The 5 Most Annoying Pieces of Language Learning Advice

The more arduous a task, the more pages you’ll find devoted to “shortcuts” and “revolutionary techniques”. Language learning is a prime example. Bah humbug, I say.  Below are my five all-time favourite bullshit tips. (Incidentally, they all have one thing in common: Their faulty rationales are based on a tiny nugget of truth. Once you shine a light on them, though, they quickly turn into fool’s gold.)

“Learn like a baby”

This one has got to be the top fallacy coursing through the language forums. Actually, it’s not so much learners’ forums that propagate this myth, it’s companies trying to sell their “super effective” language teaching method, which will have you learning your new language with about as much effort as a rosy-cheeked infant sucking a candy cane.

Yeah. Right. First of all, have you ever observed a young child learning its first language? It makes a ton of mistakes and is corrected by its elders every two seconds. It’s definitely NOT a doddle for anyone involved. And neither are these companies going to supply you with a set of “language babysitters” to bake cookies with you and follow you around the house imparting all that useful domestic vocab every three-year-old has down pat.

Second, you are NOT a child. You cannot learn as fast as they do. And there is an even greater obstacle: You already have at least one language firmly installed into your brain. An old dog CAN learn new tricks, but there’ll be blood, sweat and a lot of yowling involved.

Any new language will, inevitably, be filtered through the linguistic framework that is already firmly imprinted into your hard-as-dried-window-putty grey matter; your adult mind is irreversibly “contaminated”, it will never revert to its pliable, pristine, virgin state. Besides grappling with unfamiliar grammatical structures, you’re highly unlikely to ever reproduce the full register of sounds. In other words, no matter how good you get, you’ll be speaking your second language with an accent, even if it’s only a residual, barely noticeable one.

Expecting an adult to acquire language in the same way a young child does is like expecting a frog to sprout a fifth leg. Well, bad news: that leathery old croaker is no longer a nimble little tadpole. And neither are you. And that’s that. That new leg will have to be a strap-on.

OldFrog

Grain of truth: There is something to be said for copying native speakers conscientiously, learning the appropriate language for a given situation and, above all, not overthinking things. A capital advantage, that very young children have, is that they do not question, they just accept. (Well, actually, kids DO ask a lot of questions from a certain age, but those are mainly to do with their surroundings). An adult language learner would do well take a leaf out of their book and not get bogged down in examining every single idiomatic expression in minute detail. “But it’s NOT logical!” is not an argument you can ever throw at a language and expect to win. Nor are you likely to hear it from a toddler.

“Start speaking the language from day 1”

Nice idea.

Now back to reality: You cannot launch into a conversation if all you have is two dozen words and no clue how to string them into an intelligible sentence. Most people need a great deal more input and many hours of conscious listening before they are confident enough to actually speak. There is nothing wrong with that.

And, even more importantly: there is nothing whatsoever wrong with YOU if you don’t feel much like talking in the early stages. In fact, the most accomplished foreign language speakers I know are reluctant speakers who took their time before starting to verbalise their thoughts.

Grain of truth: Your mouth actually needs to practise making those new sounds, and the earlier the better. It’s no good just listening and thinking the words. Some people even practice with themselves in front of a mirror. I’ve not tried this, but I can imagine that it might actually work. You need to say the words out loud, repeat what you hear, and, whenever possible, be corrected by a native speaker. It’s just that I would not really class these early attempts of parroting words and phrases as “speaking the language”, but this is how certain language courses market themselves.

“Don’t translate – just think in the language!”

The rationale behind this little gem of ill-conceived tripe is as follows: Thinking first of what you want to say in your own language and then translating it into the target language takes an aeon. Hence, if you just ditched that time-consuming first part, you’d be virtually fluent straight away!

Let me give you an analogy: A management consultant is called in to make an airline more efficient. The objectives are to save on fuel and get the planes to their destinations faster. The consultant analyses all the processes, procedures, inputs and outputs in great detail. Then he puts his conclusion to the senior pilot: “Well, it seems that 60% of your fuel and 30% of your time input goes into take-off and ascent. We need to get rid of these two phases and just focus on cruising.”

