Learning German: Four Types of Language Learners
In Britain we are told that there is “more than one way to skin a cat”, a fact that has been rarely challenged, possibly because no one wants to clean up the mess. Essentially, this means that usually there is more than one way to solve a problem, which is especially true for those of us who are attempting to learn a second language. As anyone who has tried can tell you, in 2018, it feels like there are millions of ways that a person can learn, improve and hopefully master as second tongue. From apps, to websites, self help books or podcasts, we are surrounded by language solutions that claim to be able to improve even the most basic of second language learners.
So surrounded by potential solutions are we, that it can become overwhelming. The paralysis of choice leads many people to ponder which option is right for them and a common question among expats is which one is really the best. The problem, of course, is that everyone is different, and each language learner has different ways of learning and retaining the all important grammar and vocabulary. However, that doesn’t stop people from suggesting multiple different options when prompted or more usually when totally unprompted.
With this in mind, I have created a list of the different types of language learners I have met on my quest to learn German, some helpful and some not so much. Do you recognise any of these types?
Chameleons are famed for being able to blend into their surroundings, primarily to avoid predators, but also because it impresses people at parties. The Native follows this template exactly. Often arriving in Germany with no plan, these people have immersed themselves in German culture, possibly by finding a job outside the preferred expat vocations of English teaching, IT or working at Adidas. The magic of “The Native” is that you have no idea they are there until they choose to speak in English. Achieving unaccented German is a dream I fear I may never achieve and I am always impressed to find these people, hidden in plain sight. One of my favourite examples of “the Native” was our kitchen fitter who, after unloading his van and speaking to my wife about the fitting process in impeccable German, suddenly exclaimed “Bloody hell, is that Yorkshire Tea?” in an equally impeccable North Yorkshire. It turned out he was a Yorkshire lad, who had emigrated several years before. More importantly, he hadn’t had a “proper cup of tea” in over a year. He fitted the kitchen, I made obscene amounts of tea and he left with a chipper “Turrah” and a box of tea bags tucked under his arm.
Small talk is what it is and anyone who knows me, also knows my feelings on the matter. That being said, when you first meet someone there is always an expected amount of frothy throwaway talk. You will know when you have met “The Questioner” because instead of the expected chat about weather or origin stories, the first words to escape their lips is “How’s your German?”. I hate this question, because frankly I have no idea how to answer it. I dream of turning around and quoting Goethe at length or describing, in lengthy prose, the depths of my German knowledge, bamboozling the increasingly large crowd of people gathering around me with my witty idioms and hilarious anecdotes about the British. In reality, I end up either saying something banal like “Gut, Danke” or on my truly bad days, simply “It’s alright, thanks” neither of which ever seems to satisfy “The Questioner”.
As I already mentioned, there are so many options to learn a second language, however often what people are looking for is the easiest and fastest way to do it, that won’t bankrupt you or require you to quit your job. Luckily or unluckily, “The Advisor” is on hand to guide would be learners towards their long hoped for goal. The advice itself will begin innocuously enough, perhaps a good tip on a website or suggestions to improve general listening. Then what follows is advice that is so individually specific, it is practically useless for anyone else. For example:
“I like Duolingo, it is really easy to use and you don’t have to spend too much time on it. Also, I always listen to the radio in the morning, I find it helps when I have to speak German when I get work. What really helped me was to quit my job for six years and join a monastic order in the hills just outside Würtzberg. Being surrounded by medieval German texts all day gave me really great understanding of how the language developed and from there it was only a matter of having regular discussions with Father Müller who guided me to a nirvana like state of language acquisition”.
Cool, thanks. I’ll give Father Müller a ring in the morning…
Accented German may be a long way off for me, but I can muddle along happily with a couple of funny idioms and some terrible slang. If anything, I at least keep German friends entertained by throwing a few Schwabisch colloquialisms in to a conversation. “The Local”, by comparison, has mastered a level of German that ensures that they rarely go a few minutes without throwing out some folksy German idiom or a heavy dialect based utterance. I have a very good friend that has mastered both Hochdeutsch and Fränkisch, who enjoys bemusing German people by alternating between the two at random. One minute he is a refined German gent the next he is an indecipherable Franconian farmer, complete with sentences that sound like words and words that sound like he contracted an awful cough.
These are only a few of the potential types I have identified, I refrained from including the more negative examples, for fear that I would come across as bitter and twisted (I am, but it is of no benefit for everyone to know that!). Do you recognise yourself in these descriptions? Are there some I have missed? Feel free to tell me all about it in the comments section.