What is the Best Way to Learn German? Here’s My Story
What is the Best Way to Learn German has been transcribed from Steve’s YouTube channel. You can download the audio and study the transcript as a lesson at LingQ.
Hi there, Steve Kaufmann. I hope the sound is louder. There were some complaints about the sound here. I want to talk today about learning German. This is part of the series that I’ve been doing where I speak in a language other than English and then follow that up with a discussion about learning that language.
I’ve been doing that the last few weeks and, of course, I haven’t been speaking much Spanish, German and now I’m going to do Italian next week. Therefore, I wanted to refresh my knowledge of those languages before doing a video and so I spent three-four days or so prior to video on LingQ studying that language. I found podcasts. I was reading in the language. I had discussions with some of our LingQ tutors in the language and so forth.
One of the interesting things is that the comments I’ve received from people who saw those videos or who spoke to me – our tutors – was that I had improved in those languages, even though I hadn’t spoken them much. This is a very interesting point because the fact that I’ve been working hard on other languages like Russian, Czech, Romanian and so forth, actually improves my ability to notice things in foreign languages.
It improves my language-learning fitness and, therefore, with a little bit of effort I refresh my recently-neglected languages and bring them back to a level which is often higher than it was before. I’m noticing this now in my Italian. That, in fact, I understand Italian better when I listen to audio or these podcasts that I find on the Net about history or politics. I understand them better than I did before, so just a little note for those of you who sometimes are afraid to leave one language for six months in order to study another. Yeah, you’ll slip a bit, but eventually you’ll become a better language learner.
Now, insofar as German, my parents were born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire into a German-speaking Jewish community in Moravia, which subsequently became part of Czechoslovakia. Therefore, they went to a Czech school and they spoke both German and Czech. In ’39, they escaped to Sweden where I was born in 1945 and when I was five we moved to Canada. I have no recollection of transitioning from Swedish to English. At home my brother I spoke English with my parents. They told us we’re in Canada now, you will speak English.
My parents spoke German to each other. We resented German. We resented hearing it. We resented everything having to do with Europe because my parents would always say that Canadians were lazy, Canada had no culture and so forth and everything European was good. They wanted us to make friends with the children of their European friends and those were the last people we wanted to make friends with. So there was this resistance to German.
Now, things changed. When I was 19, after two years at McGill University, I was working at a summer job on construction. Then I was laid off and I thought you know what, I think I’ll go off to Europe. So I went down to the Port of Montreal and spent three days trying to see the captains of different ships in the port. On the third day, I found a captain of a German ship who had lost a sailor in Quebec City and said yeah, you can work your way across with us.
So for 10 days I was on this small tramp steamer, which was just up and down across the Atlantic. I was hammering away at rust and scraping and painting and that was the first time it actually meant something to me to try and say something in German. I had my little German book with the declensions of the nouns and the pronouns, it was just horrendous, but at least then German became meaningful to me briefly.
Then I hitchhiked around Europe, including in Germany. I usually stayed in youth hostels. I arrived, I think it was Böblingen, and it was pouring with rain, after 11:00 o’clock at night. I went to the local jail and asked if I could stay there and they accommodated me; very comfortable jail. Then I also worked two weeks on construction in Vienna where I spoke some German; although, most of the other workers were Turks. And that was it.
Then I studied for three years in France; did nothing with German until 1987 when I was between jobs. After my three years in France, I joined the Canadian Diplomatic Service, was sent to Hong Kong to learn Mandarin Chinese; subsequently, went to Japan. Then I left the embassy; went to work for a major Canadian forest products exporting company. So that’s through the ‘70s.
Then in 1987, I was between jobs and I decided to learn German. I’m not quite sure why. So I went to all of the secondhand book stores in Vancouver and I found lots of books, textbooks that other people had used (you know, things like this) and they’re full of text, more or less boring text and vocabulary, which is what I needed. They also have _____ drills and stuff, which I have always resisted doing in language learning. I don’t like them. If anything, all I do with them is look up the answers so I can see some concentrated examples of whatever pattern they’re trying to test you on, but I feel it’s not that useful to try and scratch your brain to answer these questions.
At any rate, I didn’t bring them all down. I showed more of them in my German language video. There were lots of them and, of course, interesting about German history, culture and so forth. Even though I initially was kind of resisting German, the more you get into a language, the more you find it interesting. This is another, I think, important point. People say I’m not that interested in whatever. Get into it. Start into it and you may find, as they say in French, _____. In other words, the appetite grows with the eating. Then you get more and more into it and you find it interesting.
As soon as possible, I tried to get away from these sorts of textbooks. One very good source was a series of audio cassettes of ordinary people talking and I listened to those interviews many, many times. I can remember them. One was an interview with a locomotive engineer who had driven the train when the Queen of England was on the train and another guy was talking about how farmers in Bavaria can’t find wives because they smell; a whole bunch of stuff, but real people. I’ve always felt that listening to real people speaking, if it’s transcribed and you get a chance to.