You see the flaw in the logic, huh? In order to get cruising in a new language, you first need to get your capabilities up to the right altitude. You cannot possibly start off there. I no longer translate from German to English or from English/German to Spanish or whatever, I just switch. It took me years to be able to do this. I still have to laboriously convert every sodding word into French (since I’m a beginner), and it’s a total bitch.

Grain of truth: You will not speak fluently while you’re still needing to translate every word and every phrase. However, you cannot magically circumvent this phase – that would be a classic case of putting the cart before the horse! Translating in your head does not mean that you are inherently inefficient, stupid, or doing it wrong. You are just at that stage in your learning right now, that’s all.

“Adopt another persona – act like you’re of X nationality”

I remember being quite horrified when I came across this one for the first time. I can’t even think of how it might work in practice without having to cringe. Gallic shoulder shrugs performed by French learners to the point of articular dislocation? Students of German yelling “Jawoll mein Oberst!” at four hundred decibels like in a WW2 movie?

What could “impersonating” someone of another nationality/culture possibly entail if not a rendition of lame stereotypes? If there’s one surefire way of alienating the people whose language you’re trying to learn, then this has got to be it. Humans across the globe, as diverse as their cultural backgrounds may be, do not generally take kindly to fake people, and even less so if they appear to be ridiculing them.

Frenchman

Grain of truth: Once you’ve lived in another country for years, you adopt new mannerisms, hand gestures, facial expressions, cadence and speech rhythms etc. We mirror what we see around us, this happens quite naturally as we gradually adapt to a different social environment. It’s a basic survival mechanism. When a bi/multi-lingual human switches between languages, their way of thinking changes and a different aspect of their personality comes to the fore. It’s not an act. It’s who they are.

“You just pick it up”

It’s a pervasive misconception that all it takes to learn a foreign language is to go and live in a place where the language is spoken, and, hey presto, give it a year or two, you’ll be gabbing away like a native.

Remember, you’re an adult, not a preschooler. Without at least some targeted study of these alien structures, your brain just won’t know what to do with all this confusing information. It’s like seeds bouncing off a parched, unploughed field – in this unreceptive environment, they have nowhere to take root. 

In order to assimilate new input, your brain needs to be taught to recognise, sort and categorise before it can deploy. You actively need to help this process by constructing a whole new set of “boxes” in your mind. New boxes have a habit of arriving in flat-pack format and they turn into a usable facility only by filling them, bit by bit, with new grammar, vocab and idiomatic expressions acquired by focused studying and real-life input working in tandem.

Grain of truth: Immersion rules.

Cake rules, too!

Cake rules even more…

Have you ever been seduced into following some ingenious-sounding language learning advice which absolutely did not work for you? What was it and why did it fail? I’d love to have your feedback :)

 

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Language Matters: Gender Benders On The Rampage

If there’s one thing that really vexes native English speakers when embarking on learning a second language, then it’s the curious feature of grammatical gender. The concept that nouns can be feminine, masculine or neuter is most baffling to them. English is one of the few Indo-European languages which do not have gendered nouns. Or, rather, it no longer has them.

Since English is the haughty offspring of an ancient variant of German, it once boasted three genders, just like its parent. But sometime after the Norman conquest, the genders bit the dust. German and French genders were clearly no love match and battled it out until total annihilation.

In my observation, the biggest hurdle for native English speakers is not the existence of grammatical gender per se, but all the mental energy they waste in their futile attempts to find logic in it. So, once and for all: THERE. IS. NO. LOGIC. It’s just like the weather. Or taxes. Or what happens to pairs of socks in the laundry.

It would probably be a bit harsh to imply that native English speakers are the only numpties in this regard. I have witnessed several curious reactions when speakers of a gendered language are confronted, for the first time, with another language whose genders don’t match theirs. I remember one instance, in a Portuguese class a few years ago, when my Spanish classmate, a builder in his early fifties about to start a job in Brazil, was dumbfounded by the discovery that a Portuguese ballpoint pen (caneta) was FEMININE, when, to his mind, pens (bolígrafo in Spanish) were MASCULINE.

“Look, Pablo,” I said, “if it ain’t got a dick or a cunt, how do you know what sex something is?!” (Note to aghast US readers: In Spain, such evocative vocab does not usually cause affront*)

But even this seemingly convincing line of argument has to be approached with extreme caution: In German, for instance, while man (Mann) and woman (Frau) are respectively masculine and feminine, the German word Weib, which is an outdated (and in modern usage a vulgar) term for “woman” closely related to the English “wife” is, in fact, neuter and NOT feminine.

