Commitment to learn a language?
May 17, 2005 2:49 PM   Subscribe

What sort of daily time commitment is required to make strong progress in picking up a language? Granted, this varies greatly from person to person, but I want to hear about your experiences. I can only muster 45 minutes of German grammar a day. Will this get me somewhere, or am I chasing after wind?
posted by ori to Writing & Language (14 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
45 minutes a day is a great start. I highly recommend finding a conversation group to practice your language skills, though. Grammar is one thing, but conversational skills are best developed... conversationally.
posted by pmbuko at 3:08 PM on May 17, 2005

God yes, this will get you a long way, I'd think - particularly with German. All the advice that I've ever had on languages (like musical instruments) is to practise little but often. My own spoken German is stunted because I didn't realise that that grammar stuff is important when I was younger, and picking up the rules from spoken German really is chasing after wind.

The good news is that German grammar is quite tricky to start with, but after you've picked it up it's fairly straight-forward. My experience is that other, seemingly easier languages (yes French, I'm looking at you) start simple and then start throwing odd tenses at you that are only ever used in newspapers.

Straying slightly from your question: I'd guess that the problem that you might have with the grammar practice is that it will get very dull very quickly. The fun of learning a languange comes in the terrifying bit where you have to speak it to other people, and without listening and speaking to real live German speakers it might be difficult to apply your knowledge to make it stick, or to remember why it is you wanted to learn what the genitive case does to adjectives anyway. Another quick language learning trap that I've fallen into: I find vocab very easy to learn. This isn't as great as it sounds because I tend to over-rely on knowing the words for things without doing enough work on how I'd get those words into a sentence. Your emphasis on grammar might get you round this. And if you do find vocab easy to learn, remember that in German it's important you learn the gender of nouns as well as the words themselves.

So yes, this will get you a long way, is worth doing, and it won't even take you that long before you've learnt all the grammar you need to be proficient in German. But you really really really need to listen and to talk as well. I see you live in Vancouver - perhaps you could give these folks a try as well? You don't say how much you've done so far - however much it is, you should still think about going to something like this, even if it's just to listen.
posted by calico at 3:13 PM on May 17, 2005

The Goethe Institute might have helpful info. Here's the link to the address in Vancouver, B.C.

The institute also offers distance learning.
posted by luneray at 6:34 PM on May 17, 2005

My limited experience matches calico's advice: getting some practice very often is the most effective thing, even if it's only a little practice.

(I have the opposite difficulty from calico though: I can learn syntax if I apply a reasonable amount of effort, but I retain vocabulary like a sieve retains Helium-2. I wonder if this has anything to do with the fact that I'm much more practiced at computer languages than natural languages; computer languages can have pretty weird syntax but don't usually have a whole lot of vocab.)
posted by hattifattener at 6:54 PM on May 17, 2005

If you want to practice conversation (via email, text chat or voice) online, this is a useful resource:
posted by blueyellow at 9:32 PM on May 17, 2005 [1 favorite]

Practice talking and more, listening. Vacab is good, grammar is great. But speaking and hearing are the real goal. I lived in Germany, took classes there. I can speak it very well! BUT! I can't understand it worth a damn. I didn't work on the hearing. Didn't get broadcast TV, didn't take time to listen to German radio. I lacked patience to attempt real conversation in German.

Come to think of it, you might look for DVDs that include a German spoken track as a way to enhance your listening skills (and pronunciation, too). Most English language movies are over-dubbed for the German market. (Picture Jack Nicholson at his door, telling someone off...different voice and in German).
posted by Goofyy at 11:22 PM on May 17, 2005

It depends on the structure of your brain. Seriously.
I read a New Scientist article a few months ago about how some people are pre-programmed to pick up languages easily. There are some people that can speak fluently in over 50 different languages.

Some of these people can learn a language in less than a week. In fact, this was documented on the Science channel on a show about geniuses.

