“Learn a language,” they said. “It’ll be fun, they said.” – Debunking the myth that there are ‘fun’ ways to learn a language

German English dictionary

When I first started learning German, naturally I did all kinds of Google searches on hints, tips and tricks to learning a language faster. There must be some kind of magic formula, I assumed, and if I could just unveil it, fluency would be mine!

Well, sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but there just isn’t. Sure, there’s plenty of ideas, but none of them take away from the fact that learning a language comes with hard work and practice.

One thing I came across a lot was so-called ‘fun’ and ‘easy’ ways to learn another language. I clung onto those with everything I had. Options like watching movies in a foreign language, reading local newspapers and listening to the local radio… sure these may sound like fun, but actually, they’re not.

Here’s why these methods are actually no fun at all, and up until now, have barely helped me.

Listen to the radio

“Just put it on in the background,” was the advice. Yeah, because listening to the irrelevant chatter, news and weather bulletins will inevitably result in language proficiency! I can honestly say that in my first year in Austria, I listened to at least a few hours of local radio every day, partly just because I like background noise, and partly to aid learning. Guess what? After a year, when I started working, I couldn’t even decipher the traffic report, let alone the hourly news bulletin. Sure, subconsciously it must add a little something, but in the beginning it’s a very little!

Watch TV/movies

Back to the future translation

Oh, there’s nothing better than coming home from a long day at work and sitting in front of the TV, exhausted, throwing popcorn carelessly into your mouth as you drift off into your favourite series or recent blockbuster.

Guess what’s not fun when you’re tired at the end of a long day… trying to sit through a movie in a foreign language. Even if you put on the English subtitles (which you absolutely have to do to begin with), you still have to strain your eyes reading through them and mentally concentrate to get any benefit from it.

At this point in my German learning, I can watch (with heavy concentration) light movies in German with German subtitles. But let me get this straight – this is not a fun thing – this is a study period. Any movie that is vaguely complicated, anytime I need to chill out, or anytime I just want to hear the Terminator’s original voice instead of a random German actor, I have to watch in English. I’m currently struggling through Scrubs, first in German with English subtitles, then in English with German subtitles, and finally German with German subtitles. It’s not as boring as some other things, but the third time through… it is hard to keep the motivation.

Read the local newspaper

Oh yes! Read the paper. That’s right – take a pastime you’ve previously enjoyed as a relaxing way to thoughtlessly occupy your mind while eating breakfast, and turn it into a study period. Guess what? Breakfast is no longer relaxing – at the start you have to look up every second word, which just interrupts eating. After more than two years I can read basic newspaper articles, but anything that is about the government, the healthcare system or anything complicated… is still more frustrating than fun.

Read children’s books

German kids book
Looks fun… but not when you’re over 5

Great idea, I thought. Find children’s books at my level and read them. So that began with books titled, for example, Die kleine Raupe Nimmersatt (The Very Hungry Caterpillar). Yes, it’s a great book, and it’s easy to read, but after you’ve gone through three or four books like this, your mind is dull and the motivation is gone. Yes, your language level might only by three years old, but your mental level is much higher.

Things are better now I’m into young adults and I’m currently reading through Enid Blyton’s Fünf Freunde books, that’s: the Famous Five. Fighting your way through a book isn’t the right way. I learnt this after tackling the Wizard of Oz… reading each chapter three times over and constantly checking words with the dictionary… not fun. At this point, to make it fun, you don’t need to know every single word. I still occasionally look something up, but only when I think I’ve missed something critical. Otherwise, I just let the story wash over me.

Listening to Audiobooks

This really has the same problems as the above, because until you’re at a level where you can listen to young adult books, everything is boring and often I would just tune out. And even though I am using what would otherwise be dead time where I am simply in transit, I still resent the voice in my head that says “put the audio book on, yes, the one you’ve listened to five times already.” Sometimes I say, “Screw you” to the little voice and just enjoy the driving, listening to my favourite songs or the radio.

Talking to the locals

Welcome drink Reiters
Don’t let German ruin a nice catch up with friends!

Find someone to chat to in the language, be it online or just having coffee with a friend. This is definitely important and definitely beneficial. But fun? Not always. Because in the beginning, having conversations past: “How are you?” “Good,” and “How is the weather?” “Sunny,” are impossible. Even though I can now have perfectly good one-on-one conversations with someone, I still can’t express myself fully. I can say: “Your dress is pretty.” But I can’t say: “Wow, I love your dress – the blue buttons at the top really complement the trim and that cut really suits you.” Sure, going out for a coffee with a friend is always good, but treating it as a learning session is not a good idea, otherwise you might inadvertently start resenting meeting up with friends! This is incidental learning and should not count, kind of like walking up the stairs at work.

In Conclusion

So I’m sorry if you’ve just discovered that there’s no ‘overnight solution’ to fluency. Immersion in any shape or form is always beneficial but you have to remember that depending on your level, might not always provide the results you are expecting. Learning a language is hard work, but it does get easier, and some day I’m hoping that at least some of the above will be fun!

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2 thoughts on ““Learn a language,” they said. “It’ll be fun, they said.” – Debunking the myth that there are ‘fun’ ways to learn a language

  1. flrpwll December 12, 2016 / 2:11 am

    My parents couldn’t decide if I should have Dutch or German as a second language. So I just got confused and gave up instead. Now I’ve decided to learn them one at a time, German first ’cause it’s actually a bit easier. All I’ve really discovered is that there is an Austrian band that sounds a lot like Hilltop Hoods (Radio Ö3 streaming while I’m in the car). One day I might be able to have a conversation that extends beyond food, but it is not this day.

    • debbiekaye1980 December 12, 2016 / 3:48 pm

      Food is good to start with – and important! You’ve got to eat!!!

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