General Language Learning Advice

General Language Learning Advice

What’s on this page:

  • Find what works for you!
  • Work in small chunks.
  • SPEAK!!
  • Grammar matters. Vocabulary matters more!
  • HAVE FUN!!
  • MORE (links to more advice/resources; book recommendations)

0. Find what works for you! Everyone learns differently. This is especially true for language learning. Try out the advice below, notice what works for you, and focus on that!

  • If something is NOT working for you, look for alternatives!!

1. DO NOT MULTITASK!! In order to learn, you MUST pay attention to the meaning of what you are saying/writing/hearing/reading. Hear what you are reading/writing in your head. If you can do so without losing track of the meaning, reserve “2%” of your attention for noticing the details of the language: new words/expressions, the forms of articles (der, das, die, den, ein, eine…), the endings of verbs (gehe, gehst, geht…), of nouns (Freund, Freunde, Freunden…) and of adjectives (groß, große, großen, großes…), etc.

  • So: don’t watch TV in the background while doing your German homework; don’t talk to friends or browse Facebook while watching a German movie. If you need to block out distractions, play ambient music, or perhaps try some slow baroque music.
  • BUT: it IS worth listening to German audio in the background while you are doing things like washing dishes or driving. The more you can direct your attention to the German, the more you will learn – but be careful if you are driving: divided attention = less attention!
  • Here is a great article on the temptation to multitask. Search it for “cascade of negative outcomes” and scan the next few paragraphs! For advice on how to learn to resist multitasking, search the article for “marshmallow test” and read from there.

2. Work in small chunks. The explorer (not the actor!) Richard Burton, a prodigious language learner, wrote that he “never worked for more than a quarter of an hour at a time, for after that the brain lost its freshness.” Try to work on your German a little bit every day, and try to break up each day’s assignment into several chunks. Marathon sessions are both painful and inefficient.

3. SPEAK!! You will have your first small conversations on day 1 of German 101. Speak as much as you can, whenever you can. Don’t be shy, and don’t worry about mistakes or missing grammar: “Yesterday I eat Döner” is perfectly clear.

  • Speak in class, and on/near campus.
  • Talk to yourself in German – out loud, or in your head. Tell yourself in German what you’re doing, what you’re seeing, what you’re thinking. It’s fun, makes you more mindful, and will help you learn to talk about the things that are most relevant for you!
  • Some useful apps for speaking: HelloTalk and Italki. Click here for descriptions of and links to other resources.
  • Worth repeating: Don’t worry about mistakes. Research has shown that language acquisition happens in a predictable sequence of stages. Each stage is characterized by certain patterns of mistakes. So: you have to make mistakes in order to learn!!

4. Grammar matters. Vocabulary matters more! The more you can learn and review vocabulary, the better and faster you will learn German. Knowing vocabulary is also essential for understanding and practicing grammar.

  • Learn vocabulary by using it! The best way to study a vocabulary list is to form as many simple sentences as possible, as fast as possible – advice for doing this is here. In general, the more you speak (see above) and read, the more naturally you will learn vocabulary.
  • Much more vocabulary learning advice is here.
  • The “Döner” example above illustrates how well you can communicate with minimal grammar. With minimal vocabulary, you are lost!

5. HAVE FUN!! What is true for any subject is especially true for language learning: the mysterious process of language acquisition works MUCH better if you are having fun with the language than if you have to force yourself to learn it. Ideas:

  • Make up amusing sentences. Notice cultural differences. Notice words you like. Enjoy funny mistakes you make. Notice your progress. Listen for interesting things your classmates say, and for differences and things you have in common. Get to know new music, movies, cartoons, stories, characters. See how your ideas evolve when you try to express them simply in a new language. Think in German, or “Denglisch” [Deutsch + Englisch]. Say random things in German to your friends. Try fun activities from class in your “regular” life. Daydream about living in Germany, Austria or Switzerland, or make actual plans to go there – ETC.!

6. MORE:

  • More specific advice/resources:
    • Self-study advice for students who have or have not previously studied German. Includes pronunciation resources; apps for language learning; flashcard sites; info on online dictionaries; suggestions for listening practice resources; etc.
    • “Lernstrategien” Home Page: includes links to vocabulary learning strategies; listening ideas/resources; reading strategies; advice/resources related to writing; reasons to learn German; etc.
    • Here is some advice on “How To Learn A Foreign Language” compiled by UofM Academic Advising.
  • Book recommendations:
    • Gabriel Wyner: Fluent Forever: How to Learn Any Language Fast and Never Forget It: Includes especially good advice on learning pronunciation, and on making flashcards for vocabulary and grammar practice.
    • Benny Lewis: Fluent in 3 Months: How Anyone at Any Age Can Learn to Speak Any Language from Anywhere in the World: Great ideas on how to start speaking right away; great examples of how to use imagery and word association to learn vocabulary.