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Teaching Languages - Ideas from a student

By Monday, December 10, 2012


I've been taking an intro to German class that meets once a week for three hours. I know it's really important that I learn some German while I'm living here, even just to be polite since most people here speak English, but languages are something I'm not very good at (I went to a University where I could take a programming language instead of a human language) and make me very anxious about.

In middle and high school I took 5 years of Spanish, and absolutely hated it. I was a very shy, self conscious child, and making things up in a language I didn't understand in front of my class was very nerve wracking for me.

Not only did I have to get the words and grammar correctly, but I had to come up with an intelligent sentence to say with my limited vocabulary.

Looking back, I wasn't as nearly as bad as I thought. I didn't get good grades in Spanish because the grading policy would be half a point off per mistake. So if you wrote a sentence and forgot an accent, that sentence is now only 1.5 out of 2 points correct. Make another mistake, for example mixing up por and para and you're down to 1/2. 50%. And a big, fat F, despite having written an understandable sentence  (Private School education, you see)

But this time I'm an adult, and so are the other students. You learn by making mistakes, and the other people in the class learn from each others mistakes, too. As an adult, I was sure I could get over my fear of messing up, learn some German, make my life here easier and maybe make a friend or two.

And yet I find all those old feelings of apprehension and stage fright coming back to me. This time I really want to succeed, especially since I'm doing this for me and not a grade.

So I thought about what I was missing, where I was getting stuck, and what was bothering me. I think a lot of it comes down to not feeling like I have the words to express myself, let alone doing it correct grammatically. In fact, it doesn't really matter how good your grammar is if you don't have the vocabulary to get your point across.

The German Language collects articles like they're beanie babies, circa 1997. Too many, and most aren't even that cute. But before you can practice using the accusative indefinite article, you kinda need to know some nouns and verbs.

For example, the other day there was a short review of what we'd learned last week, in the class I'd missed when in Stockholm. They'd learned about hobbies, and how to ask someone what they do in their free time (at this point we can ask someone if they have kids, but not how to get to the bahnhof). So someone asks me what I like to do, and out of the list of maybe 10 options, half of them are sports (not for me, thank you) so I pick photography. Not I'm especially into photography, I just like going to places and events where good photos are taken (famous buildings, friends' houses, cafes, the lake, festivals) and trying to bring back a few mementos. But I had to choose something, "I had to leave most of things that are important to me in the US, so right now I mostly just read, draw, and mess around online" wasn't an option. So I picked the closest thing to the truth, just for the sake of answering.

Later during a break I asked the teacher how to say 'take a photo' - is it 'take a photo' 'make a photo', 'photograph a photo' or something entirely different? I had just been to the Vasa Museum in Stockholm and while you can take photos there, I know at a lot of places it's forbidden so I was wondering how I should ask for permission. From there she started asking if I had a good camera (It's decent, but it's a bridge camera, not a DSLR or anything) and all about the photography exhibit I absolutely had to see. I know she was just being friendly, but I suddenly felt like I had just misrepresented myself. I like taking photos, but I am absolutely not a photographer! My work often gets confused with photography, so this is a really important distinction for me to make, plus I know some great photographers whose photos are art, not like the snapshots I take.

Maybe I'm just silly and insecure, but feeling like I unintentionally mislead someone about myself. And that makes me uncomfortable.

So as a student of two languages, here are some things I think would make learning language easier:


  • First, give us a handout with lots and lots of vocab on it, either the first day of class or email it out. Even give it to us to take home before the class we'll use the words in. Make the required words in bold or separate them out some other way, but make sure there are lots of options in each category. 
    • This way students will be able to find words that apply to or are important to them and if they don't see what they're looking for, they'll have time to look it up. For example, I don't play any sports now, but at university I was a part of the fencing club - not very common! but it's interesting, and true - and if I have time to look it up before time I don't have to slow down the class and explain to my teacher what I want to say.
    • Students will also be able to have more control over how much of their personal life they talk about. Usually when someone doesn't want to share something with a group, they just don't bring it up. But when your teacher asks you something, for example what you did that weekend you can't refuse to answer without refusing to participate in the lesson as well. I know might seem trivial, but can you imagine having to answer if you and your boyfriend split up Friday, and you spent the weekend wallowing in the fallout? Or if you had some medical problem that you didn't want to share with the class, or a family emergency? The more words you know, the more control you have over what you share and what you don't. My husband suggested just making something up if you don't want to talk about it, like you read a book, but often that invites follow up questions, and the stress of concocting a story on the spot is not going to make class easier!
    • For languages in the same language group, students will be able to recognize similar words between their native language and the one they are learning which are often easier to remember. Or they'll see words that they'll connect to something else and remember that way. For example, the German word for 'fast' is schnell. I think this sounds a lot like 'snail', which is quite the opposite! Still, it was an easy connection for me to make that helped me remember the word.
    • Students coming to class already knowing a variety of words will feel much more confident and eager to participate. 
  •  If you're learning in a country that speaks a language other than your native language (or another you're comfortable in) words for emergency situations, like fire department, police, EMT, etc are really important. Our English words Hospital comes from a military and religious order (the Knights Hospitaller) so it's not exactly obvious and here, from what I understand, an Ambulance is a specific non governmental group, possibly a charity, that provides medical related transportation. I think what I'd ask for in an emergency would be a Notarzt (emergency doctor), and hope who ever was on the other end of the phone understood!
  • Make sure students know some comparisons. For example, lieben (to love) and leben (to live) sound almost identical to me but I had to ask the difference pronunciation in English. 
    • X and Y are similar/the same - Are X and Y similar/the same?
    • X and Y sound similar/the same
    • Are X and Y different?
    • X and Y are opposites / What is the opposite of X?
    • X is like Y, but ..
  • Some survival phrases. We usually learn how to say "Can I speak English?" "What does x mean?", "Could repeat that, slowly?" Again, a lot of these phrases I'm suggesting are just so we, as students, feel more in control. Sometimes I'd love to say "I forgot the word for X!" instead of just staying silent looking awkward and confused.
    • This is difficult!
    • Can you come back to me?
    • Can I have a moment to think?
    • Could you give me an example?
    • I forget X...
    • Let me check my notes.
  • Straight Translations. Yes, I know it's super important to think in a language, rather than think in English and translate in your head before speaking, but if you have trouble coming up with creative things to say on the spot, having the content already lets you focus on the grammar. 

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