Photo: bbernard/Shutterstock

How NOT to Learn a Language

by Charlie Pite Mar 10, 2015

HERE’S a conversation-ending dialogue I’ve become used to having with Germans I’ve just met:

Them: “Du sprichst sehr gut Deutsch. Seit wann wohnst du hier?”
(You speak German very well. How long have you lived here?)
Me: “Fast sieben Jahre.”
(Almost seven years.)
Them: “Oh.”
(I take it all back. Your German is atrocious.)

I swapped London for Berlin to reveal a profound self-truth; that I am ─ truly ─ a useless git. Despite this, on meeting new arrivals to Germany I’m full of advice on how to settle, integrate, and learn the language. They never listen to me of course. Why should they?

Two words: Survivorship bias.

Like shaping a six-pack or making your first million, the genre of polyglotism boasts plenty of success stories from those we assume to be experts. We read and replicate what they say because it worked. For them.

Such attention elevates successful people to a position of faultlessness that doesn’t exist. We all make mistakes, but when we succeed regardless, hindsight too often confuses such quirks of fortune with the keys to success. One guy losing half his body weight on a diet of Subway sandwiches is a great story, but inspired weight watchers ignore the company’s more cumbersome customers at their peril.

Some still reach their destination without taking the most advisable route. Most get lost along the way. That’s why learning from failure is so important.

The heroes of linguistic legend don’t tell you what not to do because they don’t know. I do! I’m so bad at learning my desired language that I’m even missing a class right now to write this article.

Avoid every step that follows and you’ll speak better German than me in no time (whether you want to or not).

1. Be proud

Starting your first second language is a humbling experience. You’ll speak like an infant for quite a while. Since you’re not one, expect to be spoken to as if you’re grossly underachieving. It will be very frustrating at times.

Don’t rest on your mother tongue in order to better articulate your point to somebody who may, as a consequence, understand it less. You will only have to speak more slowly and omit all interesting words as your fluency suffers. Finally forgetting how to say anything at all is pretty much the worst-case scenario on your language-learning journey.

2. Just pick it up!

I spent three summers working on an English-immersion camp in Germany. It was mercifully less heavy-handed than one might expect from a German camp, but it worked. At least for some kids.

For some kids it didn’t. For some it worked better the second time. Or third. Some just ended up resenting their parents.

It completely depends on your disposition and the language itself. Different languages demand different areas of focus and not everybody learns all of those best the same way. My own experience with simply “picking up” a language created something new, unique, and comprehensible only to me. I spent my first months of German school unlearning it.

3. Dive in blind

Language is a minefield. For every noun I learned in my first two and a half years, I considered the gender-specific article to be excess baggage. I didn’t remember “the” providing much of a challenge in English so figured I could learn the seemingly more important stuff first and come back to it.

Now I have to relearn all of those nouns! Yaaaayyyyyyyy…!

4. Make excuses

“Everyone speaks such good English here that it’s just too easy not to speak Ger…”

Shut up, younger me! Excuses remain valid for only as long as you’re trying to work around them.

To my credit I realised this after only about the thousandth time. I know people who have been here longer than me, speak far worse German, and are still doing it. The problem is so deeply ingrained that others — even Germans — continue to make excuses for me when I abase my ability.

Learning a language is hard. Other people’s politeness is not the reason you’re doing it so badly.

5. Go word-for-word

Overcome your dictionary dependence. Each language has its own way of saying the things you don’t realise are unique to yours. Grammar and cultural references can make direct translations redundant.

You can’t really speak a language until you can think in it. Learning the words for things is the easy part. For proof, simply list all the synonyms for “drunk” you know. See?

6. Take plenty of time off

Winding down is important. You can’t possibly forget that much on a single day off. Or two. And another and another…

Lose a level.

How have you made a mess of language learning? Do share!

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