The concept behind this blog is to give you background information that you might want or need. I would strongly recommend that you read the initial posts, as I believe that you need the information presented in these posts to plan your learning process.
The posts after that provide more specific information on my teaching methods, the reasoning behind my methods and some tips on how you can be more efficient in your study methods.
Questions you need to ask yourself first:
You want to learn a new language. That is wonderful, a great idea! First, however, you need to answer some questions for yourself. Answering these will help you to more effectively plan your path forward.
Question 1: “How motivated are you?”
There is no point in getting feverishly excited by some vague impulse to learn either German or English (or Swahili, for that matter) if your reasoning is that “I always thought it would be awesome to speak German and, like, OMG, maybe one day I can go there on a holiday”.
As much as I have made it my task to simplify the learning process, the fact remains that learning a language to the point at which you can communicate in it is hard work, especially at the beginning. Results come only from consistent effort over time (anyone telling you something else is trying to sell you something!).
A vaguely formed motivation will cause you to crash and burn as soon as the work and repetition begin, thereby ending up with you having wasted your time and money.
Lessons can certainly be fun and you can feel a growing sense of pride as your abilities steadily increase, but you definitely need to begin with well-defined and strong motivation. Finding that strong motivation within yourself is not a part of the teaching process (aside from myself recommending it to you right here), you need to do it before we begin.
Question 2: “What time frame are you looking at?”
Within the school context, I have had the luxury of teaching primary school children for whom fluency was an outcome they had ten years to achieve. Under those circumstances we played games, sang advertising jingles about Gummi Bears, learned tons of verbs by acting them out and learned nouns that were interesting, but seldom pitch up in day to day conversation (for example, a rhinoceros in German is a “Nashorn”, “nose horn” and a hippopotamus is a “Nilpferd”, a “horse of the Nile”).
Lots of fun and laughter and close to zero pressure, in many ways an ideal learning environment. By contrast, I have had adult students who had suddenly been notified that they were being transferred to Germany in four or five months and how close can we work towards fluency within that time frame, please. The same language to be learned, but the time frame can change everything!
Question 3: “ What exactly is your goal or desired outcome?”
Are you looking to be able to communicate at a basic level when you arrive in Germany in four or five months? Are you preparing yourself to take a competency exam, perhaps at your local branch of the highly regarded Goethe Institut? Are you intending to go to Germany in several years so as to live or study there? Or would you like to impress your German business partners whom you regularly speak to on the phone?
How far do you want to go with this? The further you go, the more you will be able to teach yourself! You will reach a tipping point at which time you watching YouTube clips in your target language, watching subtitled films, reading articles or news reports online and having conversations will be all that is needed for you to keep improving. At that point, my work will be done!
Question 4: “How many lessons can you afford”?
Yes, I am in the business of selling lessons, but only you know what your personal budget looks like! What ratio of lesson time to working on your own can you afford? The more you are prepared to work hard on your own, the fewer lessons you may need.
However, you may need three or four hours of solo work to progress as much as you would in one lesson, simply because a teacher can give you instant feedback and help to prevent you from engraining mistakes. The expression “practice makes perfect” is only partly correct, the full expression should be “perfect practice makes perfect”.
Inadvertently teaching yourself a mistake will, at a later stage, actually increase your workload when you try and learn the correct version. However, lessons cost money. Time spent working on your own unless it keeps you from doing your own paid work, is free. So you may well need to balance your desire for a higher proportion of lessons with your available financial resources!
Answering these questions for yourself will give you the background information you will need before you contact a teacher so as to discuss and arrange lessons and a study program.
The Mixed Martial Art of Language Teaching – Or why my approach works best
I understand that you, as a potential student or parent of a student, are not really interested in the history of language teaching, starting with the Romans. I get that. However, there has been so much dull, boring and useless teaching going on over the years that it would be useful for you to know at least a little bit about what good language teaching consists of.
Quite simply, good teaching has as its result the student’s ability to communicate in the language she or he has been learning. Seems fairly straightforward, does it not!?
So why is it that generations of schoolchildren spend hundreds of hours drawn out over years of schooling, learning a second language and, after all that, are hardly able to order breakfast and a cup of coffee in that language once they leave school? All those hours and in the end, nothing much has “stuck”. So why bother at all and what seems to make it so difficult to learn a second language?
Well, ask yourself, how did you acquire proficiency in your mother tongue? Did your mother or father ever look at you, when you were four or five years old, and say: “No, sweetie, you can’t say ‘Mommy go shopping. You need to conjugate the verb for the third person singular. He, she, it GOES shopping, is the grammatically correct way of conjugating this verb.’ “
Of course they did not (unless your parents happened to be professors in the language department at your local university, perhaps). You learned by listening, by noticing patterns in what you heard. By seeing how certain “bits” of sound, whether single (words) or in groups (sentences) were always accompanied by the same set of actions. When your mother said “going shopping” you would either be bundled into a pram and go out or your mother would vanish and come back sometime later with bags filled with something.
