Learning a new language can really be a revelation to a new way of thinking. Many people struggle with language learning, but if there were a Western language that most people would agree on being impossible to truly master, it would probably be German.
I have faced this opinion many times during my 20 years of teaching German as a foreign language, and I must admit that I initially also believed that learning German was truly one of the most difficult educational challenges one could take on.
The learner is not the problem; it’s the system.
This is based on what I experienced during the first 13 years of my career, when I witnessed many German learners fail and saw only a handful of them leave with a smile and the ability to express themselves fluently in my native language. However, those who failed and those who succeeded often shared similar levels of intelligence and a comparable willingness to learn.
This caused me to ask myself, why were some successful and others not? To answer this question, I intensified my research on how to learn a language efficiently and effectively, and it slowly dawned on me that it was not the language that was the problem; it was how it was—and still is—being taught.
What does it mean to learn a language?
Learning a language is far more than the simple acquisition of words or phrases combined with a few grammar rules, and the mastery of pronunciation and sentence structure. One of the biggest challenges when learning a new language is to deal with the emotions that come up when trying to express yourself and realizing that it is impossible to do so the way you are used to in your first language. Add a bit of – that easily occurs when you are afraid of not understanding the other and of not being understood – and you’ll get an idea of the scope of the problem. Of course, this language-learning anxiety is not limited to the German language.
However, German can basically be the easiest language on earth if, and that’s a big “if”, it is taught well – which is of course also true for any other language out there. If a language is taught well, the learner will experience much less stress and will even be able to enjoy the process of learning. Unfortunately, I find that this is rarely the case. I will now describe what I consider the three major crimes against German learners. If you want to skip the sad news, scroll down to “The good news” in the last paragraph. There, I’ll suggest a way out of inefficient and ineffective German learning.
They are throwing the baby out with the bath water
The worst of all teaching crimes is that many language schools and apps still teach German exclusively in German (as part of what is often termed “immersive language learning”). If you put language teachers in favour of such an approach, in an immersive class themselves, they admit to secretly using a dictionary to be able to follow what’s going on. This and many other practical examples of the inefficiency of this approach are detailed on Professor W. Butzkamm’s Homepage (in German).
Checking your dictionary and trying to translate what you have just heard, is the most natural reaction to being exposed to foreign words that you don’t understand. We are adults—we question things, and sometimes also want to understand a grammar rule clearly, not just somehow vaguely, and there is no better way to make sure students fully understand what’s going on than to explain things to them in their native language or a language that they already understand very well.
If you are a beginner German learner, an immersive approach will take you an awful lot of time and make you feel inadequate as you remain unable to express yourself before you get a grasp of even the simplest of rules and principles which could have been easily explained to you within minutes if your tutor had only used English at the start.
Why group lessons are more expensive than private lessons
The second biggest crime is group classes. The majority of language teaching is still taking place this way. In my opinion, group lessons are more expensive than one-on-one classes because they are highly inefficient. Did you know that less than 55% of German learners in so-called integration courses reach a basic level of understanding after seven months in an intensive course undefined
Learning a language as an adult is a very intimate experience that requires an immense amount of courage, as one risks losing one’s face over and over again in the process of redefining one’s identity from scratch. One is, in essence, linguistically reborn.
While working in a small group can be more motivating than working on your own, you still need a solid stroke of luck to be mixed together with people who encourage and challenge you to improve your German and give you the momentum you need to succeed.
Taking into consideration that we all have our own knowledge and learning background, as well as different language-learning skill levels, and that a class size is generally 10-20, it will always be difficult trying to balance the different learning styles present in the classroom in order to please all course participants. At best, it will satisfy a certain number of learners, whose learning capabilities are suited to the classroom’s speed and style. Those who need more time and support will fall behind and blame themselves for being too untalented or for not putting enough work into their German learning. Those who are faster than the rest might seek extra attention from the tutor in order to not get bored, or simply improve their doodling skills.
While there are counter measures such as building working groups with similar learning capabilities, I can say from my own experience in the past 20 years on both sides of the classroom, that they will almost always be imprecise, time consuming, and still far less efficient than proper individual tuition.
If you consider the often-average quality of the lessons and the possibility that you will lose all faith in your own language learning skills and efforts, Of course, there are also bad private tutors out there, but the probability of succeeding in your German learning with a good private tutor is in my experience much higher than when working with a good group tutor due to the reasons mentioned above.
At a cheap language school, you may pay up to 1,200 EUR for six months of group tuition. However, you will only have a less than 50% chance of reaching your goal.
Investing this amount in a good private tutor in combination with learning aids—such as the online German course I designed—would significantly increase your chances of succeeding in learning German. It is not the quantity of lessons that makes a difference, but their quality. In a one-on-one setting you won’t need as many lessons as in a group course where the tutor’s attention is be shared by all students. Private lessons can also be easily conducted via Skype, saving you travel time to and from physical classes. You can also take breaks without losing touch with the curriculum and you will always get answers to your questions instead of having to listen to other people’s problems (and bad German).
Why people really learn German – The benefit of learner independence
The third crime is a crime against the learner’s independence. Ideally, students are taught learning techniques that help them to become independent of their teacher and course materials. Unfortunately, I have not yet come across any useful examples in classrooms or textbooks, which is why I have decided to build my own course to fill this gap. My course consists of a number of learning techniques such as ‘preaching’, ‘the secretary technique’ and others, which make learning more natural, repeatable and fun.