I didn’t have transcripts; but, ideally, transcripts are an ideal way to learn. That’s why when we set up LingQ (initially we only offered English) I started interviewing lots of people and creating content on LingQ with transcripts because I felt that if you give people the chance to feel that they’re eavesdropping on a genuine conversation that that’s very effective learning material. So that was more or less what I did with German; stayed with it. Then it so happened that I set up my own company in the trade of wood products and we were, in the early ‘90s, selling wood to Germany. I was now traveling to Germany and so then I tried even harder to learn German. I bought books, read and, of course, spoke with people and, gradually, my German improved. I also began to appreciate German culture more.
Just to digress, in my previous videos about Russian or Spanish or French, I explain some of the attractiveness of those cultures. German culture is often seen as less fun than let’s say Italian or Spanish, you know the sun, the music and so forth, but you have to appreciate cultures for what they are. The thing about German culture is this sense of comfort, solid comfort. You stay in a German hotel, I mean the door is closed solidly, the windows are solid. So German culture to me is less about dancing and singing, it’s more about sitting there reading a book or one of these very serious German newspapers, Bach is playing in the background and it’s raining outside.
That’s comfortable, too. I like that. I like their pubs with the wonderful wooden paneling. You kind of learn to appreciate each culture for what it is. Of course the towns in Germany, especially the smaller towns, are absolutely beautiful and, historically, Charlemagne, who is revered in France, was, in fact, a German, a Franc. Germans had a major imprint on European history, Martin Luther and, of course, the Thirty Years’ War. By the way, there’s an excellent audio book on the Thirty Years’ War, which I’ve listened to many times. Of course in the more recent past, there have been two World Wars. We won’t go into that subject.
But today I can say, and I say this as someone of Jewish background, that no country has addressed their own recent history the way the Germans have. It’s amazing. It’s amazing to walk around Hamburg and see plaques with the names of Jewish people who used to live in that house. As my uncle once said, the Germans of that generation, the generation of the War, he doesn’t want to have anything to with, but Germans of subsequent generation, absolutely no problem at all. In fact, the Germans I find are very friendly. I recently drove through Germany and the people, the superficial contact I have with them in hotels, gas stations or whatever, are super friendly. There are one-hundred million German speakers in Europe, so it’s an extremely important language.
Now, some people say they like German rock music. I don’t do rock music, hard rock, all that stuff, rap, whatever. I don’t even know what it is. I have no interest. In fact, I’m a bit old fashioned. I like Goethe, so I like listening to audio books of Goethe. I love his language and you can get the texts on the Internet so I can import them into LingQ and study them. What else. I like reading about history; something like this, for example. Unfortunately, in many of these books (you can probably see it) there are a lot of words that I don’t know. I would prefer to read these on LingQ so I could look them up and learn the words, but when you’re down to not too many words that you don’t know then it’s not that big a chore to read without knowing all the words.
I’m trying to think of what else I wanted to say about German. It’s an extremely important language. I think a lot of people now, because of the economic might of Germany, speak German in Eastern Europe and in Russian. It’s becoming the next important language after English. In terms of its literature, in terms of history, in terms of philosophy, it is a fascinating culture. I am not into science or medicine, but even there, of course, German in the past has been very important.
I wanted to finish off with one other point that has come up and that’s this issue of talent. Some people say to me oh, you have a talent for languages. I have — talking about themselves — no talent for languages. I don’t think talent is all that important. Granted, you may sit there and say well, Steve, your parents spoke German to each other. You heard German at home. You spoke Swedish for the first five years of your life. Therefore, you can learn other languages more easily. I can’t do that, say some people.
What is the best way to learn German, it’s for you to decide
But then I look around and I see all of the wonderful polyglots that I know in our polyglot community on the Internet. If I think of Luca who grew up unilingual Italian, Richard Simcott grew up unilingual English, if I think of all the Swedes I know, the Dutchmen or Germans who are so fluent in English, it’s not about talent. Some people may be better than others in terms of their ability to imitate accent, but overwhelmingly it’s your motivation, your interest in the language, your sense that you will achieve your goal, that you’re willing to stay with it, spend the time and, of course, to develop that ability to notice.
That’s so important and that’s why I made reference at the beginning of my talk about how taking a break from German, Spanish, Italian actually improved my ability to notice what’s going on in German, Spanish and Italian. That’s why, for example, when I read away from LingQ I will always underline words and phrases. Of course in LingQ, for those of you who aren’t familiar with LingQ, you save words and phrases, which we call creating links. Well, I create them by the tens of thousands.
The more you can create those links and then they reappear highlighted in yellow draws your attention to words, phrases, patterns and you have to do that in order to help the brain notice. Otherwise, we notice some things, but we don’t notice other things. The more things we can notice that the brain has already grown accustomed to noticing, the more new things we can notice. To finish off I would like to say rather than focusing on talent, worrying about whether you have talent or not, focus on developing the ability to notice.
So there you have it. Again, I ran over my 10 minutes. Some complained that my videos were too long and others said they didn’t mind.