can find it at some bookshops and larger newsagents, or you can order it online either as a postal subscription or as PDFs which are cheaper and available the moment they are published. It is not cheap, but it has interesting articles graded according to level and the more complex words are translated. They do a trial subscription of two magazines at a discounted price so you can try before you commit to the annual subscription.
  13. One technique I found useful to aid my old, failing memory sounds rather crack pot but apparently it is scientifically proven to help short term – and ultimately long term – memory retention. It only works if you are good at visualizing things, and what you do is imagine a cross (in the “x” configuration although “+” might also work), and focus on the centre of that cross for as long as you can. I find it is best to look at a blank wall to do this and eventually I can “see” the cross. At first, it is quite difficult to do for more than a few seconds, but with practice, half a minute or more becomes possible. I found doing this just before studying really helped with memory retention. I cannot recall the exact science behind it but it is something to do with getting the two hemispheres of the brain working together.
  14. Flash cards can be your best friend. A language expert told me that we need to repeat a word around forty times before it becomes etched into our memories, and flash cards are a great way of doing that repetition without things getting too boring. Once you have learned a word, you can either remove that flash card from the pack, or there is no harm in leaving it for further practice. Shuffle the cards regularly as otherwise there is a danger that you will only be able to remember the words if they are in a particular order! I use a flash card app on my phone so I can practice at any time. Alternatively, you can buy packs of cards from bookshops or online, or you can even download them from the internet and print them out.

Please be aware that I am no language expert, and the above are only the things which I found useful in my language learning journey not only in German but also when I dabbled with French and Arabic. As we all have different learning styles I cannot guarantee any of them will work for you, so take what you find helpful and leave the rest. If you have any other techniques which helped you on your language learning journey, I would love to hear them.


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