Why Is Learning German So Hard? A Motivational Pep-Talk
This is an introduction guide and “call to arms” motivational post from me to help with your journey from “why is learning German so hard” to the “I can do it if I apply myself and it doesn’t matter if I can’t immediately be perfect at it” mentality. I am here to convince you that this is not only ACHIEVABLE but also NECESSARY for anybody considering a longer stay in Germany than just a few months. At the end of this series of different posts, hopefully I can help you to fathom which mixture of learning is best for you and which resources are the most appropriate, in cyberspace as well as in the media and real life experience.
So, in light of this, the “sister posts” to this one will give a run through of all popular channels available to learn German. The first post looks at podcasts, and the follow-up post looks at smartphone apps. There are resources for beginners, intermediates and also a couple for more advanced learners. In the resources that I link to, I will try to mix up some fun, or at least more vocational, resources together with some of the more necessary evils such as grammar, verb conjugation etc which I’m afraid fall into the same camp as death and paying taxes: Unavoidable.
Back To Basics – how well do you know your native language?
Before we get to this though, I strongly recommend that you go out and buy some books about the building blocks of your native language. For native English speakers looking for online resources, I would recommend this British Council guide, this EF guide and this rather old but very useful website from UCL as a good introduction. These are all aimed at ESL students but are a good insight into what we weren’t taught at school! At least in the British state school system, English grammar is something we are simply not taught beyond the very basics at primary school.
We all (I hope) know what a noun, verb and adjective is, but how many people know what a preposition or a subordinate clause or a past imperfect tense is? I didn’t have a clue until I learnt French and German.
This really is the biggest tip I can give you: Understanding grammar and linguistics of your mother tongue will help you immensely in moving from “why is learning German so hard” to being able to master the basics and have the confidence to move on to the trickier stuff. This is especially the case if you have never learnt another language at all (*cough* Americans) :-D.
Speak, and be spoken to!
The simple truth is that by putting yourself in situations which expose you to all aspects of language learning, the easier and faster you will succeed in your ability to learn German. Extroverts have a natural advantage over introverts when faced with putting theory into practice, as do improvisers and doers when compared to perfectionists. Everyone makes a hash of their grammar and pronunciation at the start but nobody is going to remember your embarrassment for more than a couple of seconds afterwards. So instead of beating yourself up asking why is learning German so hard, try to move your thoughts to focus on what can I do, little by little, day by day, to make progress. Part of the battle is to break down the problem into bite-sized chunks.
But first of all, before we go any further, let’s start with a reality check. Practice, I’m afraid, does not make perfect when it comes to language learning, at least in the short-term. It brings about untold improvement, for sure, but don’t expect to be speaking fluently and grammatically correct after a few intensive months of language classes or listening to podcasts. I can’t write German as lucidly as I can English, and completely without grammatical errors, even though I am fluent and have lived here for over 10 years. You will improve and grow in confidence the more you practice, yes, but you won’t be fluent within a year. Unless of course you’re a ninja and don’t have something trivial like working a full-time job to make a living getting in the way.
I have a make a small confession here before I start. I was a Modern Languages major at university, so I must admit that the whole language learning process does come somewhat easier to me than to Joe Average. That said, I was a student back in the late 90s and the methods which are available nowadays, to accelerate, expedite and make your learning experience more interactive, are simply mind-boggling in comparison. Also, even though it’s a skill I may be better than most at, I still had to start somewhere. I didn’t just wake up one day being able to speak fluent German. It takes hard work, resilience, the ability to learn from mistakes, training the brain, memorising verb conjugations and adjective endings, and much, much more.
Eating an elephant is done in bite-sized pieces
It is said that a grasp of around 5,000 words is necessary to have functional fluency in any language. Think about that number for a minute and you’ll probably be terrified. But now break down the problem into bite-sized chunks. That’s just under 100 words per week. Let’s assume you skip a couple of days, that’s still only 20 per day if you learn 5 days out of 7. All that requires is 20 minutes less time-wasting on Facebook each day, or a conscientious effort during a coffee break or train commute and hey presto, you’re there! Then spend some time on top of that with native speakers if possible to get them to coach you with your pronunciation.
Some things in German are very logical (word order, spelling), whereas other aspects will drive you crazy (16 different words for “the”, not to mention figuring out what gender a noun takes). The key is don’t give up, and don’t strive for perfection when you’re just starting out. It’s difficult but it’s not impossible and eventually you will get there.Work on your German pronunciation more than your grammar. They don't get why we can't pronounce their ü, z, r and ö sounds properly.Click To Tweet
From my experience this is where Germans seem to be less tolerant of mistakes. They tend to appreciate much more that their grammar is crazy difficult.
Just Do It! Overcoming the Fear Factor
I like to think of the language learning process as something akin to learning to ski.Click To Tweet
Now, let’s get to the fear factor. Bear with me for those of you who haven’t tried either skiing or language learning before! Sooner or later, you have to build up the courage to leave the nursery slopes and get onto the cable car to the top of the mountain. How you get down to the bottom is irrelevant to everybody other than you and your own self-consciousness, which is the only thing holding you back. Of course, this is natural, but must nonetheless be overcome in some way if you are to succeed in the long-term.
Falling over on a ski piste is just the same as being faced with an uncomfortable situation when you make mistakes speaking German. We’ve all experienced that rude and impatient service employee who doesn’t have time to deal with a foreigner who can’t speak the language perfectly. Sadly, this is a fairly frequent occurrence in Germany, especially when dealing with civil servants and local government employees, so don’t, whatever you do, take it too personally.
Keep Going and Believe in Yourself!
The point I am trying to make here is that ANYONE is capable of acquiring a skill which they previously thought was impossible. Those who doubt themselves have to stop expecting the world to be handed to them on a lollipop and be prepared to put some effort in.
If you go through life thinking “why is learning German so hard?”, and then move on to “what’s the point, everybody here understands English”, then I struggle to comprehend why you would consider living in a different country. Sure, you can get by for a year, although it’s courteous to be able to communicate with somebody in their native tongue when you are living in their country.
Think about it this way: Plenty of folks who are less smart than you are have migrated here and learnt German, simply through necessity. If you decide not to learn the language, it’s not because you CAN’T, it’s because you CAN’T BE BOTHERED. That’s a big difference. I’m not talking about being able to read Goethe and debate politics.
Holding a conversation in German at a party is within everybody's grasp if they work hard at it and apply themselves.Click To Tweet
OK, so motivational pep talk over, hopefully you’ve got this far.
Oh, how things have changed (for the better)
Learning a language consists of 4 key elements: Reading, Writing, Listening & SpeakingClick To Tweet
Do you remember back to your school days and languages classes? And this is exactly where I want to demonstrate just how much things have improved for language learners these days, compared to just 25 years ago when I was learning French and German at high school.
Reading back then was from extracts in text books, unless I made the 30km trip into Birmingham to buy a foreign newspaper. Speaking with a native speaker, well, was pretty much impossible without visiting the country itself, unless you had connections to people in Germany or a foreign language assistant at school. Listening was confined to language learning cassettes / CDs. I did try to tune into German radio on long wave but the quality was terrible. It’s only really writing which has stayed more or less the same in terms of learning methods, although even this has benefited enormously from the Internet. Language learners have never had it so good with the amount of resources available to them.
Good luck on your journey to learn German! Viel Glück auf Deiner Reise beim Deutsch lernen!