5 tips for language learning, with a German focus

I haven’t really written a blog about language yet; silly really, given that that’s the reason I’m here. Here are my favourite language-learning sources (number 4 is specific to German, sorry!);

1) Back to school!

As part of my au pair job deal, my host family pay for a language course; I’m taking German as a Foreign Language level C1 at the local Volkshochschule (adult education centre); three hours, once a week. It’s tough, and it’s really immersive, but it’s a big chunk of solid German, spoken with people from all over the place (my classmates are from as far as Tibet, Mongolia, Russia and Afghanistan!) including a couple of other au pairs!

That’s the funny thing I’ve discovered; whenever I’ve studied German in class before, it’s been myself and a load of Brits of a similar standard. Everyone has a similar vocabulary, knowledge of grammar, and slightly rusty pronunciation, and if you ever have a moment where you can’t communicate a point, you just say it in English and everyone understands. Such is the British language education system, that we are all guided through the ranks of GCSE, A Level, University and come out experts in the inner-workings of the complicated grammar, but can’t communicate all that fluently with genuine native speakers.

This time round, I’m in a class with several people who have lived here for years and have learnt the language through everyday life; their spoken language, therefore, really does put mine to shame, but I can spell, conjugate and pluralise a whole lot better. Really, this means that these guys can actually speak to real locals and get a point across verbally, whereas all I can do is write a formal letter in the highest register. Given that I care so much more for spoken German, I really do have my work cut out.

2) Genuinely interesting magazines!

Screw all the boring stuff they make you read in school back home. Finding a magazine that I’m genuinely interested in, that is age-appropriate, and that doesn’t completely bore me has really helped. I read NEON, which has something to do with the slightly more ‘adult’ Stern I think. It’s aimed at people in their twenties, both men and women, and deals with a whole load of risque, controversial stuff in an intelligent way. I’ve picked up a load of slang, idiomatic language (that people actually use! As opposed to what your British 55 year-old GCSE German teacher tells you everyone says…), learnt a fair bit about German culture, and it doesn’t feel like a chore at all to sit there and read it.

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3) dict.cc

A helpful resource from the early days, this is THE BEST German-English translation site. Their ‘dictionary’ is huge, and up-to-date, and has loads of slang/idiomatic stuff too. I use their iPhone app all the time – you can download a free concise offline dictionary which is great for day-to-day. Get involved.

4) ‘Parallel text’ books

Mostly I feel it’s best to put the dictionary to one side and just read a text, accepting that you won’t know every word but trying to get the general gist at least. However, if you want to test yourself and focus on the finer details, parallel language books are great. I found this collection of Ernest Hemingway poetry on my bookshelf and read one a day in German and try to translate it as best I can and then check! Geeky.

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5) People!

This is so cheesy, but actually talking to people sure is the best way to learn a language, there’s no doubt about it! Accept that you’re going to embarrass yourself/not be understood/unknowingly make innuendos/accidentally allude to the Nazis or Hitler (surprisingly easy) and get on with it. I’m a big Couchsurfing fan, it’s been the best way of meeting locals so far, but MeetUp is good too. I’ll blog about meeting people some other time, when I’ve got a bit better at it!


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