After putting it off for way, way too long (more on that in an upcoming post), I jumped into trying to speak German semi-regularly about 8 months ago. I started using the Tandem app, chatting with folks, and making fairly regular phone calls. I’ve since made some great friendships with a number of people, many with whom I chat (text) with or talk to daily. I can’t understate how much this has helped my German. (If you take one thing away from this post, let it be this: if you aren’t communicating a lot with native speakers of your target language, start right now. It will help – promise.)
There have been a lot of bumps along the way, though, mostly caused by my perfectionism. I’ve known on some level for a long time that perfectionism is actually a bad thing, but the past 8 months have really put that fact in the spotlight for me. I wanted to share some observations I’ve had about how I’ve felt and thought, and how to approach those issues:
“Maybe I’m not ready for this. I need to study more and then I will be ready.”
Perfectionism and the performance anxiety that comes along with it is tricksy (yes, like hobbitses), in that it can drive you away from doing the very thing you need to be doing – in this case, speaking your target language more. When I first started sending voice messages and making phone calls with native German speakers, my initial gut reaction was “I can’t do this!” I instantly started running into every day words that I just didn’t know, grammar structures I was clueless about – it was so uncomfortable. I wanted to run back to the safety of studying alone, where I didn’t feel pressure or discomfort.
For me, explicit study is the swimming pool, where I can control the depth of the water I’m in; speaking to a native speaker is the ocean, with me frantically treading water a mile from shore. There’s a time and place for explicit study, certainly – but it’s no replacement for really using the language. And that’s the key point regarding this: no amount of studying will make you ready. There will always be words you don’t know, grammar you stumble over, and that’s fine. While there is definitely some link between passive and active skills (reading and listening might help your writing and speaking a bit), the fact of the matter is, to improve your speaking, you have to speak. A lot. And then some more. And for a while, it’s going to suck, and that’s okay. So, don’t be like me and put it off forever and a day! It’s okay to make mistakes, and that’s a good thing – because we all make them.
“I don’t want to hold up the conversation, so let’s just switch to English!”
Now here’s a funny one. With Tandem and other similar apps, the whole point is to exchange languages – I help people with their English, they help me with my German. With one of my tandem partners who I call for a few hours weekly, I kept finding that I would get anxious and switch to English, usually after struggling to find the right German word or being unable to express myself how I wanted to. I kept doing this and couldn’t quite figure out why, because I really wanted to force myself to stick with German, even if it was uncomfortable. Then it struck me, what I was doing: I was the anxious guy in the grocery store when other people are trying to look at goods on the shelf.
Hear me out…
The grocery store holds a shared experience for a lot of people who are naturally anxious, or who don’t want to “inconvenience” other people. You’re looking at something on the shelf, and another person walks up, wanting to see something in the same area. What do you do? Well, if you’re an anxious person, you get outta’ the way, even if you aren’t done looking. Sometimes you just leave the aisle altogether, thinking “this is fine, I’ll come back later.” Why? Because you didn’t want to be in someone else’s way.
I caught myself doing this with my language partners. Despite the fact that I had sought these people out to help me with my German, I felt bad for holding up the conversation by fumbling for words. Not to put too fine a point on it, but that’s just dumb, yeah? I’m allowed to look at the canned vegetables just like everyone else. 😉 Whether you are speaking with a language exchange partner or a tutor, the fact of the matter is, they expect you to stumble and fumble and use the wrong words. That’s how this all works – make mistakes, get corrections, learn. You aren’t inconveniencing them, and if they feel like you are – well, you might need a new language buddy or tutor!
“My language partner is going to think I’m stupid because of my speaking ability.”
No, sorry. Not going to happen. I found that, for me, what this really boils down to is this: I feel like my spoken German is terrible, therefore I expect that other people will think that and judge me for it (spoiler: they won’t). There are a few things at play here:
- Based on my experiences over these 8 months, most people are really bad at judging how good their usage of a foreign language is. Most Germans I’ve spoken to have bemoaned their “terrible English.” I’ve stated dozens of times that I think my German is pretty bad. Guess who has been right? None of us. Pretty much every time I’ve said something negative about my German, my speaking partner has told me that I’m crazy. And, in turn, I’ve said the exact same thing about their English – more often than not, their English is quite good, but they just can’t see it. If you’re a perfectionist, this feeling is much more amplified, because.. well, your L2 isn’t perfect. Set impossible goals, win no prizes, right?
- The second thing is, if your German or French or whatever is bad – so what? Chances are, your speaking partner still isn’t going to think poorly of you, because you’re learning. Mistakes are expected, sometimes a lot of them. As a perfectionist, I hold myself to unrealistic standards, standards to which no one else really holds me to. Furthermore, they’re standards I don’t apply to other people. To break myself of thinking my friends were judging me based on my German, all I needed to do was flip the scenario around: when my German friends make mistakes in English, do I think less of them? Do I think they’re stupid? Of course not. So why would they do that to me based on my German? They wouldn’t. Bingo.
