patkua@work

The intersection of technology and leadership

Applying learning theory to a real language

My current project work colleagues know I’m learning German while I’m here in Berlin. I doubt I’ll become fluent by the time I leave, but I feel I’ve learned plenty – even without being able to speak it full time at work, or with very few official German lessons.

I feel part of what has helped me successfully accelerate my learning is applying my understanding of learning styles to learning a “real” language (not a programming one for once!) Some of the lessons learned include:

Showing my ignorance – I talked a lot about this during my Beginner’s Mind talk. Being in Germany, I’m surrounded (mostly outside of project work) by people who are experts in the field of the German language. By attempting (and generally failing fast!), I can find out where the current limits of my vocabulary, sayings and articulation is. Trying again then lets me practice more and more.

Accepting that it is the way it is – The hardest things about learning other languages is the “nuances” that come along with the language. Real languages are “loose” with their meanings, and just because you say one thing in English doesn’t mean you can translate it word-for-word to another.

Find multiple “masters” – Just like there is no single “agile” way of working, and there is no “correct” philosophy, it’s good to have multiple teachers and sources of truths. I’d had a few official German lessons, I listen to Pimsleur audio guides, use Rosetta Stone for learning, (try to) read German magazines and try to use German where I can. Each source focuses on different things and all useful in different ones. Pretending that you can learn everything from a single source is destined for failure.

On the way to 10 000 hours – I believe learning real languages takes much longer than that, but trying to use it and practice it as much as possible has definitely improved my novice skills. Even native Germans have commented on how quickly they’ve noticed the language skills improve.

Vocabulary and grammar work as a system – Learning vocabulary without grammar makes you sound strange, and grammar without vocabulary really limits your conversations. Learning both at the same time forms an amplifying loop that allows you to learn more faster.

Align your passions – Anyone who knows me will know I enjoy my food and drink. I blog about it and love discovering neighbourhood gems in a new city. So much so my biggest asset in learning more German has been the Zitty Berlin Essen + Tricken (Food & Drink) magazine special that details restaurants, cafes, and bars around Berlin. I spend time translating each small review of each place and because I’m familiar with many of the places, I can better understand what they’re trying to say. Admittedly I’m not sure how much use all of the language is but it certainly is helping.

1 Comment

  1. Good luck (Viel Glück) 😉

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