When you're learning a new language, how much do the four skills – reading, listening, writing, and speaking - boost each other? For example, how much does reading help your listening or speaking? Or, when you practice listening, does that help your reading or writing? The answers are yes, and quite a bit. But there are limits. No doubt, reading will increase your vocabulary and your understanding of how the language works. Still, reading alone does not make you a fluent conversationalist. By the same token, listening alone will not make you a brilliant Facebook chat partner in your new language.
Many adults today start learning a new language by reading, and listening to corresponding audios. Apps and online language courses are ideal for that, with hard-copy textbooks, classes, and tutorials providing support and/or alternatives.
Once you've mastered the basics - essential words and phrases and the fundamentals of grammar - reading will certainly accelerate your progress. Reading is a fast and pleasant way to increase your vocabulary and internalize the structure of the language. Most of all, reading sharpens your ability to guess the meaning of unknown words. When reading new texts, you'll encounter unfamiliar words, and often it's the context that helps you guess what they mean. This ability will get better the more you read.
To keep you reading, it's crucial that you read books and articles that genuinely interest you. And whenever you can: Read aloud.The Internet has become a huge resource for foreign language materials. Besides online courses, you can find an endless supply of newspaper articles, social media posts, books for downloading, etc.
Reading is clearly essential for learning a language. However, reading alone is not sufficient if your goal is also to speak and write fluently, and to listen to fast speech and understand what you're hearing.
Understanding foreign sounds and words seems initially more difficult than reading: by correlating the sounds of the words to their spelling one tries, at the same time, to understand what they mean. If you're part of a conversation, you can ask for something to be repeated. Aside from that, as with a rapid-fire conversation in a TV episode, you can't double-check and analyze what you hear.
For the beginner, spoken language always seems fast. But with a little patience, you can build up your listening skills right from the beginning. Start with listening to individual words and phrases, then songs and short podcasts, and eventually, TV episodes and/or radio. As you're training your ear to distinguish the end of one word and the beginning of the next, you'll notice the fast stream of words gradually slowing down.
You'll need good listening comprehension when you're in a conversation with others. Practicing to just listen is an excellent way to sharpen this skill. And once you have progressed beyond the basics, reading will increase your listening vocabulary, and speaking will help you apply it.
Writing freely in a foreign language may be harder for some than speaking. If you want to exchange Facebook chats or emails with foreign friends, or even post comments in the language you're learning, you have to be able to spell and put sentences together that others can understand. A good first step for writing is to copy suitable words and phrases, and to start using these when you write. Then continue doing this with full sentences, or even longer texts.
The point is to write a lot and to write often. When you're ready, begin keeping a simple, daily journal in your new language. It's okay to make mistakes. If you can get your writing corrected - either by an email friend or on a foreign language writing site - you'll make progress fast.
If you want to learn to converse in a foreign language, you have to practice speaking. It's as simple as that. Of course, listening with understanding is necessary too. However, conversing in a language presupposes that you can produce the foreign language in a way so that others can understand you. This involves mastering the correct "mouth mechanics." And, it's not enough to remember the vocabulary, you also have to be conscious of the underlying grammatical fabric – and what's different from writing – you have to do so in real time, without consulting dictionaries and grammar books.
Practice speaking by listening and repeating words, phrases, and short sentence. Then record your own voice, play it back, and compare yourself to the native speaker. Do this until you have acquired a series of common, useful expressions. In addition, read aloud whenever you can (see above).
But nothing beats engaging in real conversations. So once you've mastered the basics of pronunciation and intonation, find a "practice" partner to converse with over coffee, on the phone, on skype, etc. Don't become one of those people who say: "I learned French for four years, I can read Harry Potter in French, but I can't really speak; all I can say is 'Bonjour' and 'Au revoir'."
THE BOTTOM LINE
I've only touched on some of the ways in which the four language skills are both distinct and related. Each person may experience language learning somewhat differently or want to practice one skill to the preference of another. But the bottom line is that a language learner that wants to master all four skills will need to practice each of these - reading, listening, writing, and speaking - with a certain amount of special attention.
Often, when I'm in the kitchen preparing lunch, I'll grab my laptop and put on an Italian soap. For me it's a good way to sharpen my Italian listening skills.
