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Learning a Foreign Language

I am often asked whether the learning techniques I talk about can be applied to learning a language. "Of course they can" is my normal answer and then I proceed to give my view on how it can be done. Now though probably good advice, it is based on my knowledge of others and what they have done to learn a language and not from my own experience. Now I am a strong believer that the best teaching comes from experience and so now I have decided to put my advice to the test and have begun to learn to speak German.

I have a bit of a German background in that it was a subject I had to attend classes in for 5 years at school. Sadly for me and probably unfortunately for her, I did not see eye to eye with my German Teacher and so I never developed a love of the subject. I failed my examinations miserably and vowed that I would never have to do German again. That was until I managed to use a couple of words that did stick in my mind when I went on a trip to Austria. For the first time I experienced the joy of successfully communicating in another language with another human being. At that time I regretted not trying harder at school and for 18 years I have lived with that regret. It has been gnawing at me from inside and so for this year I have chosen German as my learning project.

I thought I would take this opportunity to let you know some of the things I am doing to help me learn. I am a great believer of little and often and so I spend about 30-40 minutes every morning before I start work. I do 3 things. First of all I learn 10-12 new words every single day using the principles that I talked about in my article on Learning Foreign Words in February 1999. I put the new words on 3x5 cards with the German on one side and the English Translation on the other. Then everyday I test myself on the words that I have learnt before. Most of the time because I have used a mnemonic technique the translations are easy to recall but occasionally I have to revisit the images I have made to reinforce them.

The next thing I do is to work my way through a German Text Book learning aspects of grammar and sentence structure. As I do this I am building up a Master Mind Map on a very large sheet of paper so that I can capture all of the grammar on a single sheet. Already I am beginning to make some distinctions on things like the different cases that I had covered at school but never really understood (probably because I never listened!!). The Mind Map is building up nicely at the moment and is extremely helpful for me to keep on top of what I have learnt so that it does not fade from my recall.

The last thing that I do is to listen to at least 10 minutes of German Radio. The Internet is a very powerful medium for learning and so access to German Radio channels online is simple. I listen to Berlin InfoRadio which is a news and current affairs channel. At first I did not understand a thing but it started to get me used to the "music" of the language and the sound of native Germans speaking it. After a while I began to pick out some of the words I knew and then began to identify new words. I am still a long way off being able to understand it totally to a fluent level but now I am starting to get the gist of what is being talked about.

One final thing that I do whenever I am in my car is that I play German Language audio tapes. I keep playing them over and over again and slowly but surely my pronunciation and understanding is getting better and better.

I am really enjoying the little bits of progress that I am making and that was illustrated when a German friend of mine rang one morning a few weeks ago. I have been promising him that I will learn German because his English is so good and I am embarrassed that I can't communicate as well as him in another language. I told him about my progress and then we had a stimulating 20 minute conversation in German about all sorts of things. I knew much more than I thought and was able to make myself understood in a number of areas that I thought I knew nothing about. It really got me motivated and strengthened my resolve to do that again because I probably got more value from that session than a whole month of reading verbs and mainly that was because my belief in myself as a linguist was raised.

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