Germany and “What did they just say?”

So, I mentioned previously that my wife and I were going to Germany for our honeymoon. We went in early September, and were there for a little over a week. It was a great trip, and I’m glad to have been able to go.

Obviously, with my love for the German language, I was excited for the opportunity to be surrounded by it and try out my skills in a real world setting. I ran into two major issues though, one of which I had read about many times, and the other which I (sort of) expected:

  1. The vast majority of Germans we interacted with spoke excellent English, and often started out with it. Once they could tell we were English speakers, there was no going back.
  2. When they did speak German (or when, let’s be honest, I was trying to eavesdrop on Germans around me for listening practice), I… couldn’t understand much. Sure, I could understand basic questions / statements, but a lot of the time, it was a case of, “Okay, I understood that word and.. that one.. and.. what did they just say?”

I fully expected the first issue. The second was kind of expected too, but not to the extent that it happened. I’ll be honest: it was rough. I was struggling with feeling like I was a major failure in the language realm. I’ve been tinkering with German for years now, have read books in the language, read news stuff all the time, listen to podcasts… and then there I was, in Germany, scratching my head at what native Germans were saying. It was not a great feeling. While there and after getting home, I’ve struggled with the question: what have I been wasting my time on? I’ve spent countless hours learning German. If I couldn’t understand native Germans, what’s been the point?

For a brief bit of time, I was considering giving up on foreign languages – calling it quits, selling off all of my materials, and moving on. I’m still not feeling great about the whole experience, but I’ve reflected on it enough to rein myself back from giving up, and have a couple of thoughts on the matter.

First, I don’t listen enough. I never have, really. Reading and, to a lesser extent, writing, have always been my primary method of learning. That problem has long been on my radar, and I’ve made some attempts to correct it, but it’s still the way I lean in my studies. So it’s no real surprise that I struggled to drop into Germany running, so to speak.

Second, while it’s certainly not the whole reason I was struggling, I do know that dialects / regional accents were coming in to play. It’s not like everything was 100% unintelligible. I could catch half the words, some here, some there, and then others were just leaving me with the feeling of, “is that even German?”  So I was left with the feeling of, “I feel like I kinda’, sorta’ know what they’re talking about, but not exactly.”

Third, and perhaps most importantly (to me)… does it really matter? When I really get down to it, I don’t need to be able to operate in a native setting with any of my languages beyond English. I live in America, in a small town with more or less zero international presence whatsoever. I think I’ve heard German spoken here once, by a Polish professor. I’ve never heard French or Russian spoken here, and most likely, never will (especially in regards to Russian). I am not an international spy. I have no need to be able to pass myself off as a native German. At base, I simply enjoy learning languages, even if I will never have any real use for them (Old Icelandic, anyone?) If I, for some reason, moved to Germany, I’m sure I’d be able to get my speaking and listening skills up to par in a short amount of time. But currently, I just have no pressing need to do so. So I shall continue on puttering about with my languages, and be content with that.


The Goldlist Method

I wrote about the “Goldlist method” quite some time ago (just shy of 8 years ago, wow!), but never really gave it a fair try. (If you’re totally lost about what the Goldlist method is, it’s probably best to start with the creator’s page here.) At the time I wrote the original post, I remarked that it sounded rather clunky to me, specifically in regards to the notebooks. I was concerned that keeping track of a bunch of notebooks with dated pages would be cumbersome; I was also quite enamored with Anki, the spaced repetition software that’s quite popular in the language learning community. I figured, why bother with a bunch of dated notebook pages when I have this software that will handle everything?

I’ve decided to revisit the method, though, for a couple of reasons. First, the ideas behind it intrigue me, and second, I’ve lost some of my love for digital vocabulary techniques; I’ve come to find that writing things out is, in and of itself, a good aid for remembering things, and, for whatever reason, Anki never really did work all that well for me. I did the repetitions, I added cards frequently, but didn’t really feel like I was retaining much of it. I’ve had success using Iversen’s word list method (and enjoyed using it), so I figured I would give the Goldlist method a try, too.

Perhaps the biggest idea with the Goldlist method that catches my interest is the idea that our long term memory isn’t really under our control. You can stuff things into your short term memory, but getting it into your long term memory is a bit of a tougher nut to crack. Furthermore, we tend to remember things we enjoy, and so a big part of the Goldlist method is simply taking it easy, enjoying writing out your words and definitions, and not trying to memorize them. By not cramming, you help move things along to your long term memory, rather than to your short term memory. Additionally, since you’ll be revisiting the words in a few weeks / months to distil them, the Goldlist method has a sort of built-in spaced repetition aspect to it, helping things stay in your memory once they’re there to begin with. Not quite the same as Anki’s, which is down to the very day, but it’s still repeated exposure.

I started trying out the Gold list method about 3 weeks ago; at this point, I’ve done about 8 or 9 headlists of 25 words, and 5 or 6 first distillations. (Yes, I need to use it more; life is busy, gimme’ a break). After doing the first few headlists, I found that some of the words I wrote out (and their meanings) kept popping up in my head unexpectedly, days later, so that seemed like a positive sign. The same thing has happened with the distillations. I also found that, as predicted, I felt I knew a solid 30% of the words when I went to distil the headlists. I also think that the creator of the program is onto something, in that the act of actively choosing to “discard” a word – to not repeat it in further lists – triggers your memory to try and hold onto it even tighter. Some of the words I opted to not repeat are still popping into my head on occasion, and I’ve not forgotten their meanings yet. While my experience with the system is minimal at this point, thus far, I’m tentatively impressed (and surprised), and am going to stick with it to see how things go.