Patterns built up over time. Then you tried to generate some of these patterns yourself, creating an enthusiastic response in your parents (which encouraged you to do more of the same) and sometimes they would repeat what you said, but with a few small differences, until you managed to generate this slightly changed, more correct pattern.
Now, admittedly, that’s a simplified version, but in essence, that is more or less how it happened. You don’t need to “believe me” on this, just go back into your own memories or watch any given set of young parents.
Now, contrast this to how a second language is taught at many schools. Just a short aside, this is based on how the Latin language was originally taught. I remember sitting in class in the German School Cape Town, going “amo, amas, amat, amamus…I love, you love, he/she/it loves, we love”…and yes, fifty years on I can still conjugate the verb “to love” in Latin, but you could point a loaded gun at my head and threaten to shoot me if I don’t say some simple sentence in Latin, such as “I am hungry” or “I want to go home” …and I would be a dead man.
As dead as Latin has been for nearly a thousand years, once clerics stopped using it as a universal language for communicating and preaching sermons. So it was taught as this dead thing, you “studied” Latin, learning facts in the same way that you learned facts in your history or biology lessons.
The aim was never to actually speak it fluently, at most you would translate passages from Seneca or Cicero from Latin into English or German or French, into your mother tongue, so as to show what a clever little child you were and to be called up on stage during prize giving and get the trophy for best Latin student.
All well and fine, but not very useful when it comes to actually learning how to COMMUNICATE in a living language, with people to whom this is their mother tongue! To this day this is sadly still the dominant approach to second language teaching in many schools.
You are forced to learn ABOUT the language, rather than learning to actually use it. The most convenient way (for teaching groups without putting in much effort with regards to any individual students) to teach about a language is to teach about its structure, or, as we all know it, its GRAMMAR. It is so nicely convenient.
Generations of either ignorant or bone lazy teachers would show their students the structure of the language, then send them home to learn long vocabulary lists off by heart, then the teachers create limited “drilling scenarios” in the form of, say, printed sentences with the correctly conjugated verb missing and if you had learned your vocabulary and had learned how to conjugate, you scored twenty out of twenty on your test and received a fantastically good mark for the year and eventually for the subject and you suffered from the mistaken belief that you had successfully learned the language.
Then you visit the country where the language is spoken and realize that, after five years of high school study, you are struggling to place an order with a waiter, never mind being able to talk about the weather with a random stranger!
So, in a nutshell, and magnificently oversimplified, that is how language teaching has and still often is done and why it produces such unimpressive results.
Having had a look at how not to do it, let us have a look at how you might best produce real and lasting results. Simply put, you mimic the way you acquired fluency in your mother tongue. You cannot duplicate the process completely, because you cannot recreate the circumstances of the first few years of a child’s life, in which it basically has zero responsibilities and can just lie there and absorb its surroundings like a sponge. Unfortunately, that is clearly impossible.
What you can do, is to get as close to this process as is humanly possible. Here is where my Mixed Martial Arts analogy comes in. I used to run a mixed martial arts club in the evenings, during most of my forties. Mixed Martial Arts became the dominant global combat sport by taking the best bits of other combat sports and mixing them up, so as to be able to beat every other previously existing combat sport that had a more limited rule set. Bottom line, you combined the best of every method that was available and your only yardstick for what was included was what produced the best and most consistent results. I love that approach, be it in martial arts, business or in language teaching.
The only relevant question is: Does it work? Does it produce results? I really do not care about precious long-dead poets and their often tortured attempts at creating beauty. John Keats in his admittedly beautiful poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn” writes: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, —that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know”. A deeply felt sentiment, but fairly useless if you find yourself in a foreign country and need an emergency service. In that case, you also need to know: “Where is the nearest hospital?” or “How do I get hold of a police officer?”
I remember once receiving an impassioned plea from some German “teachers body” to please drill my students on a version of the “Konjunktiv” that apparently is busy dying out. The Konjunktiv is the “form of possibility”…”if it was to rain, I would need an umbrella”…well, in German we have an even “higher level” version of that..directly translated, the above would be “Wenn es regnen würde, würde ich einen Regenschirm brauchen”, so the even more educated and convoluted version is: “Wenn es regnete, bräuchte ich einen Regenschirm”. Now, their point was, we need to drill this in school so that this wonderful flowering of the German language does not die out.