Ultimately, one of my German friends with whom I’ve discussed my perfectionistic tendencies with, gave me a nice, summarized solution to these problems: “Josh, you need to get out of your way.” That really does sum it up. It certainly is not easy, but it is the solution. Perfectionism is detrimental in general, and downright catastrophic when it comes to speaking a foreign language, as it breaks the loop which you need to be in: speak more, get better at speaking. By expecting perfection, you’re already set up to fail the moment you open your mouth – and then you won’t want to do so. And if you don’t speak, your speaking isn’t going to get any better. So, if you’re like me – get out of your way. 🙂 Übung macht den Meister. (Practice makes perfect.)
I’ve recently started using Readlang.com a lot more, adding it to my list of daily language learning tools. It’s similar to LingQ and Learning With Texts, but ultimately, I’ve found that I like Readlang the most out of the three. It’s speedier than Learning with Texts, is cheaper than LingQ (and quite usable without paying anything), and it has a Chrome extension that you can use on every webpage.
What Is It?
For those not familiar with it, as the name implies, Readlang is a reading tool. It lets you look up words or phrases by clicking on them (or highlighting, in the case of phrases), instantly pulling translations from Google Translate. You can either do this on the Readlang site itself, where you can upload your texts; or you can use the Chrome extension (found here) to use the tool on any web page you’re interested in. When enabled, the extension makes every word clickable.
(Side note: I mentioned above that the base translation comes from Google Translate, which, admittedly, is sometimes a bit… off. While you can’t change the instant translation dictionary, you can add custom dictionary links, which are used when you click to edit a word’s translation. The system will automatically search your preferred dictionary, so you can quickly and easily “tidy up” erroneous translations. You can access this feature in the reading interface, or in the word list pane.)
Whenever you translate a word – whether on the Readlang site or a third party site using the extension – that word is added to your master word list. In addition to the word and its translation, the context of the word is added. Being a lover of word lists (and printing them out to use with the Iversen word list method), I really love how seamless this works.
There are a few perks to the word list that come with the premium membership ($5/month). First, you can see the words from specific texts / books; if you look in the above image on the left side, you’ll see various Assimil lessons that I’ve added to Readlang. In the image, you can see I’ve selected Assimil Swedish 51, and the page is only showing me words from that specific text.
The other word list premium perk is being able to export your words in a variety of formats, as well as select which fields are exported. Here’s the export screen to give you an idea:
If you’re wanting a quick and easy word-> translation list based on your readings, this is your new favorite tool.
If word lists aren’t your thing, you can export your words for Anki cloze cards. If flashcards are your thing, however, Readlang also has those built in:
The flashcards go both ways, and in any given session, you have to get both directions correct before the system says you’re “done” with that word for the day. While I appreciate Anki’s bells and whistles, it’s also hard to argue with a flashcard system that is automatically populated with words you click on, with their context included.
Another thing I really love about the Readlang flashcard system is that the context sentence words are clickable as well. If you look at the above image, you’ll see that I couldn’t quite recall what “på samma sätt” meant, so I just highlighted those words and got the translation.
Ultimately, I’ve really been enjoying using the site, and I think it’s definitely worth adding to your language learning toolkit. The free version is fairly robust as is: you can use the extension / bookmarklet, flashcard system (without selecting which text you’re focusing on), and look up an unlimited number of single words. The premium subscription gives you longer phrase length (12 words versus versus 6), as well as unlimited phrase translations (instead of 6 per day with the free account), in addition to the sorting and export options I mentioned above. It’s definitely worth checking out.
A few weeks ago, I received my copy of Schwedisch ohne Mühe. This was very much a spur of the moment purchase, based largely on this train of thought: I’ve long been interested in Viking history; I’m interested in Old Norse; I should check out a modern North Germanic language; Swedish looks good. And so I leapt to my favorite line of courses.
Wanderlust strikes again, but I’m okay with it.
I’m only up to lesson 5 so far, but it’s going well and I’m enjoying it. Some of it seems fairly transparent due to my English and German skills (besök -> Besuch, flytande -> fließend, not to mention things like syster -> sister).
My biggest hurdle right now is pronunciation. There are a few obstacles here: one, my brain keeps trying to read ‘ä’ as it’s pronounced in German. Two, there seem to be some tricky instances of letters being silent, and at least as far as I’ve seen so far, there aren’t hard and fast rules for when that happens. And three, for some words, it seems the voice actors just have different ideas about the pronunciation. For example, in ‘det,’ the ‘t’ seems to be silent sometimes, but other times it is clearly pronounced, depending on which voice actor is speaking the line. I’m sure (much) more exposure will help me sort this out.
One last note for now: for some awful reason, this particular Assimil book doesn’t have a glossary in the back. I was very disappointed to find this when I received the book. For now, I’ve bought a Berlitz pocket dictionary, but I’ll have to upgrade at some point or another. Sadly, a cursory search shows there aren’t a great deal of high quality Swedish-English / English-Swedish dictionaries. Who would have guessed that?