The German word for “girl”, Mädchen, is also neuter, although there is at least some logic to that one, as it’s the diminutive of the (also outdated) feminine noun Maid (maiden), and all diminutives are neuter in German.

And, returning to our colourful vocab once more, it gets even more paradoxical: In Spanish, for example, the aforementioned naughty words for male and female genitalia are feminine and masculine, respectively, not the other way around, as you might expect.

In the native English speaker’s mind, this sort of thing causes mayhem. Let me illustrate: I respond to queries on language learning forums, and a few weeks ago, a Brit had a minor existential crisis over the fact that person (persona) is feminine in Spanish, and that, when referring to himself as a person, he would – shock horror! – turn into a GIRL! Oh, the indignity of it! Just imagine what will happen the day he finds out that the…erm… most masculine of his male parts is a feminine entity in Spanish. At least grammatically speaking.

Taking the genders of nouns in one’s native language to be universal brings some interesting problems. A Spanish friend of mine told me once that he had encountered some toilets in a German restaurant labelled not with the internationally recognised stick man and woman, but instead with a sun and a moon. In German, the sun (die Sonne) is feminine, while the moon (der Mond) is masculine. In Spanish (and all other Romance languages, I believe) it happens to be the other way around. I leave it to you to imagine the rest of the anecdote…

As a native German speaker, the concept of gendered nouns gives me no trouble, but I am nevertheless experiencing a maddening – and unexpected! – predicament.

I speak Spanish fairly well by now and know the genders of most nouns. I cannot, however, for the life of me, get my adjectives and pronouns to consistently agree with my nouns. This is not so much of an issue when the adjective either immediately precedes or follows the noun: una chica gorda, un buen hombre, etc. easy peasy.

But if the adjective or pronoun appear in a different part of the sentence at some distance from noun they refer to, or in another sentence altogether, I find that my brain will often revert to the GERMAN gender rather than the Spanish one, because that’s how genders were first installed on my hard drive.

On some primal level, a table will always be masculine to me rather than feminine as in Romance languages , and, hence, it takes an immense amount of concentration to maintain gender agreement in my Spanish/Portuguese/French sentences. When I’m tired or my attention slips for just a few seconds, my brain will go straight to its native-language default setting – how could it be any other way? Since I’m pedantic to the extreme conscientious in my linguistic exploits, I find this insanely frustrating.

Messing up difficult grammatical constructions and features, such as the subjunctive, is one thing, but coming to terms with the fact that I probably won’t ever be able to get something as basic as adjective-noun gender agreement down to a pat, is, quite frankly, a crippling blow. Just how am I going to get over it?!

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Ah yes… something like this sure dulls the pain :)

[*For those interested in colloquial language, you may enjoy reading about how the most worstest of bad words in the English language is part of everyday parlance in Spain: Language Matters: C-Words of Difference]

There’s Sculptures In My Woods!

Today’s plan already seemed like the perfect plan: A cake outing, preceded by a walk through the woods around a local lake. But little did we know that there had been an invasion of the weird and wonderful:

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What the…? This is when we twigged that something wasn’t quite right…

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Nature sure is amazing, but we’d never seen any of THAT colour before

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Flying tropical fish?

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A giant clothes peg, anyone?

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The Delta-7 Jedi Starfighter prototype

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Wolves or wild boar?

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Not a sculpture, but pretty :)

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Awww, someone was worried about her…

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And a delicious Apfelstrudel for me at the end :)

 

Pea Soup Productions Presents

Snow on New Year’s Day, they said. Proper Winter to make an appearance, finally, at the crack of 2016, they said. What we’ve got instead is fog, grizzly drizzle and all the cheeriness of a Siberian laundry  with the heating up the creek.

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WW1 Memorial in my village

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Have I depressed you quite enough yet..? Welcome to the club!

Wait… maybe some spiritual guidance to lift our mood? I’ve got just the thing: Last week, while the weather was still nice and sunny, I came across this saucy lady on one of my walks:

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This being Bavaria, there’s thousands of Madonnas everywhere, perched on pedestals, squeezed into grottos and stuck to the lower echelons of crucifixes, but they don’t usually wear bright red undergarments, nor red lipstick, like this one. Whory Mary…!

