How I Went About Learning A Language From Scratch

Is there anything more daunting than learning a language from scratch? Libra here, the most indecisive of star signs, telling you that I don’t think so. The more you learn, the more you need to: it’s a never-ending cycle of desperation and frustration I remember from my early days of learning German in Berlin well. […]

Is there anything more daunting than learning a language from scratch? Libra here, the most indecisive of star signs, telling you that I don’t think so. The more you learn, the more you need to: it’s a never-ending cycle of desperation and frustration I remember from my early days of learning German in Berlin well.

The problem was where to start. There were apps, classes, software, club doormen, even creepy neighbors who all promised they could help. I didn’t know where to turn (though I had a pretty good idea where not to).

Since science says too much choice can overwhelm our brains and paralyze us, I progressed into learning a new language by compartmentalizing and focusing on single, specific methods of learning at each level. So if I, the Empress of Hemming and Hawing, can become fluent in a language from scratch with such an action plan, you can too. 

If you are struggling with the overwhelming array of options that exist for language learning, I’m hoping the list below can help. I’ve categorized the methods of learning I found most effective according to the CEFR levels for which I found them most helpful. Maybe this breakdown can help you, dear language-learner, from going cross-eyed — or at the very least, spare you from a creepy neighbor.

A1: Use all the free beginner’s resources

Controversial take: Start learning any language all by your lonesome, and see how far you get without classes (read: spending cash). While classroom atmospheres are conducive to effective, efficient learning, you might be able to skip a level or two by using the freebie, introductory materials offered by resources like pay-for apps and software; online tutors; and so on.

I started learning German by watching a “German For Beginners” YouTube series, hightailing it when the “Subscribe for more” prompt appeared. With the brass tacks in place (ABCs, easy words and a brief intro to grammar), I tested directly into A2 at a language school — saving a few hundred euros and hours of inhaling chalkboard dust.

It might not work for everyone (obviously, self-organization and self-motivation is key here), but why not try?

Learning tip: Keep it simple

Alas, there is an overwhelming amount of free content out there – I recommend finding a single resource that works for you (the burger) and complementing it with additional resources accordingly (toppings). For example, a good resource might be the BBC’s free (and very comprehensive) website for learning languages like German, Spanish and French.

A1: Language-learning apps

At this point, you might want to also start fiddling around with apps like Babbel that can help you make your learning on-the-go and more encompassing.

Learning tip: Make a schedule

Create calendar entry, alert, repeat. Set a routine. When it comes to apps, the onus is on you to stay committed and become your own creature of habit.

A2: Classes or tutoring

I know, school sucks. “I miss cheesy textbooks, pop quizzes and uncomfortable chairs,” said no one ever. But if you want steady, measurable progress in learning a language, there is no better way than regular classes demanding routine and dedication. Humans respond to structure and control – in pandemic times, this has become more important than ever.

Get in on some Zoom classes. My little secret…committing to daily language classes for one year got me dang near fluent.

Learning tip: Form a study group

Classes bring you together with others who are facing the same gong-show struggles — irregular verbs, ruddy prepositions, etc. Living out your virtual Breakfast Club fantasy (with wine!) can help you stay motivated and improve faster.

A2: Writing vocab out

Research proves that rote memorization is extremely effective for vocab learning, albeit boring. The key is to make it fun — create funky flashcards, or what about bullet journaling? Awfully trendy.

Learning tip: Become a sticky-note person

I covered my apartment in Post-Its and removed words as I learned them. It was a full-on little German world — and also motivated my German partner to practice with me so our home would stop resembling a Hoarders episode.

B1: Tandem

I love the concept of tandem partners, I sing it from the rooftops (or rather, wrote about it here). Essentially, a tandem partner speaks the language you want to practice, and seeks to practice the language you speak. It’s a fun, unconventional way to get conversations cooking. So go find one, alrighty?

Learning tip: Find a tandem partner on a free tandem database

Several institutions offer free tandem databases, like Berlin’s Humboldt University. You can also check out the Tandem app.

B2: Kids’ content

If you were like me in B2 German, you could fill out case tables, but having effortless conversations without stammering worse than Theon Greyjoy? Rough. Reading children’s books aloud and consuming kids’ radio and TV helped me get the hang of pronunciations — and while I regressed to a happier, cartoon and candy-colored time, I also gave my inner-child a hug and told her, “See!? You are actually getting better at this.”

Learning tip: Look for bargain reading materials

The first book in German I ever read was a masterpiece entitled “Rosa looks for a home.” A €2 steal from a dusty TK Maxx bin, it’s now a permanent fixture on my shelf for its sentimental value. All the other children’s books I’ve picked up have been well-recycled as donations.

C1: Listening to music

In my humble opinion, when I reached this level of understanding German, I felt a solid payoff of a lot of grunt work. Playlists of German hip-hop, indie rock and so on gleefully unlocked new, exciting aspects of culture and colloquialisms. Spotify Premium, €9.99. Singing along to Schlager songs on top of an Oktoberfest table? Priceless.

Learning tip: Print out the lyrics

With some of the wordier songs (rap), going through the lyrics line by line unpacked a lot of double entendre and clever (and vulgar) meaning.  

C1: Reading and listening to the news

Germans aren’t much for water-cooler talk, but knowing some key phrases around current events will always bail you out of awkward social situations. A teacher once told me not to worry about understanding every word of news reports; instead, I just needed to be able to correctly deduce the meaning. That’s good advice, these are tough.

Learning tip: Listen to slo-mo news broadcasts

Have you heard of News in Slow? It streams slower reports in several languages with handy transcripts.

C2: Watching TV shows and movies

Cheesy punchlines! Random plot twists! Storylines that are still nonsensical – even when you can understand them. Who says Netflix ‘n’ chill can’t be educational? By C2, I could smoothly follow along with most TV shows and movies. In fact, incorporating ze entertainment really upgraded my learning.

Learning tip: Don’t be afraid to sub

Even as a fluent speaker, certain accents (ahem, Bavarian), or Sorkinesque diatribes on TV are still hard for me to understand — so I tend to use subtitles.  Arguably, it’s a bit counterproductive, but I believe it’s worth not missing a meet-cute or cliffhanger.

C2: Dubbing shows

Yes, I speak German now, but learning another language never stops. There will always be new words and phrases. After all the hard work and working the steps above, I’ve grasped this reality with a Stoic’s acceptance.

Especially during the pandemic, when I’m not, well, speaking that much, I’ve taken more to dubbing and subbing shows from English into German. At first, I started kicking and screaming, as my partner is used to dubbed content like a typical German. While phantasmic lips and Leo Dicaprio’s ridiculous voice actor initially drove me cuckoo, I’ve learned to love dubbed TV as a semi-ersatz to real-life conversation. These days, my partner and I truce by watching other-language content that requires a good dub-sub situation away.

Learning tip: Sub with your dub

I always dub and sub, because when the lips don’t move, understanding also gets harder. There is no shame at all.

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Source: Babbel