Today’s post was inspired by a recurring theme I saw on some ex-pat forums. The world seems to be shrinking, with many people enjoying the freedom (and adventure) of working in foreign climes. (For my part, I left England to avoid the rain, when I noticed my fingers were permanently wrinkly ;o)
Sorry, where was I? Oh yeh, recurring theme. You’ve guessed it: “I’m living abroad and finding it difficult to integrate. Am I the only one who’s having trouble learning the language“? Of course I’d love to say: “yup, you’re a bit thick; everyone else picked it up after a few days“. But of course I’d be lying…so don’t despair…;o)
If you’ve read my “dVise German Revision for iPhone” post you’ll know that I’m living in Switzerland. As previously mentioned, I’d made several attempts at learning the lingo. But whilst I occupied the comfortable bubble afforded me by an international working environment, I of course made little progress. (Get that? Lazy…not thick. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it).
No magic short cut to share however. The big turning point, for yours truly, was a decent language course and I’d thoroughly recommend you taking one too. Sure, it costs…but it’s worth it. Trust me. I work from home these days and probably venture out less than I should. But thanks to the lessons, I’d now consider my German muscles a tad more buffed.
My face-to-face conversations are more diverse (and I rarely open with “Sprechen Sie Englisch“? these days). I’ll have more of a go at some of the crap that lands on my doormat. (That’s UK English for “in meinem Briefkasten“). Plus ad-hoc phone calls don’t evoke the same sense of panic they once did. Whether making or receiving calls, I’ll at least have a bash. (Unless of course it’s a double glazing salesman. In which case I can only speak English, I am indeed extremely thick and I can’t understand your accent. Terribly sorry old boy ;o)
Of course, the progress is not just down to the lessons and I still have plenty of room for improvement. (Multi-way conversations in noisy bars still freak me out and I still struggle with TV…with or without the sub-titles). But as you’d expect; what’s often effective with most challenges applies here too. By which I mean: the tried’n’trusted multi-pronged attack. Practice makes perfect, as they say…and the more & varied the better, (as the actress said to the bishop).
I remember reading a smashiin’ little ebook on the web somewhere; from a guy who’d learned umpteen different languages as a hobby. (Sounded a bit hat-stand to me, given how hard it was for me to make a modicum of progress in just one. But each to their own). Any way, this guy’s usual approach was to invest in a phrase book, a dictionary and a grammar book. Then he’d grab a newspaper and attempt to read it cover-to-cover. Not all in one sitting of course. Indeed it may take several weeks. But, for him, the sense of achievement at reading something more ambitious than: “Jane likes the dog. The dog likes Jane. Peter likes the dog. The dog likes Peter. Jane and Peter like the dog. The dog likes Jane and Peter”…is well worth the effort.
Personally, I don’t much care for dogs either…so, I reckon he’s got a point. How long it took before I attempted that, however, was another question. Where I live, there are several free newspapers available on or near the various trams, buses and trains. So they’re certainly worth a browse. As this multi-lingual guy (let’s call him “Mr.X”, as I can’t remember his name) says; if you read the same publication often enough, you’ll start to see the same words and phrases. (And if he didn’t, he should have…’cos it’s true).
These days, I try to browse the freebies. Plus, at home, I’m workin’ my way thru’ some Harry Potter books. Each one takes longer than a few weeks, but it’s giving me that same sense of achievement. As with newspapers, TV shows and anything more substantial than a few isolated sentences; you’re exposed to more interesting turns of phrase. Like most foreigners, I’m still prone to literal translation on occasion. Only to find that an expression that works in my mother tongue, doesn’t work in theirs. Still, I don’t mind if I make people smile ;o)
If you’re an absolute beginner, or only want to pick up a few key phrases for your next holiday/business-trip. I’d agree with the phrasebook recommendation. Not least, to avoid literal-translation-itis. Phrasebooks usually contain a phonetic component too; so you’ll have some clue wrt pronounciation. (Tho’ German’s fairly phonetic anyway, compared to say French with it’s abundance of silent syllables). Of course a pocket-sized dictionary is also handy on your travels.
If you carry a smart phone, you might be able to fit both in a single pocket. I don’t have a phrasebook I could recommend; but dictionary-wise I’d found the Linguee web-site pretty handy at home and therefore grabbed the Linguee app on my iPhone. It’s great in that it includes some phrasing to put words into context for you. In keeping with the ‘on-line‘ theme, I’d also recommend taking a look at the BBC’s German section and (once you have some German under your belt) the grammar examples on offer here: http://www.mein-deutschbuch.de.
When it came to the printed word I took my German teacher’s advice and grabbed a grammar book written in the language I was learning. (Em – Ubungsgrammatik Deutsch Als Fremdsprache in my case). The theory being that reading explanations in German, helps you kick the habit of translating backwards & forwards in your head. In terms of dictionaries I took the same approach with Langenscheidt Großwörterbuch Deutsch als Fremdsprache. I’d amassed a certain vocabulary, so I wanted to try thinking in German.
Earlier in my studies I’d stood on the dual-language side of the fence. With a decent sized Langenscheidt’s German/English dictionary at home and a smaller pocket-sized version on the go. (This was prior to my Inspector Gadget days of owning an iPhone). Hence I stuck with what I knew, later in my studies. (I’m sure others will have their own recommendations). One other Langenscheidt gem I would recommend however is Basic German Vocabulary. Which purports to cover the 4,000 most frequently used words in the German language. Now who wouldn’t wanna learn them?
Prior to the most recent German lessons, I’d also tried CDs. My personal favorites being the Michel Thomas series for beginners and advanced students. I guess if CDs are still in use for car and home these days; they’d be handy. Personally I sucked ’em into iTunes and whacked ’em on an iPod. Which was handy whilst commuting.
Some people recommend the Rosetta Stone language learning software. Which I also tried for a while. Rosetta Stone is great for linking images, listening, speaking, reading AND writing into the learning process. So it’s pretty funky. Tho’ the thing that first appealed to me about Rosetta Stone ended up being the very thing that let it down. Learning like a child learns it’s mother tongue. (Practice enough and things start to sound either right or wrong to your ear).
Personally, I prefer to learn the ‘why‘ as well. (Spell out a few grammar rules for me please; so I know why something is right and can have an educated guess when I come across something I haven’t seen/heard before).
Hmmm. That was a bit longer than originally intended. But hopefully someone finds it useful. ;o)