As the conversations fly back and forth, I keep hearing the words "magari" and "mica," both of which are integral features of casual Italian conversation. To understand their meaning you have to also understand the context in which they are used.
"Magari" can have different functions in a sentence (adverb, conjunction, interjection), and its meaning varies by context.
magari - maybe, perhaps [adverb]
Magari c'è un altro motivo. - Perhaps there's another reason.
magari - if only [conjunction]
Magari fosse vero! - If only it were true!
magari - I wish!, Yeah, right! [interjection, a little scarcastic]
Hai vinto qualcosa? - Did you win anything?
Magari! - I wish! / Yeah, right!
Magari! - you bet! [interjection, positive response]
Ti piacerebbe andare in Italia? - Would you like to go to Italy?
Magari! - You bet! / I certainly would!
"Mica" is typically used as an adverb, for particular emphasis.
mica - at all [adverb]
Mica male questo vino. - This wine isn't bad at all.
non mica - not at all [adverb]
Non sto mica bene. - I'm not well at all.
Non ci credo mica. - I don't believe that for a minute.
Non sono mica nati ieri. - I wasn't born yesterday.
*Meaning: I know a thing or two ... I didn't just fall off the turnip truck.
How can you start using "magari" and "mica" in your own Italian conversations? Begin by paying attention to these words when you listen to Italian. And when you speak, just slip them in casually. Will that work? You bet! Magari!
Arriving at one of the world's great cities is always a thrill. If, in addition, you've made the effort to learn the local language, you'll have added another dimension to your experience. And while you're exploring the city, you can continue to engage with its language. Here are 4 easy ways to keep on learning. I tried them out while recently visiting Oslo, Norway's capital. (Oslo's stunning new opera, above)
1. DECODING SIGNS WHILE EXPLORING ON FOOT
Oslo's Karl Johans gate (right) is a pedestrian way that sweeps through the city from Sentralstasjon (central station) to Slottet (the royal palace). It is lined by cafés, shops, office buildings, and is always bustling with activity. As you stroll along this street, you meet a constant stream of visual language: signs on buildings and apartments; signs regulating car and bicycle traffic; advertising signs in stores, etc. Some of these are translated into English, but many are not. It's fun to guess the meaning of these signs, and armed with a small dictionary, you can decipher many of them. Since many words and phrases pop up in various locations, you'll start to recognize and learn them.
For Norwegian, knowing another Germanic language (such as English, Dutch, or German) is helpful. An ad on a tram (left) reads: "ring billig til utlandet": "ring" (American: call); "billig" (same word in German: cheap), "til" (to/until); "utlandet" (close to German "Ausland" or Dutch "buitenland," meaning "abroad.") Sometimes though, you have to chuckle at the shift in meaning. For example, a sign at an Oslo Parking garage (right) reads "LEDIG" (Vacant); the German word "ledig" means "unmarried." Or, you have to be beware of out-and-out false friends: Norwegian "barn" means "children" in English.
2. LISTENING TO ANNOUNCEMENTS ON PUBLIC TRANSPORT
Oslo has an excellent network of buses, trams, subways (T-bane), ferries, and local trains that take you to practically any point in the city and to many towns in the surrounding county Akershus. A 7-day all-inclusive pass helped us round out our sightseeing. Just for a start, we took the T-bane to the Holmenkollen hopp (ski jump); the tram to Vigelandsparken, an amazing open-air sculpture park (see a sculpture by Gustav Vigeland, left); and the ferry to Nesoddtangen (a village 4 miles south of Oslo).
Stops on trams, buses, subways, and trains are shown visually, but they are also announced aloud in Norwegian. For me, this was a fun way to learn the correlation between spelling and pronunciation. Norwegian has many silent letters, plus a few letter combinations that are totally unpredictable for a native English speaker. Listening to the names of stops, as well as to lengthier general announcements is a good way to get the music of the language into your ear. Moreover, everything is spoken in Norwegian first, and then in English, allowing you to double-check that you've really understood the meaning.