This is how my village looked last year at this time of year: What a difference!

Germans Like It Explicit!

Everyone knows that Germans have a set of rules for everything. And if there’s no official rule consecrated by some recognised authority, then you will usually find detailed “suggestions” not only on HOW to do something, but also WHY.

I spotted this little gem on the notice board in the block of flats where my mother lives, right next to the Hausordnung (house rules):

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Someone’s got a Phd in Laundry Room Physics… 

Translation:

Please note:

The drying of laundry in the basement leads to high air humidity.

This, in turn, causes already semi-dry items of clothing to re-absorb moisture as well as any newly pegged-out washing to dry more slowly.

For this reason we would like ask you, during times of high humidity (i.e. when a lot of washing has been hung out to dry), to open the windows in the drying room for a short duration of time in order to allow the air to circulate.

Please do not forget to close the window again afterwards.

If only the Kyoto Agreement had been drafted by my mother’s landlords, it would never have failed…

Here’s another example of instructive cajoling, fresh from my village green, aimed at the pooch-owning general public:

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Translation: Dog owners – BE CONSIDERATE! Just in case…for now or for later. Pull bag. [Some hooligan has slapped a parody FC Bayern München sticker right across the pictorial guidance, but at least it matches the dispenser’s colour scheme]

What gets me is the utterly redundant “just in case… for now or for later”. I mean, not even German German shepherd dogs plant their malodorous pine cones like clockwork every day at the same hour in the same spot. So, if you’re walking your four-legged poop machine and you ain’t got a poop bag and you see a poop bag dispenser, you’d know what to do, right?

I suspect that the company was so proud of its word play, that it just had to get it out there. Let me explain: The word “Fall” in the idiomatic expression Im Falle eines Falles (= just in case, or, literally “in the case of a case”) has another meaning: fall/drop. So, in case something happens to…erm… drop from your dog unexpectedly… ah haha… ha.

As you can tell, I didn’t have to go very far to find both of these examples. They are everywhere. But WHY?! Do Germans really think that their fellow human beings are not smart enough to work these things out for themselves? Or do they just enjoy being patronising?

I think the issue is two-fold. First of all, Germans are, on the whole, a bunch of pragmatic realists. As such, they accept that about a tenth of the populace consists of morons. What Germans do not accept, however, is that those 10% are let off the hook on account of being dimwitted. Therefore, they resort to stating the bleedin’ obvious. On every noticeboard, on every street corner.

The other reason is linked to their compulsive drawing up of rules for everything. Rules have to be pretty watertight, not only for the benefit of the cretins, but also for the 10% situated at the opposite end of the spectrum, namely the very special breed of German Smart Arse (“Klugscheisser”). If a German Smart Arse flouts a rule, their first recourse is to poke their sausage finger at an omission or ambiguity in the rules.

This gives rise to the need for detailled written instructions for even the most common-sense behaviours meant to ease communal living. It’s the German way of creating social pressure for a special sub-species of the German Smart Arse, aka the Lazy Arse Klugscheisser, by obliterating their first line of defence, which usually goes something like this: “Wo steht das?!” (Where does it say that?!).

[For some more Germanalysis, see this post: The German National Character Explained in Three Culturally Loaded Phrases ]

 

 

 

 

When Winter Just Isn’t Winter

There’s people walking about wearing T-shirts. And cycling in shorts. In Bavaria. In late December. Outside!

It smells like autumn. But it feels just like spring. Even the bees are busy, but busy with what…? Flowers are far and few between. Plant life is dormant. Or trying to be. The poor buzzy blighters can’t sleep – it’s too hot to hibernate.

This non-winter is a tricky situation not just for them, but also for faux photographers like me. Bavaria is pretty in the snow. In absence of a powdery white blanket beautifying the season’s barrenness, there’s usually at least an early morning dusting of frost gracing the trees, making them sparkle in the sunshine.