It is obvious why students often don’t learn learning techniques: If you try to teach learners these in a language they don’t yet fully understand, they come across as incredibly complex. The irony is that the most efficient learning techniques are not complex at all, as long as they are explained in a language the learner fully understands.
In short: German learners are exposed to material in a language they yet have to learn. This material is created to please hundreds of thousands of people, and therefore must ignore any individual’s needs. On top of this, no tools are offered to learn the language independently; instead, the information is spoon-fed to them, making them dependent on material and teacher, which is in contrast to their core motivation of becoming a more independent individual.
The good news
While the preceding paragraphs have drawn not too optimistic a picture of the traditional choices German language learners have today, there is hope in the form of already-existing digital tools.
Just to make it very clear: I am not criticizing any of the existing language-learning apps such as Duolingo, Babbel, Rosetta Stone, and Busuu; however, these only fix a few of the issues mentioned above.
Also, my own online course has yet to reach its full potential, but we are getting closer and closer with each day. Below you find solutions which will help fix the current issues in German language learning, these can be applied to classrooms, private teaching and language learning apps.
Solution 1 – Treat individuals as individuals and speak to them in a language they understand.
The first thing that has to change is that German should be taught in a language the student understands. Simply translating materials into all possible languages does not solve this, and so, to create an efficient and effective German online course, one must consider the relation between the student’s native language and the beautiful German language.
I envision a highly individualized and bespoke German learning platform with the aim of making itself dispensable as soon as possible so that learners can go out there and use their German in the real world.
Solution 2 – Apply science for real.
The current variety of apps miss a sensible didactical design. Even though many apps or new textbooks state that they use an up-to-date scientific approach, this is only a very thin veneer. They simply add pictures to their textbooks, have random and isolated interactive exercises or a simple spaced repetition system—basically an automatically timed review pattern—which as well as it is intended, doesn’t mean at all that they are applying those same scientific insights in a way that would make a difference to the way German has been taught in the past 50 years.
While there is evidence that these measures increase the efficiency and affectivity of language learning as compared to traditional measures such as rote repetition, which is the official term for memorizing things by mere repetition, or tedious translation exercises, they must be embedded in an overall context and in a specific way to actually unlock their full potential.
Images are wonderful tools to engage learners in a discussion, but simply using them to illustrate a word in the title of a text doesn’t do their learning potential any justice. Repetition certainly still has an immense value in the language learning process, and if done right can lead to the desired result of speaking without much thinking.
I’ve taken this technique to the next level by letting learners practice bite-sized mini dialogues on their own while recording themselves so that they get instant feedback on their current speaking skill. A dedicated student of smarterGerman even created an (that’s Amazon’s term for an app on their Echo device) for this technique, which I have named “Preaching” as one repeats a certain structure over and over again until one doesn’t have to think about it anymore. A more detailed explanation and example of this technique can be previewed in my online course here.
What’s more, an automated review sounds like a good idea and certainly is as it takes a lot of organizational stress off a learner’s shoulder. But if the wrong material is reviewed automatically, nothing is won. Many spaced-repetition vocabulary courses on popular platforms such as Memrise offer isolated vocabulary. A more scientific approach would be the use of chunks, short groups of words that build a logical unit. latter looks very different from the former which is the source of a lot of confusion when trying to understand and to speak. In addition, the former is pedantic and formal, while the latter is “German in action” – a more colloquial form.
Our short-term memory has a limited capacity for new information. By using chunks, more information can be taken in and recalled later on in the automatically instead of having to be constructed from scratch or out of context.
In language learning it is also crucial to tap into the student’s intrinsic motivation. On most apps, extrinsic motivation is used (e.g. competitive rankings). Extrinsic motivational measures can even be undefined if they are e.g. aiming at the learner’s participation rather than achieving a specific goal or if the reward seems too good to be true or too small to be bothered with.
The best thing to do is to enable learners to follow their motivation and to support them on their way. A good course offers learners achievable milestones, quick and consistent success experiences, e.g. by allowing the learners to test themselves and to provide guidance in case of failure or by helping them to find their own mistakes instead of taking such an opportunity from them by simply providing them with a correct answer. An example would be a little task that the learner has to accomplish in real life (where possible) like e.g. sending a postcard to someone. This task can be easily prepared and put to the test. If the learner fails maybe because the conversation partner in the post office used unexpected phrases or questions, that experience can be analyzed and repeated after the initial dialogue had been updated with the new input.
Solution 3 – Create a safe virtual space to meet others.
Finally, while I have mainly pointed out the downsides of group lessons, there are still a few reasons why learners chose to learn a language in a classroom setting. Those should be considered when one tries to transfer the learning situation into the digital world. For example, the main idea of a group classroom is to offer the learner a creative and safe space in which learners can support and interact with each other. This aim can be achieved much more easily with the help of an online . At smarterGerman, we have set one up and are experimenting with different ways of interaction; check out my smarterGerman learners forum.
When these three solutions are embodied in a user-friendly, clear, and pleasing design, German-learning and language-learning in general will rise to their potential of becoming the wonderful experience currently only few among us can experience consistently.
Despite my clear and critical words regarding the current teaching situation in the language-learning world, my appreciation goes to all language teachers, schools and app development teams, and above all to all language learners out there who are trying to achieve the seemingly difficult task of learning a new language. You show courage and compassion for others and yourself by doing so. These are the traits that I love to see more present in today’s world.