So the answer is, while some people can pick up a new language in a week, others will take 5 years of intense studying.
posted by garycarlson at 11:31 PM on May 17, 2005

Perhaps. But anyone can learn a foreign language sufficiently well to be able to communicate with it. People go about it in different ways; there are those who need the grammar from the beginning and don't feel comfortable unless things are clearly explained, and there are those who dive in and worry about accuracy later - although it does seem that those who do this are more likely to fossilize later on. (BTW, the site I have just sent you to has a lot of advice for language learners).

I think it is a good thing to make sure that you work on the four skills - speaking, listening, reading, and writing - in parallel, for they are closely related and mutually reinforcing. I would stress the idea that writing regularly, even if it is only a sentence or two, is very helpful; it is when you write that you concentrate most fully on the structural aspects of the language, and in order to write, you necessarily have to listen, speak and read.
posted by TimothyMason at 12:05 AM on May 18, 2005 [1 favorite]

Here's a fairly useful kuro5hin thread on learning a language. It details a decent program for putting non-language class rescources together in limited time.

Here's another post from the same site about learning French in a year.

The comments in both posts also have a ton of information.
posted by OmieWise at 5:17 AM on May 18, 2005 [1 favorite]

45 minutes a day of /grammar/?

Remember, this is a language. Find a community to speak German with. Talk, laugh, discuss, argue- all in German. I accelerated my learning of German by taking an hour of German a day for a year in university - in a classroom setting.

The next year, I also read books in German (Hermann Hesse is one of the easier German writers, as is Kafka).

The key is to speak the language with others, hopefully other students (German nationals can be, ah, picky about proper vocabulary and grammar). Learn in a positive environment, then branch out. Then immerse yourself: German tv, German movies, German books, German magazines, even German web sites.
posted by seawallrunner at 5:40 AM on May 18, 2005

Oh, and I did one hour of grammar a week throughout these years. Special verbs, special cases, declensions, the works. But it was such a small part of all else that I did in German.
posted by seawallrunner at 5:41 AM on May 18, 2005

You might want to try watching Fokus Deutsch. I'm 24 episodes into the French equivalent (previously discussed in this thread), and I think my French comprehension skills have advanced pretty well for only 12 hours of total effort. (On the other hand, my French speaking skills are still virtually non-existent, so you'll certainly want to include some speaking practice in your 45 minutes a day.)
posted by yankeefog at 5:50 AM on May 18, 2005

I'm currently learning German in a half-hearted and unstructured DIY kind of way. The fine folks at Deutsche Welle have a lot of free resources, including their slowly-spoken news reports. Last night I just found a website with links to German web radio and some other nice suggestions (magazines, movies, etc.) I imagine it will take me a long time to absorb the new language, but 45 minutes/day should serve you well.
posted by oldtimey at 10:17 AM on May 18, 2005

I lived in Germany for 3 years, I started to teach myself german by reading grammer/language books/flashcards for an hour or two a day.

To be honest, it might of helped my grammer and vocabulary, but only when I started speaking directly to people, watching television, and using german as my primary language did my skills really pick up.

To really learn a language, enough to be fluent in it, and speak and understand conversations, you have to not just know the language, but learn to think in the language you are speaking. And this comes from practice, from association. As children, we saw a window and were told that it is a 'window', so our brain connected the image of a window with the word window. So must you slowly and surely associate words in other languages. In speaking so often, you'll also learn the tricks of fudging genders, learning how to guess past/future/conditional tenses of verbs, how to understand a word that you don't understand because of the context it's in.

I read Donald Duck comics in german for a long time because they were intended for children, so were easier for me to read. It's still hard for me to follow german news anchors and to read german newspapers. When I didn't understand a word, I wrote it down and looked it up in the dictionary later.

It's tricky though, sometimes, when I started speaking english again after an extended period of speaking german, I would mix in german words without even thinking. Now it's kind of like a switch, I don't start speaking german, I start thinking in german.

And since german builds words out of smaller words, the bigger words are just a matter of deconstruction. And unless you speak with actual german speakers, you're never going to learn what words sound like when spoken at a normal pace, mixed with other words.

p.s. Avoid Bavarians!
posted by patrickje at 10:51 AM on May 18, 2005 [1 favorite]

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