How to Self-teach German and Beat Deutschlernen Fatigue
So you’ve been learning German for a while now and the Flitterwochen (honeymoon) is well and truly over.
Remember those blissful first few months?
When German vocabulary Post-It notes were appearing all over your house?
When you had to suppress the urge to wave goodbye with a cheery Bis bald (see you later) to non-German learning friends?
Slowly, it began to dawn on you that the words on those Post-It notes all needed to be connected to each other, and—snap!—deutsche Grammatik reared its ugly head.
Ahem. Article declension, word order, main and subordinate clauses: these are in fact the new weapons in your German-learning arsenal. But when bombarded relentlessly with new and ever more confounding grammatical rules—and worse, their exceptions—it can feel very much like you’re the one under assault.
It may come as no surprise that Mark Twain titled an 1880 essay “The Awful German Language” based on years of experience wrestling with it. Rest assured, you’re in good company: one of history’s greatest wordsmiths has felt your pain.
“Never knew before what eternity was made for. It is to give some of us a chance to learn German.”
Mark Twain, 1878
Of course, language-learning fatigue is not particular to German.
Studies have shown that learning a foreign language doesn’t progress in a linear fashion. After an initial period of making big strides, most of us will reach a certain plateau where learning slows down and new knowledge is harder won. It looks a bit like this and there are certain strategies learners of all languages can adopt to get past a plateau stage.
But German is a special beast, as you already know, and the exhaustion that you’re feeling really does deserve a compound noun of its very own. (Deutschlernenmüdigkeit maybe?) So fear not, here are some tips on beating your German-learning fatigue.
4 Smart Strategies to Self-teach German and Beat Deutschlernen Fatigue
Understand the Spacing Effect
Interestingly, around the same time Mark Twain was getting hot and bothered declining articles, a German psychologist by the name of Hermann Ebbinghaus was experimenting with Gedächtnis (memory) techniques.
Ebbinghaus, doing his very best to live up to national stereotypes, devised a fiendishly tedious experiment. This involved composing sentences of gibberish and attempting to memorize them by reciting the sentences, resting for a while, then repeating. This went on for a year. When the experiment was repeated 3 years later, the conclusion was the same: by correctly spacing practice sessions, learning—and retention—is dramatically improved.
What does this mean for you? You probably already know from experience that when you crammed for a test at school, the information didn’t hang around for long afterwards. Yet failing to make time to rest is a common trap many of us fall into when learning a language.
Some intensive language courses in fact promote this ineffective practice by serving up new grammatical concepts to students day after day and churning through textbooks at breakneck speed, without allowing time to reflect and absorb. Hence those of us going it alone actually have the advantage of being able to tailor-make a study approach incorporating time for revision, repetition and rest.
But how much rest is too much and exactly how much spacing do you need between your repetitions, you ask? Happily, app designers have already beaten you to it, and among the wealth of language-learning apps out there.
In fact, FluentU—one of the most effective and entertaining German language-learning apps—uses spacing, reminding you when it’s time to review vocab you haven’t seen for awhile.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
With interactive captions that give instant definitions, pronunciations and additional usage examples, plus fun quizzes and multimedia flashcards, FluentU is a complete learning package. You can check it out with the free trial.
You might also like to take a look at how another memory strategy, mnemonics, can help to train your recollection of those delightful compound nouns.
Ditch Bad Habits
So what does your study plan look like? Don’t really have one? Come on! What’s German without a bit of Ordnung?
A routine is important: repetition and consistency are known essentials to an effective learning strategy. On the other hand, bad habits can seriously hinder your progress. If it’s not working for you, lose it. Remember my Post-It notes? After a few weeks I found that my brain had developed a way of freezing them out, so that I no longer saw Gabel, Messer and Löffel (fork, knife, spoon) – let alone which was Der, Die or Das – when I reached for the cutlery drawer. In the same way, I’ve filled exercise books with new vocabulary, only to flick back through a month or two later and realize that all has been forgotten.
It’s worth taking some time to review your study techniques to date and identify what’s working, and what’s not. Then think about why.
