Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

Update: How to Individualize Your Language Learning?

Clock with sticky note: "time for an update"There are many ways to individualize your language learning once you start thinking about it.

A few years ago, we wrote a post on that topic and it's time to update it: The opportunities and ways you can learn a new language have mushroomed.

The questions we asked then:

  • How do you learn best? Do you like grammar, or not?
  • Are you a risk taker when you learn? Do you mind making mistakes?
  • Do you read voraciously? Do you love listening to stories?

Today you should also ask yourself:

  • Are there ways I can learn with songs and music?
  • What are the best times I can learn? While commuting to work? In the car, train, subway, bus? While exercising?
  • How much time can I commit regularly to learning?
  • How can I work on my fluency?
  • Which of my portable devices (laptop, tablet, ipod, smartphone, etc.) can and should I use?
  • Which other skills do I have that I could apply to language learning?

(Some of these questions are answered in our Tips from Langfest 2017.)

It's certainly worth paying attention to your likes and dislikes.

Being aware of HOW we learn makes learning so much more interesting and effective.

Language Learning: Left and Right Brain

Research on left brain (logical, verbal, auditory, sequential) and right brainman holding pillow to make right brain work functions (creative, visual, spatial, emotional) has been ongoing for decades, and new imaging techniques have greatly enhanced our knowledge of how the brain works.

It's no mystery that learning a language involves many parts of the brain for everyone.

We don't learn a language just by listening (a left brain activity) and speaking, and kids don't do that either.

Small children don't yet know how to read and write. Still, they pick up a lot of visual and other clues from people (facial expressions, gestures), their surroundings (objects, movement), the context of a conversation (asking for something, looking for a toy), etc.

Once kids have learned to read and write, a mental “text image” may start to play along. Because we live in a text-based world, wanting to know how a word “looks” (is spelled) is part of language learning.

Since we wrote the section above, many more insights in our brain functions have been gained.

For example we now know that practicing a language BEFORE you fall asleep will improve the memory of the words and phrases you studied. (See our post: Foreign Language Learning while you sleep?)

Steve Kaufmann, a well-known polyglot and co-founder of LingQ.com, is working on his 17th language. In his talks and YouTube videos, he keeps reminding us that learning a language is gradual and involves constant forgetting and relearning.

Also, since memory is highly cue dependent, learning words and phrases in context (though listening and reading) is important for gaining fluency.

Pronunciation and Spelling

reading - listening - speaking sequenceFor adults in our society, the sounds of language are inevitably tied to how they are written. By the time we've finished school the sound-text correlation of our native language (or other languages we're fluent in) has become automatic.

For example, when I was learning Chinese strictly through listening, I found myself imagining how the word would be spelled with western letters.

Without thinking about it, I used the “regular” German sound-letter system for this. The pronunciation of almost every [German] word can be derived from its spelling. 

When not too long ago, I was learning Italian by just listening, I spontaneously (and erroneously) used French spelling to imagine how the Italian words are written.

I've come to realize that I usually learn best when I both hear and see a word or phrase.

I say usually, because recently we had a different experience with Danish.

We started learning Danish (to prepare for a trip to Denmark) with Duolingo, Memrise, and a Pimsleur audio course.

We discovered that although Danish is a Germanic/Nordic language, its spelling is not phonetic, even for German speakers like us. (My fluency in Dutch helps me somewhat because Dutch has many similarities with Danish.)

We also realized quickly that as we started out, spelling the Memrise phrases we heard became an exercise in frustration, and we gave it up.

The Pimsleur audio lessons, however, which didn't require us to consider the spelling, let us focus fully on the listening and pronunciation.

Later on, after we had learned some of the Danish spelling rules, etc. Memrise became a valuable option again.

Language Learning: Pacing Yourself

There's a lot of talk these days about how you can accelerate your language learning, e-learning cartoon: feet on the tableand lots of sites offer excellent language-learning hacks and tips.

Still, it's good to remember that no one can learn a language for you, that you yourself have to do every bit of it. That means not getting your expectations too high. 

It also means finding a way that you can stick with your language-learning plan for the long term.

Starting out, you'll want to focus on pronunciation and on learning some basic vocabulary in context. The next step will be creating simple sentences. (Those are the steps I worked on for Danish.)

Focusing on pronunciation and basic vocabulary is why we got into digital games. We have found that they are a fun way to help in the early stages of learning. 

Digital games have auditory (spoken language, sounds) and visual features (text, colors, images, design), as well as kinesthetic elements (typing against the clock, clicking on moving images, etc). They involve lots of repetition, which beginners desperately need.

But as you're learning a language, what works will change over time. As you get more fluent, you'll be looking for new and different challenges: more and interesting listening material, books to read, podcasts, YouTube videos, films to watch, conversation partners, etc. 

From Basics to Fluency

It's no secret that achieving fluency requires a lot of listening and speaking.

Yes, you have to learn vocabulary, gather as much “comprehensible input” as possible and there are many programs and apps on the market today to help you with that.

In the past, conversation partners were not always easy to find.