In addition to seeming to work, the method has, for me, another major plus so far: it’s incredibly relaxing. Reviewing cards in Anki always stressed me out, and felt like work. Slowly writing out words and their meanings is enjoyable and calming, which, as the creator remarks, is probably part of the reason as to why I’m remembering the words so well. The idea of doing a couple writing sessions over the course of an hour sounds nice; the idea of reviewing 200 cards in Anki over the course of an hour sounds like drudgery (more power to Anki users, though!)

Putting the gold list method to the testThus far, the biggest problem I’ve had with the method was, comically, not really about the method – it was about paper. Due to the length of the lists, the method calls for the use of an A4 notebook. Finding such a thing where I’m at is nigh on impossible, and I didn’t really want to drop $20 on a nice A4 notebook for what, at the time, was simply a test run. I did have a nice notebook that I was able to make work (mostly), by basically using the top left part of the page for 2 columns instead of 1 (see in the picture). It limits how much I can put down by quite a bit, but thus far it hasn’t proven to break the system. Provided I decide to stick with it for the long term, once this book is full, I’ll probably hunt down some high quality A4 notebooks on amazon.

I’ll post more about my experiences with the method after I have some more lists and distillations behind me. If you’ve used the method, let me know how it worked for you in the comments!


Spotify and Language Learning

I’ve been a big fan of Spotify ever since it launched in the states a number of years ago, not only because it’s great for music discovery, but also because it’s a veritable treasure trove for language learners. For a long while, listening to decent music in foreign languages was a matter of either paying to have CDs shipped to you from another country, or hoping what you wanted to listen to had been uploaded to YouTube. While those are still obvious options, I still like Spotify for its catalog and for its ability to help me discover artists I otherwise would probably never find – especially foreign language artists, which, for a guy stuck in southern Ohio, are woefully absent on the radio airwaves.

Spotify Screenshot Anyway – apparently, Spotify recently updated their software, adding a feature which makes it even better for language learners: a lyrics button. Yes, you can already look up lyrics online, but this is a bit cooler than that. When you click the button, Spotify pulls up the lyrics of the song and highlights each line as it happens in the song. Furthermore, clicking on a particular line will make the song jump to that point, so if you want to listen to a line more than once for practice, this makes it happen easily.

There is a caveat, however – the lyrics are, as far as I know thus far, crowdsourced. So sometimes, you may come across a song that doesn’t have lyrics attached to it yet. You can add lyrics, though, and once that’s done, you can listen to the song and click each line of text as you hear it, which makes it possible for Spotify to then display the lyrics in real-time as the song plays. It’s a relatively painless experience, especially considering a quick google search will usually provide you with the lyrics of a song to copy and paste.

All in all, quite a cool feature; check it out.


Language Bits

Just some bits and bobs I’ve watched / read lately about language learning that I found interesting. Enjoy!


Steve Kaufmann has a nice video up about dealing with anxiety and language learning, specifically while speaking, but what he says can really be applied to all aspects of language learning.

Favorite quote:

“Every time I communicate in the language, I should say good, I communicated, not worry about what I missed or forgot, or worry about how I sounded. Simply say I did well, I did as well as I was able to do.”

If you’ve read my blog for any amount of time, you’ve probably picked up on the fact that I have crazy perfectionistic expectations for myself, which is really kind of stupid. It’s always a battle for me to relax and say, hey, you did a pretty good job there, errors and all. Steve’s video is a nice reminder.

In other news, learning a new word stimulates the same region of the brain as sex, research shows. Well, this puts learning tons of new words all at once in a much different light, doesn’t it? :)

Here’s a video about how people often try to keep the idea going that German is inherently harsh sounding. While I do think that German might sound harsher than other languages at times (it does have a fair bit of hard consonants), it certainly isn’t the case that every (or even many) Germans routinely sound like screaming Nazis – which is kind of the running joke.


YouTube Polyglot Decline?

There’s an interesting forum post over at HTLAL, asking, “Were YouTube polyglots a fad?” The poster goes on to say:

I wonder now if the YouTube polyglot was a bit of a fad. That in truth there’s only so many different and totally distinct approaches to self-study and once you’ve understood the general process, there’s no urgent need for you to watch masses of videos of people speaking many languages! What do you think?

I would agree that it was a sort of fad, and the explanation given above is why. People only need to be told the basic steps of learning a language so many times, whether it’s in video format or otherwise. Granted, though, that’s not to say I don’t still occasionally watch a polyglot on YouTube, but when I do, it’s mostly because I like the person speaking, not because I think I’m going to hear anything groundbreaking. Steve Kaufmann comes to mind here; I enjoy his enthusiasm, even if I don’t agree entirely with his methodologies.

It’s neat to be able to see fellow language learners rattle off things in a bunch of languages, but ultimately, it’s not very helpful for learners – listening to a native material would be a better use of your time.