99.9 percent of the German teachers who received that email, probably nodded sympathetically and went out and immediately drilled their poor students in this form. Me…I just sat there and thought: “Good. About time that nonsense dies out!”
I try to live my life in accordance with the rule first formulated by a philosopher called “Occam of Rotterdam”. He said: “Don’t multiply your entities unnecessarily”. Why own three toothbrushes, when you use only one? Why own three cars (unless you are a collector), if you only ever drive in one at any given point in time? Why learn three ways of saying something in a language, if you can communicate adequately using only one!?
Listen to how people actually speak to each other! Expressing the concept that links “rain”, “umbrella” and “uncertainty about whether it will actually happen” is most often expressed in daily life by saying “If it rains (tomorrow, this afternoon, whenever), I need my umbrella”. The verbs are used in the present tense.
The fact that the rain is not a certainty, it is a possibility, is expressed by using the word “if”. We don’t need three different ways so as to express one concept, we only need one! That is, if communicating is our priority, at any rate.
Whether you want to call this applying Occam’s razor or using the K.I.S.S. principle (Keep it simple, stupid), it comes to the same thing. To quote Google on the K.I.S.S. principle: “most systems work best if they are kept simple rather than made complicated; therefore, simplicity should be a key goal in design.” My feelings, exactly.
Heresy to any German language ivory tower academic, of course. As Clark Gable said to Vivien Leigh in the 1939 film “Gone with the wind”: “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” My task is to teach my students to learn to communicate as fluently and as quickly as I am able to. All else is a waste of your time, effort and money.
So…getting back to the Mixed Martial Arts analogy. In the last decades, many wonderful educators have come up with some fantastic ideas and drills for creating the ability to communicate. For example, a World War Two war hero called Michel Thomas started up a language school in Los Angeles after he emigrated to America after the war.
He claimed to be able to teach communicative competence in a given language (German, French, Spanish) within two weeks of full time private study and charged the Hollywood elite of the time (Woody Allan, Mia Farrow etc.), if memory serves me correctly, twenty thousand dollars for those two weeks, which even today might be considered steep, but in those days was an absolute fortune.
His method is fantastic, up to a point. He leaves out quite a few things, such as nouns (using pronouns in their place) and the horrific task of learning that a table uses the masculine article (der Tisch), a door is “feminine” (die Tür) and the food is “neutral” (das Essen).
So, using his method, instead of learning: “The man came in through the door, sat down at the table and ate the food”, you would learn “He came inside and sat down and ate” as a sentence. Elegant and effective, but it ultimately only gets you halfway to your target, i.e. communicative fluency. In my opinion, it leaves too many gaps, if used on its own, brilliant as it may be.
It is a great starting point for learning whole chunks of meaning, though. Plus you build up some vocabulary in the process through repetition. You also automatically absorb the German way of ordering words in a sentence. The German word order is different from the English one.
My point: listening repeatedly to simple sentences that have the difficult bits missing and then learning to generate similar sentences is a fantastic teaching tool. So it gets “borrowed”, with accreditation to the source, into my “mixed” teaching approach.
Another example: A teaching approach called TPR (Total Physical Response) developed in the seventies and eighties combines mimicking actions with learning verbs.
So when you teach the word “walking” to primary school children at school, you have them walking across the classroom. For “eating”, you have them mimicking putting food into their mouths and chewing on it. It makes it so much easier to remember when compared to just learning verbs off a vocabulary list and the kids love it, it makes learning fun!
Now, online, you can mimic the chewing but you are not going to ask your student to get up and walk across the room! No problem, you can mimic the action of walking by using two fingers “walking” on the palm of your other hand. You speed the fingers up to give you the action for “running”, for example.
Another thing that I did when I started teaching was to research which were the five hundred most used words in the German Language, followed by the next one and a half thousand words. Depending on which research you choose to listen to, at an estimate, the basic two thousand words give you an eighty percent communicative competence (or so the clever researchers say, they got there by analyzing the words used in newspapers on a day-to-day basis, so it is a fairly good estimate).
When you are teaching primary school children, the long term time frame and their enthusiasm for learning animal names make “hippopotamus” and “rhinoceros” useful words to learn, but how often does anyone use those in daily communication, unless you work as a zookeeper?
So if you need to learn verb conjugations (which is necessary somewhere along the way), let it at least be the thirty or forty most often used verbs in the language!
The Michel Thomas method, the TPR methodology and the selection of the most often used words are just three of the many useful tools, drills or concepts I have “borrowed” from wherever I have been able to find something that is effective and efficient in getting the job done, in achieving results, in getting the victory we are looking for, i.e. your ability to communicate fluently. Just as I structured my classes at my Mixed Martial Arts Academy, putting together elements from boxing, Thai boxing and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu for my students.