3. READING DUAL-LANGUAGE TEXTS IN MUSEUMS
Oslo offers a host of interesting museums, some housed in spectacular buildings, others tucked away in formerly private apartments. Each exhibit provides well-constructed, colorful background stories - in Norwegian and English. As you read about the artists, the individual works of art, the history of the city, etc., you can have a language lesson to boot.
From dual-language plaques, we learned about Munch's lengthy stays in Berlin and Paris and his bohemian life there (Munch Museum); we read that Ibsen had lived abroad for 27 years and the reasons why he did his best writing outside of the country (Ibsen Museum); we discovered that, when in 1905, the Danish Prince Carl and his British wife became King Haakon VII and Queen Maude of Norway (Hollenkollen Museum), they and their children became avid skiers (see the royal family, right, and read our recent blog Language Politics).
4. SPEAKING THE LOCAL LANGUAGE
Last but not least, it was fun to try out our practical, phrase-based Norwegian. We are far from fluent, but every time we made a purchase, ordered food or drinks, bought tickets, or asked for directions, we practiced the language we had so far acquired. Waiters in cafés or restaurant were usually multilingual and when our Norwegian didn't suffice, they joined us in language-switching back and forth between Norwegian, English, German, and sometimes Spanish and Italian.
When you think about it, a city offers a lot of free and fun resources for language learning. You just have to become aware of them and use them as they come up. Keeping a 3"x5" spiral notebook with you to write down any new words or phrases you see or hear, will help you remember and learn.
More and more online language learning sites are adding games or game-like features to their course repertoire. And that is for good reason: Making language learning more entertaining can also produce better results. All four language skills – listening/comprehension, reading, speaking, and writing - can well be practiced with interactive games or lessons/exercises that have game-like features.
Some baby boomers and older learners may not (yet) be as used to learning with games as generation X, Y, Z, but it seems inevitable that the trend of learning with games will continue.
Clearly, Gamesforlanguage.com was created with the idea that learning a language with games can be fun and effective. But we have also learned that players should observe a few “rules” or practices to get the most out of our games. Here are our five (5) tips which are based on our own experience and on comments from our users. We have also incorporated them into our list of suggestions: “How to play and learn?”
1. Be mindful and pay attention to the spelling
When new foreign words first come up, take a moment to study them and memorize their typeface/appearance, especially when special foreign letters, accents, umlauts, etc. are involved. You'll have to recall the specifics later when you have to write them.
2. Limit the new vocabulary you learn daily to 15-20 words
It's easy to be carried away by easy games and just move on to the next set of new words. However, our brain is only able to handle so many words or expressions a day and move them from short-term to long-term memory. The number of new words one can learn a day may vary, but we suggest a range of 15-20.
3. Repeat the native speaker's word's and phrases whenever you can
Learning to speak a new foreign language requires pronouncing the foreign words. This may feel awkward and strange at the beginning, but you have to do it as often as you can. Most online language programs have recording features and you are asked to emulate the native speaker (see also 5. below). But don't even wait until you can record. Take every opportunity to repeat a foreign word, phrase or sentence, right from the start.
4. Play some games every day
Especially at the beginning it's important that you get into a learning habit. Set a time that fits best into your schedule. Just 15-20 minutes for 5 or 6 days in a row will be better than an hour or two once a week! The daily practice will have you soon naming objects and activities in your new language. This way you are sure to move the new vocabulary into your long-term memory.
5. record your voice and compare yourself to the native speaker
We have not been able (yet) to make recording your voice into a real game. Some language courses are using voice recognition and voiceprint spectrograms to compare your voice to the native speaker's voice. This may be fun to watch, but can also be frustrating, especially at the beginning. However, you can make your own game out of imitating the native speaker by acting the part with gusto. And you should really focus on listening and hearing the difference between your pronunciation and that of the native speaker. That is a sure way to improve.
Games for learning languages are evolving. There are many gaming features that can make them more challenging and exciting. Not all of them are make learning more effective, but more research will be needed to understand what the trade-offs are.