In my case, both the screened-out Post-It notes and the pages full of forgotten vocabulary stemmed from the same core issue.
Writing words and phrases down once? Not an effective strategy for me.
The solution was relatively simple: introducing a weekly review period to go over what was learned the week before (it helps to do this at the same time every week, after a certain activity, so that the habit sticks) and transferring new vocab that I wanted to remember to flashcards (I’m a fan of the old school way, but there are also apps for this, including Memrise mentioned above).
Identify a few new strategies that you’ll bring into your routine. Keep in mind that you may not have to completely ditch your existing study habits. Often it’s a case of building on them so that they’re more effective.
Embrace Incidental Learning
While structured learning with textbooks, notes and flashcards is great, incorporating “incidental” learning strategies into your day-to-day activities will give you infinitely more bang for your buck.
We’ve already talked about the importance of repetition: increasing your exposure to the German language works on the same principle. Plus, the great thing about incidental learning is that it’s happening more or less in the background and hence doesn’t feel like hard work—just what you need when the thought of sitting down with a textbook again is giving you a migraine!
Incidental learning might include watching movies or TV shows in German (try a childhood favorite, like “Die Schlümpfe”—“the Smurfs”—or a comedy series that you’re already familiar with), listening to the radio, trying out new recipes (and making corresponding shopping lists) in German or making new friends—whatever works for you.
Find something that gives you pleasure and turn it into a habit.
Yes, that’s right—guessing, or if you want to get technical “inductive learning,” has a legitimate place among the good habits of successful language learners, particular in an immersive environment where you’re repeatedly encountering new vocabulary much faster than it’s sinking in.
Small things can really turn into big obstacles when it comes to learning German.
How often have you missed one or two words in a sentence and then completely lost the thread of a conversation? Or given up on a newspaper article because of the frustration of reaching for the dictionary every 30 seconds?
What I’m getting at is the notion of actively cultivating a flexible mindset, or the opposite of “rigid thinking.” The idea is to use your existing knowledge of German to assist in comprehension.
When reading, this means focusing on the words you do recognize to try to figure out the meaning of any new words rather than immediately reaching for the dictionary. And when faced with a native German speaker, still better, a whole range of additional contextual information is available to you: body language, physical and situational cues. So when a bike rider ahead of you on the path, who has been proceeding at a snail’s pace and blocking your way for several minutes, turns back, makes eye contact and issues a garbled snarl of unfamiliar words, you can probably safely deduce that he’s asking if you’d like to overtake.
There’s a reason it all appears strikingly like common sense: it is.
This intuitive approach is a big part of how we learn our native language. However, in my experience, the complexity of German grammar makes it easy to lose sight of the common sense approach and become overwhelmed by the rules—ultimately falling into the“rigid thinking” trap.
If this sounds familiar, it might be time to give those stiff brain muscles a bit of a workout. Mixing up your study strategies and introducing new ones, as mentioned above, is a step in the right direction. When it comes to reading, leave that dictionary alone! Either highlight unfamiliar words, or jot them down as you go. Then come back to them at the end of the article or the chapter, rather than disrupting your reading process.
And take heart: German in particular lends itself to inductive learning or “guesswork” because it likes to build upon itself, rather than inventing new words all the time. This means your existing vocabulary is of much more use than you realize. While a lot of people complain about the ridiculously long compound nouns—and with good reason—you’ll just as often encounter words that are a joy to behold in their simplicity and logic.
Here’s a couple of nice examples:
Die Essensreste (leftovers)
Made up of the words das Essen (food, meal) and die Reste (remnants, remains), with the emphasis on the “remains” part.
Das Resteessen = meal made from leftovers
The same words, reversed, but this time with the emphasis on the “meal” part. Simple, right? You might also like to read up on the key to unpacking some of the more dastardly compound nouns.
Finally, Hut ab!
Don’t forget to give yourself credit for the progress you’ve made so far.
Learning German requires persistence.
By taking time out to rest and re-boot your study practice, not only will you be rewarded with greater productivity, but you’ll have significantly more fun while learning German.
Don’t let the honeymoon period slip away.
Keep working on your relationship in German, and keep the love alive!