But this year, with temperatures persistently well above zero, everything is brown and (brownish) green. The gently rolling countryside, though easy on the eye when you’re standing in it, turns into nothing-to-write-home-about snaps of muddy fields and dead bristly bits. And my camera is way too crappy to capture the faint silhouettes of the snow-capped Alps towering above the landscape in the far distance, like ghostly dinosaurs.

I had to re-think my strategy. So, here it is: Big skies, small details, textures and splashes of colour where I could find them. And trying not to get myself arrested while loitering around people’s garden fences.

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Birch trees laden with mistletoe

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PC260116 copy

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And I know you’ve all been waiting for this:

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Mum’s Christmas baking :)

 

Some of you may remember that last year’s winter-time shots of my tiny little village and surroundings were wildly different:

A stunning white Christmas: https://ladyofthecakes.wordpress.com/2014/12/26/a-white-christmas-after-all/

Followed by an equally dazzling New Year: https://ladyofthecakes.wordpress.com/2015/01/01/a-happy-new-year-from-narnia/

Apparently, there will be snow next week. Am not holding my breath…

Polywhat…?

“Let me think about it,” was the response from my Toledo friends when I nudged them to come along to Madrid with me on Sunday for a Polyglot Meet-up. As if I couldn’t see their eyes glaze over with the red **NERD-ALERT** warning lights flashing behind…

So I went on my own.

I’d never been to such an event before. Social gatherings – hrrumpfh. But I quite fancied this one, not least because I would finally get to meet Alex Rawlings in person. I came across this personable polyglot a couple of years ago, when the BBC featured him in this video showing off his language skills. I started following his blog and we exchanged a handful of messages. Then, a few weeks ago, I was delighted to read that he was organising a meeting for language enthusiasts in Madrid.

Atocha Station, Madrid

Beautiful Atocha Train Station, Madrid, taken Sunday night

I’d had no trouble finding the venue, although the restaurant seems kinda deserted when I walk in. I eventually find a member of staff fiddling with a table cloth.

Excuse me, I’m here for the polyglot meeting.

The polywhat…? What is that?!

I decide to take a different approach.

Some people have booked a room for an event here this afternoon. Has anyone arrived yet?

Well… there’s some people downstairs…

He points me in the direction.

I recognise Alex straight away. Unexpectedly, he also recognises me as “Lady Of The Cakes”. I’m not quite sure how or why… it’s been almost a couple of years since we exchanged those two or three messages on the blogs. He’s been hopping from country to country and must have met thousands of new people. I guess having a superhuman memory and being a polyglot go hand-in-hand. That would also explain why I’m not one.

The organisers have prepared tables with language flags and ice breaker games. But there is no ice to be broken: People arrive and they immediately start chatting to the next-best complete stranger. I notice that most arrive unaccompanied… evidently, I wasn’t the only one cruelly abandoned by their so-called friends…

Me, Johanna (one of the organisers), Mr Circus and Alex Rawlings

Me, Johanna (one of the organisers), Bar (aka Mr Circus) and Alex Rawlings

Pretty much everyone seems to speak Spanish and English, the rest is potluck. I meet a Spaniard who has the best German accent I have ever heard. (From a Spaniard.) I chat to a young Israeli student, switching between English, Spanish and Portuguese. I ask him what he’s studying. Circus studies, he tells me. I blink. I confirm that I understood correctly. It’s like someone telling you they’re an accountant and you’re stuck for a response, but for the exact opposite reason. My brain is whirring with questions. Turns out his specialism is juggling, not lion taming.

My worst fear – that someone accosts me in French (this is my kryptonite right now!) – does not materialise. Instead, I get myself caught up in a maelstrom of Hebrew, until the speaker realises from my deer-in-the-headlights-stare that I’m not getting any of this. I point them towards Mr Circus.

Three hours go by in a flash. I only manage to nab a fraction of the people who I would have liked to interrogate have a chat with. I fix a lunch date for Tuesday with a lovely couple visiting from Vermont who had already been planning to come to Toledo.

On my way back to Atocha station, I’m thinking… I wouldn’t mind doing this again… and it didn’t even involve cake! I must be coming down with something…

And one more...

And one more…

Post Script: It has just transpired that the next Polyglot Meetup Madrid event will be held on 17 January 2016. Just in case anyone wants to “think about it”… ahem.

[Find Alex Rawlings’s language blog here: www.rawlangs.com]