During our recent trip along the Norwegian coastline from Bergen to the Northcap (left) and Kirkenes, on the Russian border, we had an opportunity to learn much about Norwegian history. Yes, the Vikings were a frequent topic of conversation and the focus of excursions. Between the late 8th and the middle of the11th century, Vikings had ruled the North Sea and had even ventured into the Mediterranean Sea. Also, there's evidence that they had reached Iceland and Greenland. Leif Erikson may well have been the first European to set foot on mainland America. But we also found the more recent history of Norway and especially the role of language quite interesting.
Nordic Languages: Danish - Norwegian - Swedish
Although friends had told us that these Nordic languages are quite similar to German, my one-month Swedish course did not yet make this obvious to me. And sitting at a dinner table with four Swedes every night, I never caught any part of their conversation - except if they switched to German or English for our benefit. From Danes, Norwegians, and Swedes on the ship we learned that they can generally understand each other's language (regional dialects excepted). However, one Swede told us that he did not at all understand a young Norwegian man, because he spoke Nynorsk (New Norwegian). In Norway, the predominant language,Norwegian Bokmål, is spoken by more than 86% of the people, but as the above Wikipedia link further explains, the language situation is quite complex.
Nynorsk – a newly created language
As we inquired further into Nynorsk, we learned that this language was created by Ivar Aasen in the middle of the 19th century from old Nordic dialects. (In this Wikipedia entry you can read more about the use, distribution of Nynorsk, and related issues.) One would ask: why create a new language? For Norway, language was a way to reinforce a distinct Norwegian identity, as the nation strove for and then acquired, in 1905, its independence from Sweden. Some Norwegians suggested to us, however, that with Norway's affluence and growing national confidence, the movement for popularizing Nynorsk may be slowing down. The benefits of a second national language taught in school are being questioned as other languages become ever more important. (I am leaving out of this discussion any local dialects and the distinctly different language of the Sami, the indigenous Finno-Ugric people inhabiting the northern part of the Scandinavian peninsula.)
A little more Nordic History
After the end of the Viking era (around 1050), Norwegian tribes and communitieswere ruled for centuries by Danish and then by Swedish kings. Nation states as such only developed in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries, often after considerable strife. It was therefore surprising to some, when in 1905, Sweden accepted the plebiscite of the Norwegians, and agreed to release Norway from the joint kingdom of Norway and Sweden. The story of the peaceful dissolution of the union between Norway and Sweden makes interesting reading for history buffs, who also may be intrigued by the people's election (!) of the Danish (!) crown prince as their new king.
Politics, Dialects, and "standard" language
In the past, political leaders have often tried to impose new languages on their people. When the Normans won the battle of Hastings in 1066, French became the language of English nobility. Although French certainly influenced and modified the language of English peasants and commoners, it did not replace it. (Read more in our blog: The French Connection) French became the language at many European courts in the 18th and 19th centuries and many French words found their way into the various European languages.
In the region of Catalonia, which includes the second largest city in Spain, Barcelona, the local language is Catalan. Catalan is both a spoken and a written language. As Castilian Spanish is taught in schools, most Catalans are indeed bilingual - although traces of animosity towards Castilian seem to remain, even, surprisingly, with some younger people. (Read more in our blog: In Barcelona Learning "Spanish" is Not Enough)
Switzerland has a somewhat different situation. Spoken "Swiss German" or "Schwyzerdütsch" is the common language in the German-speaking cantons, although there are noticeable dialect differences among them. However, "High German" or "Schriftdeutsch" (Written German), as the Swiss call it, is taught in schools. It's the printed language of newspapers and is used by all Swiss Germans to write. (With very few exceptions - see picture at right - Swiss German is not used for writing or print.)
Language and National Identity
Clearly, language plays an important role in a people's identity. In the case of Norway, it will be interesting to watch whether Nynorsk will survive and prosper alongside Norway's presently more dominant language, Bokmål.
When you're learning a new language to communicate, grammar should not be your main worry. Focus rather on understanding and speaking, and discover grammar points along the way. And, importantly, grammar is best consumed gradually, in small doses, and in little steps. My current experience with learning Swedish reinforces this notion for me again and again.
Simple Grammar Explanations
Find a book or site that gives you simple explanations, ones that you can relate directly to the vocabulary you're learning. For example, as you're practicing basic phrases and sentences, you can discover - step by step: the gender of nouns; articles (definite & indefinite); pronouns (including the familiar and formal "you," and when to use these); present tense verb endings; conjunctions (and, but or); question words (who, what, where, when, etc.); and the word order of simple statements and questions.
