Learn German as you learned your mother tongue when you were a toddler

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Every learner of German has her or his way of studying. Some like to speak first before sorting out mistakes because to be understood is most important to them. Others, many of them opera singers, strive for perfection, study verb conjugations, recite grammar rules, or memorize the table of articles and the four cases in the German language as we find it in this graffiti on the back of a church in the Schiller-Kiez neighborhood of Berlin-Neukölln. I am waiting for the morning when the neighbors wake up to a question sprayed across the table by a desperate foreigner: “Warum?”

The question of why there are certain grammar rules comes up often in my classes. All these different articles, unnecessary noun declinations and the ridiculous order of words in a sentence “make no sense”, my students claim before repeating the question: “Warum?” It is one of the few questions I do not answer. The reason is simple: I can’t.

Every language solves its problems of accuracy differently – how to determine the receiving end of an action (accusative!), how to determine the location of an activity (dative!), or what is in the relationship of two nouns possessing and what is possessed (genitive!). Some Slavic languages for example do not need articles because the issues mentioned above are solved in the endings or the spelling of the nouns. English and Spanish are context-driven languages that lead the listener or reader to a precise understanding by what has been said before, or add prepositions to make things clear. So, the answer to dlaczego,why, por quéor warumwill be darum,that’s why, por eso, or dlatego. That is to say, the question warumdoes not really express the need to find a logic behind words and the structure that connects them but rather the frustration we feel when we cannot discover any reference to our mother tongue.

I dare to say that we do not need any reference than that what find in the foreign language itself. Even more: Our mother tongue is in the way of grasping the meaning of a foreign word or phrase, or a structural rule. The only help our mother language can give is to remind us how we required it. When we were toddlers we were the perfect students. We heard the language of our parents as sounds we tried to imitate. We observed their actions and connected them with the words they spoke. We experimented, spoke and watched the reaction of our enviroment to see if we were correct or not. Or we acted, hopped on the table, fell back during a family stroll, just to see what will be said.

How we learned as children is the method I suggest we should follow as closely as possible.

Here are my tips:

– Try to understand the language like a piece of music. In music, you read the score, hear the melody, and sing and hardly ask warumbecause you know the composer wrote it that way. As a singer ask native speakers for help, and learn to pronounce the words or the phrases you do not understand and gain access to its meaning.
– If you do not understand words, do not touch your dictionary app in a rush. Find a Wörterbuch first that explains the words in German, even if the explanation contain other words that you do not understand.
– If you need a dictionary get a visual dictionary. Avoid to remember the word in your mother language. Instead try to connect the word with its image in your mind. If a visual dictionary is not available, Type the word into a search engine and click on images.
– Walk through the streets with open eyes and ears. Read ads and try to understand the connecting between the images and the words, although some ads play with words making it difficult to discover the hidden meaning. Read newspaper headlines or get yourself a tabloid. By looking at pictures and words try to understand what the article is about. You do not have to understand the entire article.
– Go to store and ask a sales person to show you certain products or ask people on the street for direction to a place you know how to get to just to hear how it is explained.
– Prepare questions and interview your German friends. Ask them if you can record their answers. At home listen to the recording and transcribe every word they said. Read it out loud.

If you have other tips how to improve your language learning drop me a line. I would be happy to publish them here.