A Beginner’s Guide to Starting the Impossible – Learning a Second Language

After living in Germany for a year, Jon Appleby reveals the trials and tribulations of breaking down the language barrier…

Before learning German, my concept of what it meant to speak two languages was completely different. I kind of saw them like tick boxes, so whenever someone said “I can speak French, Spanish…” so on and so forth, I thought – there’s another one checked off for them. Just like my box for English was completely ticked; everything was completed. But that is not the case. Regardless of whether it’s your second language or your mother tongue, language is something we are forever learning and developing. It’s a task that is never quite finished, and as we grow older we change what we say, and how we say it.

I’ve been learning German for well over a year, and although I am nowhere near finished, I’ve used a lot of tricks to try and help develop my mastery of the language. And now I am going to reveal them to you:

  1. Duolingo (or similar apps) – This app can be extremely boring but it works! It’s an amazing way to introduce you to the language. It gets you forming basic phrases, and learning simple words. My only problem was, later on as the grammar became harder and new rules appeared, the app’s short paragraphs of explanation didn’t really clarify much. But for an introduction, it was amazing.
  2. Exchange Partner – This was a big part of my learning process. When starting a language it really does feel like an impossible task (especially for the first time) so having someone who can help explain things, and help you with your wording is amazing. As you delve into the higher levels of the language though, they might struggle to help you. Even with your mother tongue, sometimes you don’t know all the rules of the grammar but use them subconsciously, i.e. your partner could tell you if something is right or wrong, but not always why. A good way to get around this is to meet someone who had to learn the language from scratch themselves, or otherwise get a big book on the grammar.
  3. Listen to the language – At the very early stages of my process I was watching films or listening to music in German. Obviously I didn’t understand anything; if it was a film I’d have subtitles. However, getting use to the sound of the language is a key part in learning it. And as you slowly understand more, change the subtitles to the original language. You might not understand everything, but sometimes you just need enough to enjoy it all. I remember when I started watching films and started understanding most of it. It was this really weird feeling, like some sort of superpower.
  4. SPEAK!! – This is key. I was so nervous speaking German, and still am to this day. When I first started I would always get all the words in the wrong order, miss articles, and just make a mess of the whole situation. I hated it, and I was so nervous. But it was important that I kept speaking. With my exchange partners, I felt like I was in a comfortable environment to practice talking.
  5. Going to a class – I would have to say this made one of the biggest and fastest impact on my German. I attended a morning school five days a week. I nearly didn’t do it, as I thought I could learn from the book by myself. However going to these classes, motivated me to another level. Suddenly it wasn’t just a hobby – it become my primary task. Every day, being exposed to new grammar in an environment that encouraged (or forced) me to speak this unfamiliar language. Of course going to the course isn’t enough, you really have to be prepared to be engaged and make the most of what’s in front of you. You have to remember every day, to USE WHAT YOU LEARNED! Learning a language is not a passive experience. Obviously for a lot of people, five days a week is a lot, but if there are classes two or three days a week, and you are unsure, I recommend them with every fibre in my body.
  6. Passion – You have to want to learn the language. Trying to understand another language is a very arduous task. It won’t always be fun. Sometimes when I try to compile all 500 different German grammar rules into one sentence, I could go mad. You need to be passionate about learning to keep you going, otherwise there is the danger you will make it only so far.
  7. Visit the Country – It’s undoubtable that my living in Germany has made learning the language a lot easier. I have daily exposure, and am constantly put in situations where I can use what I learnt. For me coming to Germany was a big thing – I had to uproot my life, and drag it across Europe. You might feel that it’s too late for you to do this, but you will be surprised how flexible you really are, when you beat the fear that holds you back. There are always opportunities for English speakers in foreign countries. If you want to make the best of life, don’t be afraid to be bold, it’s never too late!
  8. Reading and Writing – Admittedly, this is something that for me was the hardest, and something that I don’t do a lot of. The first thing I did was read baby books. It was so hard, and tiring, constantly translating new words, but if I read the same book over and over, suddenly these words would just stick. As for the writing, this is something where you really need to have someone check what you are doing. It can be hard to muster up the motivation to do it. But it really speeds up the process.
  9. It is possible – Sometimes learning a language might feel like an impossible task, but you need to know that it’s always achievable. Those grammar rules that once drove you crazy will soon become normal, and slowly (sometimes very slowly) you will see progress. You can’t rush learning it and you can’t compare yourself to others. Everyone has their own speeds of learning. You just need to keep positive, focused and try to enjoy the experience.