Today, the internet and new companies, which connect learners and tutors online, have also solved that problem. We've been using our partner site, iTalki, ourselves for several languages.

(Recently we became aware of a new site, Speakmates.com that works towards  Socializing Language Practice”.)

Online tutors and language exchange sites let you individualize your language practice, rather than follow a fixed class schedule.

Fluent Forever?

Fluent Forever Book coverIt's also reassuring to know that a Kickstarter by Gabriel Wyner, who published “Fluent Forever” in 2014, made Kickstarter history as its most funded app.

Even with Google Translate, the Google Pixel Buds for real time translation and continued progress in this area – there are still many who want to become fluent in another language.

While “spaced repetition” and “memorizing through associations” are not new techniques, they are hot topics.

It will be interesting to see how Wyner can incorporate these and other techniques into his app so learners can achieve real fluency.

With fluency being the goal of most language learners, you have so many more options today.

Yes, it will take a little research and some trial-and-error on your part until you find the best language learning book, program, website or app that works best for you.

Stay with those that allow you to learn at your own pace and keep you motivated.

Language learning will be more fun that way!

Bio: Ulrike Rettig is the co-founder of Gamesforlanguage.com. She is a lifelong language learner, growing up in Austria, the Netherlands, and Canada and speaks German, English, Dutch, and French fluently. She intends to become as fluent in Italian, Spanish and Swedish. You can follow her on FacebookTwitter and Instagram, and leave any comments with contact.

Disclosure: Certain links above are to a partner's program with revenue-sharing, should you decide to purchase or subscribe. 

Posted on by Ulrike & Peter Rettig

European Travels 6 – From Lüneburg to Sylt

Sylt Beach in SeptemberGermany's north has its own charm: off the beaten track medieval towns and sunny islands with long, white beaches.

Readers of previous European Travels posts may remember our Canal Boating trip on Dutch canals last year.

(As last year, we again used the mywebspot pocket WIFI, which had proven so useful during our canal trip and travels to southern Germany and Austria.)

This year we again attended a family reunion in the Netherlands, with over 130 family members coming from Europe, Canada, and the United States.

Following the reunion, we went on to explore the north of Germany and Denmark, which borders Germany's most northern State, Schleswig-Holstein.

 

Lüneburg

From Exloo in the Dutch province of Drenthe, which lies just south of Groningen, it wasLüneburg Marktplatz only about three hours by car to the town of Lüneburg (or Lunenburg), a medieval German town in the state of Lower Saxony.

Located just about 30 miles southeast of Hamburg, Lüneburg is part of Hamburg's Metropolitan Region.

Since 2007, Lüneburg has been allowed to use the title “Hansestadt” (Hanseatic Town) in its name, as a reminder that it used to belong to the “Hanse” (Hanseatic League), a commercial and defensive confederation of towns and merchant guilds.

(We had learned much about the Hanse while visiting Lübeck, when traveling from Hamburg to Wismar a few years ago.)

Lüneburg's "Alter Kran"We arrived in Lüneburg on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Taking advantage of the warm September weather, we took a long, leisurely stroll through the old part of town.

Lüneburg suffered little damage during the Second World War. We could thus admire many of the structures of the historical core: flower-filled alleys and courtyards, traditional gabled Brick Gothic buildings, the impressive City Hall, the huge water tower (built 1905).

Lüneburg gained a great deal of wealth in the Middle Ages, when its salt springs were transformed into “White Gold”. Salt also made Lüneburg one of the wealthiest town of the Hanseatic League for many years.

You can learn about salt's importance and its history in the German Salt Museum.

The “Alte Kran” (Old Crane, see picture above) which dominates the quarter along the Ilmenau Canal was used to load the salt onto the barges.

Lüneburg at the water Today, Lüneburg reportedly has one of Europe's highest concentration of pubs. We certainly had no problem finding one of them with a terrace right by the canal.

For German learners, the language spoken in Northern Germany is much easier to understand than the German spoken by many in the South (Black Forest, Swabia, Bavaria).

So, if you want to explore a small typical Hanseatic League town, which is a little bit off the beaten track, Lüneburg is a great choice.

If you're learning German, here are some words and phrases to add to your vocabulary:

  • das Mittelalter - the Middle Ages
  • die Hanse - the Hanseatic League
  • die Altstadt - the medieval center, old part of town
  • der zweite Weltkrieg - the Second World War
  • die Backsteingotik - the Brick Gothik (architecture)
  • das Rathaus - the city hall
  • der Wasserturm - the water tower
  • das Salz - the salt
  • das weiße Gold - the white gold
  • der Reichtum - the wealth
  • die Kneipe - the pub
  • abgelegen - off the beaten track

Husum

Husum Harbor with harbor side bistrosAs we had visited Hamburg in 2015 (see also From Utrecht to Hamburg), we decided to pass by this major German port city and head to Husum, a maritime town on the North Sea.

While having a delicious lunch in one of the many waterside bistros, we enjoyed watching the comings and goings in the little harbor.

