My US travels continue for a few weeks, so I am happy to accept guest posts with interesting or inspiring stories! If you have a cool idea message me on this page (but please read the guest post criteria first).
This one was a story that is all too familiar from successful language learners, but that I haven't seen explained as clearly before, so I was really glad to be hosting Sam Clamp‘s post about how he had no success learning German in school, with expensive courses and the like, until he had no choice but to struggle through, and he was forced to learn and after just two days was taking a complex inventory of a hotel using a rural Austrian dialect of German!
I love his analogy of what learning grammar first is like (I may quote you on this later Sam!!)
I find this story something that many of you still in the academic-learning mentality or using expensive software, may need to read to realize the one true solution to your language learning woes.
Sam has his own language learning site over at What language where he documents his language learning adventure and reviews language programs. Over to you Sam!
My language learning story is quite familiar, a couple of years learning German at school and even getting a B at GCSE, but still not knowing how to get any further than ordering a beer in the real world. I could reel off my two-minute oral presentation, but with no real understanding of how I would alter it if I wanted to express some thoughts other than who my parents were or where I lived.
After this I spoke little or no German for about five years, so even that little knowledge had mostly decayed during my time at university, cramming my head with lots of other things. After I graduated, I went to work ski seasons in Switzerland, France and Austria.
The first two of these I dutifully played the role of typical British ex-pat, not conversing more than please and thank you with the locals and surrounding myself with other English seasonal workers. We were easily the largest social group in the town and staying in my comfort zone was very easy to do. I convinced myself that Swiss dialect was too far-removed from the German I had learnt.
Taking charge of a chalet hotel
As my career developed with the company I was eventually put in charge of a chalet hotel in small ski resort in Austria. Now this hotel was entirely for English guests, so speaking German was not a requirement for the role. However, I was hoping to turn life in Austria into a permanent move, so I therefore decided that speaking German, or at least improving it, was a must.
Before starting this role I spent a summer in the UK, so I set myself the challenge of learning German during that summer. I have come to realise that this flimsy, abstract goal was never going to be achieved. I’m not even sure now what I meant by ‘speak German’. Surely my current level of ordering a beer would fall under such a broad umbrella-term as ‘speak German’.
I also discovered that summer that working to a distant deadline is not the best way to motivate myself, in fact it was only as the Austria job approached that I actually began to attempt to educate myself.
A friend of mine was kind enough to lend me the Michel Thomas German course, which I did find helpful as it covers all the basic structure of the language. However, it is quite brief and leaves some fairly big gaps in terms of vocabulary. I also got myself a copy of Rosetta Stone. So, I memorised some new phrases, which to their credit I’m never going to forget, but how often to I really expect to use the sentence “It is unusual for penguins to live here’? Thanks Rosetta Stone.
On arrival in my new hotel in Austria, I very quickly realised that being able to speak German should have been one of the job-requirements! The Hotel was rented from a local family all communication, as it turned out, was to be in German. All the services we needed, from the food and beer suppliers to the local maintenance and laundry services. In fact with the exception of the bar owners and the ski-instructors there was not a huge amount of English spoken in the village.
My friend who taught me more than school ever did
Luckily Anni, the lady whose job I was taking over, was kind and patient with me, although she spoke no English.
Our first task was to undertake an inventory of the entire building, detailing every single item in the whole building, in German! Even worse, rural Austrian-dialect German!
When my basic grounding had been in Hoch-Deutsch. This would be the equivalent of a German learning American-English then taking their first job in Glasgow and having to communicate with the local tradesmen! Think Arnold Schwarzenegger and you’re almost there, I especially enjoy the fact that Schwarzenegger did not voice the Terminator in the German version of the film; due to the fact Germans would find his coarse farmer’s accent completely out of sync with his character. Imagine James Bond being a scouser.
Now, I’ve made all my excuses about how this was destined to fail; shyness, difficult dialect and previous poor experiences with German learning.
Except that I didn’t fail; something amazing happened. Over the course of the two long days it took us to complete the inventory of the entire five-storey building, filled with forty-years of junk, my comprehension of German went through the roof. The frustration in the first few hours was monumental, when I didn’t understand Anni would walk me to the object, touch it and keep repeating it until I understood.
Progress was slow and infuriating, I think Anni learnt a lot of English swear words that first morning! However, I had no choice but to blunder on, there was no option to fall back on English, our only mutual language was German. If we didn’t get the job done, the hotel would not be signed over to us and with our first guests due in five days; we simply would not have been able to open. This was the best motivation to learn, I have ever had, turns out I work well to strict deadlines, a skill I think I picked up writing last-minute essays in my student days.
In all the years of high-school education and weeks messing about with expensive learning tools I learnt practically nothing compared to those two first days in Austria. Even better I was learning a vocabulary of every day items from a native speaker, not a single mention of a penguin! Going through thirty guest bedrooms, that were all largely the same was a perfect real-world example of a spaced-repetition learning method
By the end of the two days I knew everything about that hotel. How to fix the dodgy lights with a tap from a broom handle, how to change the stone-age fuses and all the peculiarities of an old building from someone who had worked there for twenty years. I had told Anni my entire life-story, in German! I got the distinct impression that Anni enjoyed watching my progress as well, I still thank her every time I see her for being responsible for my learning.
You should speak first, not learn grammar first
My very first German lesson at school had been Der, Die, Das. It wasn’t until after my experience in Austria, being able to speak and converse to a reasonable level that I actually felt any desire to learn rules such as these and word endings and cases.
Why they chose that as a first lesson I will never understand, 100 percent of the class instantly turned-off from learning German by those grammar drills. It’s like forcing a class of five-years olds to memorise the offside rule before they’re allowed to kick a ball at break time. Illogical and backwards it seems to me. It’s so much easier to pick up these rules naturally through conversation as you did in your own language, if you make a mistake just listen to how the native says it back to you, why stress over books?
Once I had drummed getting over my natural shyness into my head, the world appeared awash in new opportunities. I now found myself sitting in the front of taxis so I could ask the driver questions, I sometimes even pretend I don’t understand English if I want some German practice. It is a liberating experience to get over the fact you are going to make mistakes, a message I try and drum into anyone who makes all the excuses I made earlier in this post not to have a go.
Before this experience I had always been mildly nervous whenever I had to sort anything out by phone, even in my own language. Now I was motivated and hyped to ring up local suppliers in German and just blunder through until I had got whatever I needed taken care of. Now whenever I have to ring the tax office at home, or similar, I just think what’s the worst that can happen? They’re going to understand me.
As I explained to Benny in my outline for this post, that whilst this was a tough and painful learning curve, I am so happy I had the experience. As I’m sure I would have floundered making no progress for many more months if I had not. It was awkward, unbelievably awkward but ultimately rewarding! No pain, no gain!
I am now at the very beginning of trying to learn Italian and I am plotting how I can manufacture a similar situation to give my learning experience a kick-start! I am visiting Italy in October to a region where I don’t expect there to be much English spoken. My plan is to tour the shops and takeaways and find some bored employees to talk to, less likely to speak English than hotel staff and hopefully will be up for a chat. My Italian teachers don’t yet know their new job roles!
No one is going to laugh at you, yet that is the biggest fear, or at least it was for me. Would you laugh in someone’s face if they came into your workplace and struggled trying to sort something out in English? Of course you wouldn’t! Now get out there and make some mistakes!
Great thoughts Sam! If any of you want to follow Sam and see how he does in his Italian project, make sure to check out his site What language! If you have any questions for Sam or thoughts on this post, let us know below!