Learn Not Only Hard, But Also Smart

By James Au

So here is what I constantly hear: Time is too short to learn German; unless you have a linguistic talent, it takes ages for you to master a foreign language. Mon oeil! If these people spend more time learning the target language instead of indulging themselves ceaselessly in remorse, I am quite sure they will at least make some progress.

But there is one thing to be admitted. A systematic learning method can yield twice the result with half the effort. Never an inborn genius, I have been tormented by my forgetfulness. Despite endless consultation with my dictionary about the meaning of the same word, I could not simply decipher it when it popped up in front of me again. Thus, I told myself, “Maybe you do not learn them systematically enough.” I began to believe that, to make a breakthrough, it is necessary to come up with a more effective way.

First, however strong you are motivated to learn a specific subject, to sustain your attention on the same task is never easy. Some psychologists suggest that human attention span generally lasts for about twenty minutes, which means after that your learning efficiency will gradually decline.

For instance, a die-hard Nietzsche fan, I practice German-English translation of Thus Spake Zarathustra every day. I am doing it out of fun, and to improve my German, for sure. But when I finish translating one page within one-third hour, I either read a German poem, or watch some short videos to prevent myself from distraction and lowering my efficiency in learning.

I don’t believe that the world is fair. However, as everyone is given equally twenty-four hours per day, it is your task to maximize the outcome within as little time as possible. Translating essays from one language into another may raise your reading ability in the source language (SL), but may do little help when you want to improve your writing as well. Therefore, I am thinking to do it the other way around – to translate English documents into the language you want to master. In this case, you will figure out whether you can put the phrases and words you have learnt to good use. In my opinion, it is especially useful when you strive to improve your language skills but find no native speakers to practice with.

Rather than spending an arm and a leg buying a grammar book, an intermediate learner can think about how to organize the new words/expressions he has just learned. In my case, I always struggle to come up with ways of memorizing words.

For example, the unfamiliar German word “der Krampf” (English: convulsion) reminds me of “der Kampf” (English: struggle), both the spellings of which are similar with one another. I thus try to learn the two words together by heart (See Figure 1).

learning card 01

Figure 1

One of the greatest difficulties which make most flinch from learning German is the use of prepositions, as well as the corresponding cases (Normative, Accusative, Dative and Genitive). Therefore, to pronounce German sentences accurately, there are only two ways: either to take time doing rote-learning, or to put them in a neatly and orderly manner.

There is always an exception in every grammatical rule. But to organize the phrases/words frequently employed, I believe, does benefit the learner himself. Take the preposition “nach” as an example, it seems to me that German words (verbs and nouns) associated with “pursuit” (sich sehnen) or “desire” (die Begier) usually precede “nach”, and thus I group the few words together and try to remember them together (See Figure 2).

learning card 02

Figure 2

Let me know if you have any good language learning method by making a comment!

P.S. We have recently started an Instagram account where we upload some learning flash cards on a weekly basis. Follow us at https://www.instagram.com/learnlangblog/

 

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