Once you've grasped a grammar point, you'll reinforce your understanding every time you see the structure again - as you're learning new words and phrases or reviewing old ones. For example, in Swedish, I learned that the definite article is attached to the end of a noun. So now I know the difference between "torg" (square) and "torget" (the square). Whenever I see the “-et / -t" (neuter gender) or the “-en / -n” (common gender) ending, I keep this in mind for understanding the meaning of the word.
With a knowledge of some essential phrases and grammar basics, you're now ready to learn a handful of prepositions, as they're used in common expressions. Some of them you may have encountered already in phrases you learned, others may be new or have a second, less obvious meaning. Each language has its own favorites. For example, in Swedish I started with: av (of, by); från (from); hos (with, at); i (in, on, before [time]); på (on, in, at); till (to [a place]); med (with); över (over, above, across, past [time]); åt (to [a person]).
Research & Discovery
As a next step, choose a simple text that interests you, about half a printed page long. Now, using a dictionary, try to read it for meaning, or even try to translate the sentences into English. Pay special attention to what holds the text together: the connecting words (and, but, also); negative words (not, never, no one); time markers (today, tomorrow, yesterday, soon, earlier, etc.); verb tenses. At this stage, you're beginning to understand how the language works.
I'm a huge fan of keeping a small spiral (3"x5") notebook in which I write down, in pencil, phrases I want to memorize. I also list essential grammar points. For example, for Swedish, I noted down the phrases: "en kvart över twå" (a quarter past two) and "en kvart i twå" (a quarter to two). This phrase pair helps me recall that, in general, "över" means "past the hour" and "i" means "before the hour."
In my experience, grammar is something you build from the ground up, slowly, step by step. As you're learning your new language, you become aware of and want to understand grammar points - all in the context of phrases and sentences that you are reading or hearing. In short, grammar is not something you learn first and then apply but rather something that you discover and learn over time.
The use of the single letter "y" and its combination with forms of the verb "aller" is confusing to many French beginners. However, it's really not that difficult. (The picture on the left shows the cover of “On y va!”, a French lesson book used by Swiss high school students in the 80s and 90s.)
Recently, we listed the following uses of “y” in a Facebook post:
"y" = here, there, about it, on it (referring to something that was mentioned)
"On y va." - Let's go (Lit: We are going [there].)
"J'y suis, j'y reste." - Here I am (and) here I'm staying.
"Marseille? Oui, je vais y aller." - Marseille? Yes, I'm going there.
"Trois jours à Paris! Penses-y!" - Three days in Paris! Think about it!
"Le pont d'Avignon? On ne peut plus y danser." - Avignon Bridge? You can't dance on it any more.
"La Tour Eiffel? Est-ce que tu y es déjà monté?" - The Eiffel Tower? Did you already go up on it?
Moreover, you can combine various forms of the verb “aller” (to go) and “y” (there) to create commands that are commonly used in daily life.
An excellent explanation of these commands can be found in
Quick German No.1a: Do you know the meaning of "Berliner"?
Actually there are two meanings:
(1) A man from Berlin, the German capital (A woman from Berlin is a "Berlinerin")
(2) A Berliner Pfannkuchen (in short called Berliner) is a traditional North German pastry similar to a doughnut (without a central hole) made from sweet yeast dough...(Wikipedia)
When John F. Kennedy declared in his famous speech in Berlin on June 26, 1963:
"Ich bin ein Berliner!"
it caused German speakers (especially young teenagers!) to chuckle slightly - not because they did not understand the point Kennedy was making, but because in German indefinite articles are not used in front of a person's place of origin/birth, nationality, profession, occupation, etc., e.g. "ich bin Hamburgerin"; "ich bin Deutscher"; "ich bin Arzt"; "ich bin Studentin." (Note, however, that you do use "ein/eine", when you add an adjective, e.g. "ich bin ein guter Arzt".)