We knew that Husum was the birthplace of the novelist Theodor Storm. The Theodor Storm House gave us much information about the life of this lawyer-novelist, who is most known for the last of his 50 novellas, “Der Schimmelreiter” (The Rider on the White Horse).

The novel's setting along the North German coast creates an eerie atmosphere along the dyke, with descriptions of superstitions, class differences, and men's struggles against the sea.

Storm's House also gave us a glimpse of the political events in the 19th Husum Harbor at low tide with boats in mudcentury, as this part of Germany was also under Danish control for a while.

(Today the Danish minority in Husum is represented by its own party [Südschleswigscher Wählerverband, SSW] In the 2017 state elections that party only achieved 3.3%, but is excepted from the 5% minimum and sends three representatives to the Schleswig Holstein Legislature.)

When we came back from out visit to the Storm House, we could see first hand how the considerable tides can maroon boats and ships in the harbor's mud. To get in and out of their slip, these sailor certainly have to consult their tide tables!  (see picture above.)

Words and Phrases to add to your vocabulary:

  • der Hafen – the harbor
  • die Gezeiten – the tides
  • die Ebbe – the ebb tide
  • die Flut – the flood tide
  • der Schlamm – the mud
  • der Deich – the dike, levee
  • der Schriftsteller - the writer
  • der Roman - the novel
  • der Schimmel – the white horse
  • die Schleuse – the lock

The Island of Sylt

Husum to Sylt Map via Hindenburg DammMaybe you've heard of Sylt – the northernmost German and largest North Frisian island in the North Sea.

Thomas Mann, Marlene Dietrich, and other well-known writers and artists had “discovered” the island already in the 1920s; in the 1970s, playboy Gunther Sachs put it back on the map with his wild parties. The island began to attract the German industrial elite, and famous athletes and movie stars began to rent or build homes there for the summer season.

Today, Sylt has become one of Germany's most popular holiday destinations, the wild times of the 70s just a memory of the past.

We wanted to see for ourselves what brings so many visitors to the island.

There are two ways to get to Sylt.: (1) by boat or ferry from the Danish port of Havneby on the island of Romo, or (2) by train across the Hindenburgdam (a causeway named after German President Hindenburg). We chose the latter, drove our rental car unto the train shuttle in Niebull, and 45 minutes later we drove off the train in Westerland, the main town on Sylt.

The island has a 25 mile long beach on the western side, with mudflats Typical reed-roofed house on Sylttowards the main land on the east.

We had booked ourselves for 2 days into a B&B in Rantum, just 5 miles south of Westerland (see picture right).

The first evening, we attended an entertaining and informative lecture about Sylt's history of storms. The speaker talked about the many attempts of the islanders to prevent beach erosions and about their continuing struggle against the sea.

Great efforts are taken to prevent the loss of cliffs and dunes during storms. The beaches are replenished with sand dredged up offshore, but storms and tides often counteract all human efforts.

While Westerland is a busy city with many hotels and a very active nightlife, we preferred the calmer and more scenic areas north and south.

Sylt Beach during off seasonAnd, if you were wondering – just in case you had heard about Sylt's nude beaches – yes, there are many “FKK” (Freikörperkultur) - “clothing optional” beaches on Sylt. “Buhne 16“, is the oldest and, arguably, the most well-known one. It achieved notoriety during the wild 70s and became a paparazzi hunting ground. (There's also a bistro called Buhne 16.)

We explored both the northern and southern tips of the island, walked the long beaches and admired the many wonderful reed-roof houses on the island's high dunes and cliffs.

During our week-day visit in early September, the beaches were mostly empty (see picture above). The large parking lots behind the dunes, however, left no doubt that high-season traffic on the north-south road must be intense.

Words and Phrases to add to your vocabulary:

  • die Insel - the island
  • die Nordseeküste - the coast of the North Sea
  • der Landverlust - the loss of land, land erosion
  • der Playboy, Lebemann - the playboy
  • berühmte Sportler - famous athletes
  • der Filmstar - the movie star
  • das Ferienziel - the holiday destination
  • der Strand - the beach
  • das Watt - the mudflat
  • der Vortrag - the lecture
  • das Schilfdach - the reed roof

The local language spoken on Sylt is Söl'ring, one of the dialects of Tadjem Deel: "Küsse Tal" restaurant in the Sylt dunesNorth Frisian (a Germanic language). Söl'ring, which has been heavily influenced by Danish, is taught in a few elementary schools on Sylt. However only a few hundred people speak it and we saw Söl'ring only on a couple of signs.

For example, we were puzzled by the name of this restaurant that we found nestled in the dunes (see picture right): Tadjem Deel. The owner told us that it means Küsse Tal or valley of kisses

After getting a glimpse of one of Germany's most popular vacation spots, Sylt, we set our sights on Denmark. We were eager to try out our Danish, which we had practiced daily for nearly four months on Duolingo.

More about that in one of our next posts.

Bio: Ulrike & Peter Rettig are co-founders of Gamesforlanguage.com. They are lifelong language learners, growing up in several European countries before moving to Canada and the United States. You can follow them on FacebookTwitter and Instagram, and leave any comments with contact.