I recently came back from a seven-week German course at the University of Chicago. Because the course was so accelerated and I had to spend most of my time studying alone, I realized a few interesting concepts regarding language acquisition and language learning techniques that can even help me with Spanish. I also noticed the interesting grammatical and etymological similarities and differences between English, Spanish, and German. The purpose of this blog post is to explain these concepts and summarize my future plans with German.
During the German course I had to retain a ton of vocab. The daily homework only included 20 to 30 new words, but after writing down all of the new words that I heard during class, I accumulated around 90 to 100 new words each weekday. I used a technique called “spaced repetition” in which one writes each word on a card and each card becomes due after a certain interval of time. When one quizzes oneself on the due cards, one increases or decreases the next interval for each card depending on whether one remembered or forgot the word on the card. Because I had to retain so much vocabulary so quickly, I used spaced repetition with unusually short intervals.
Over the course of the course I used a few methods that helped me memorize the vocabulary. When I took a short break (5-10 minutes), I was somehow able to remember the words more easily afterwards. However, the effect of sleep on my memory was even more surprising than the effect of breaks. When I practiced vocabulary just before bedtime, I was able to call much more into mind the next morning. Thus, I started regularly studying my vocabulary at the end of the day, so that I would miraculously know the words the following morning. It happens that I’m currently reading a book about the neuroscience of sleep (“Why we Sleep” by Matthew Walker) that explains this phenomenon.
Another method that I used to practice grammar was to always reformulate and repeat in German whatever sentences occurred to me in English. For example, on the way to class, the dining hall, or the dorm, I translated my thoughts and said them out loud. Maybe my monologues bothered some passersby, but they were great practice.
Unfortunately, the exercises in the textbook (Kontakte, 8th edition) were not so useful. It contained lots of fill-in-the-blank activities and false conversations that called for lots of reading and not so much spontaneous speech. Aside from that, the book was horribly organized. For some reason, the grammar and vocabulary were at the end of each chapter, after the activities throughout the chapter that included the new grammatical concepts and words. Further, the vocabulary words were often arbitrary and not useful. Many specialized and useless words appeared early in the book, but many important words were completely absent.
Now that I have studied three languages (English, Spanish, and German), I notice a few interesting features that appear in two of the languages and are absent in the third. For example, the verbs in English and German have no future tense without a helping verb („ich werde etwas machen“ in German, and “I’m going to do something” or “I will do something” in English), but in Spanish every verb has a future tense conjugation. In English and Spanish, the word order isn’t very important and commas aren’t used so often, but this is not so in German. Finally, Spanish and German have second person plural pronouns (“vosotros” and „ihr“) and formal pronouns (“Usted” and „Sie“), but English has no such grammatical objects. The pronunciation of the letter “R” in English, Spanish, and German is also interesting. In English, one doesn’t roll the letter R, in Spanish one must roll R with the tongue, and in German one must roll R with the throat.
Speaking three languages has confused me in other ways. For example, I often wrote “sch” instead of “sh” and capitalized nouns in English during the seven weeks, since I did this so often in German. German also somewhat hindered my Spanish. Often, when I tried to think of a word in Spanish, no Spanish word came to mind, but rather the German word.
I would say that taking the German course was very worthwhile. Now that I know enough german to read and write (with the help of a dictionary), I want to continue practicing German. I’m currently reading a weird book titled “Das Parfum” (again, with the help of the dictionary) that my friend recommended, and naturally I will write more blog posts in German.