(As some reminded us, we should point out, however, that in the context of Kennedy's speech, the use of "ein" was quite appropriate as he did not mean to define his origin, but rather his being "Berliner-like", i.e. he used "Berliner" as a predicate adjective, as in "Ich bin ein Berliner Mann".)
Quick German No. 1b: yesterday - today - tomorrow...
vorgestern (day before yesterday)
übermorgen (day after tomorrow)
Let us know any comments or questions you have and - keep learning.
There's nothing wrong with Flashcards, I love them for practicing vocabulary and we use them in our games as well. But learning only with traditional flashcards - or sticking only to list learning, for that matter - is bound to keep you in the rank of beginner. To bust through the beginner ceiling, you have to learn to use phrases and sentences as part of communication. That's where context learning comes in. Here are three simple reasons for learning German in context.
German consistently uses pronouns with specific verb forms (as opposed to Italian or Spanish, for example). But because some of the German pronouns are multi-functional or are part of an idiom, you need the context to understand what's going on.
A perfect example is “sie/Sie”:
Wann kommt sie? - When is she coming? [she - subject]
Wann kommen sie? - When are they coming? [they - subject]
Und kommen Sie auch? - And are you also coming? [you(formal) - subject]
Ich kann Sie nicht sehen. - I can't see you. [you(formal) - direct object]
Ich kenne sie nicht. - I don't know her/them. [her/them - direct object]
The word "sie" can also refer to a "feminine gender" object or animal:
Die Hütte dort, siehst du sie? - The hut over there, do you see it? [it(f) - direct object]
Die Katze dort, sie wartet auf ihre Milch. - The cat over there, it's waiting for its milk. [it(f) - subject]
And the German “ihr/Ihr” could mean in English: “you” [plural familiar], “her” [indirect object], “their” [possessive pronoun], “your” [formal] or also “to her” in various German idioms.
When learning the various uses of “sie/Sie” or “ihr/Ihr,” it is useful to have specific phrases or sentences in mind.
Articles and Cases
In German, articles and noun cases are matched – often in mysterious ways for beginners:
“der” is not only the masculine article, as in : [der See] Der See ist .... - The lake is .... [m – subject), "der" can also can precede a feminine noun, as in:
[die Frau] Ich gebe der Frau ... - I give (to) the woman ... [f, indirect object]
[die Kirche] Das Tor der Kirche ist .... - The door of the church .... [f , possessive]
[die Stimme] Die Anzahl der Stimmen ... - The number of votes ... [f pl, possessive]
Similarly, “die” is not only the feminine article, "die" is also the plural form for all nouns that are a subject or a direct object, as in:
[das Haus] Die Häuser sind ... - The houses are ... [neuter, pl subject]
[der Baum] Die Bäume sind ... - The trees are ... [m, pl subject]
[die Straße] Die Straßen sind ... - The streets are ... [f, pl subject]
Ich sehe die Häuser, die Bäume, und die Straßen. - I see the houses, the trees, and the streets. [direct objects]
Some words change their meaning, depending on the context. For example (as shown by a post circulating on Facebook), the word "Bitte" has multiple meanings. As a simple statement “Bitte.” basically means “Please.”; but it can also mean "Go ahead."; or "I don't mind"; or “You're welcome.”; or “Here you are.”; or “Not at all.” In addition, the question "Bitte?" is often used as “Pardon me?"
While “Danke” simply means “Thank you,” in a specific context, it can mean: “Yes, thank you.” or “No, thank you.”
And, the much-used word “gut” (good) can change its meaning in idioms such as:
“Gut, das machen wir.” - Okay, we'll do that.
“Mir geht's gut.” - I'm feeling great.
“Mir ist nicht gut.” - I'm not feeling well.
“Jetzt ist es aber gut.” - That'll do.
“Schon gut.” - That's enough.
Learning vocabulary is clearly necessary – and Flashcards are a great tool for that – but simply knowing groups of words is not enough to really understand and speak German. It's best to learn those words in the context of a topic that interests you. You will better remember the words when you recall them as part of meaningful phrases and sentences. Moreover, when you use them in new sentence combinations, applying the grammar rules will be much easier. And we certainly agree with author Andy Hunt whom we had quoted in a previous blog: “Always Consider the Context ... because it is important for understanding the world around us."