In this guest post, you are going to hear from someone who might be just like you - Alan McGinlay is a 29-year-old Scottish guy living in Glasgow and for the past 18 months he has been learning German again. Yes, again! In his story, Alan talks about what brought him back to German learning and what works when you are reviving a language after more than ten years. You should follow him on Twitter @alanmcginlay.
You'll find interesting thoughts "from the trenches", when a real learner has to counter the issues we've recently discussed here on the blog: group tuition, motivation and looking silly for being the linguist.
I’m Alan McGinlay, a 29-year-old Scottish guy living in Glasgow and for the past 18 months I’ve been learning German again. I first studied German at school and I always wanted to take it up again. Now I’ve got all my university and professional exams out the way I finally have the time to give it a proper go!
I’d love to be fluent one day but my main aim is to keep improving and enjoy it!
Why Learn a Language?
Sometimes people look at me strangely and ask why I am learning a language. My reply to them is always "why not?!"
It surprises people that I’m not learning German for a course, a job or because I’m planning to up sticks and move to Germany. So why am I then?
The simple answer is because I enjoy it! I find learning a language fun, challenging, it keeps your brain sharp and there’s a great sense of achievement when the hard work starts to pay off.
I was really pleased the first time I read a tweet in German and didn’t have to think twice about translating it. It also felt great when I checked into a hotel in Hamburg last month and managed to speak entirely in German.
Everyone will have their own reason for choosing a particular language to learn. I’m interested in German culture and history and I also studied it at school so it was the natural choice for me.
If you find the right language and motivation it makes the whole experience easier and more enjoyable!
It was a Friday afternoon in January 2013 and I was making my weekly trip back home to Glasgow from working in Lithuania. An unusual weekly commute! I was working as an accountant at the time and we had a client based in Vilnius that I worked with from November 2012 until March 2013. Unfortunately Glasgow and Vilnius are not that well connected and my journey each week usually involved 3 flights in each direction and a lot of hours in airport departure lounges!
For some reason, that Friday somewhere 30,000 feet off the ground between Helsinki and London I thought it was time I started learning German again. I’d wanted to take up learning the language again and had been putting it off for years. So I decided no more procrastination - this was the perfect time to begin! I felt I should be putting all the hours on planes and in airports to better use than playing games on my phone!
So why did I pick German and not Lithuanian? Although I was working in Vilnius at the time I felt that I was a lot more likely to use German again. I’d enjoyed visiting Germany, Switzerland and Austria previously and really wanted to visit new places in these countries. German is also a useful language for business, with Germany having the largest economy in the EU so I thought I might be able to put my language skills to use at work at some point in the future.
I’d also enjoyed studying German at school, and it was really important for me to enjoy the process if I was going to keep it going.
I think learning a language is like anything you know is good for you but might be hard work, like exercise or reading a ‘classic’. Taking the first step is always the most difficult part. Since I picked up my first bit of German again last year I haven’t looked back.
German at School
I studied German at school, starting when I was 11 and continuing until I sat my Advanced Higher at 17. The highlight of my final year German at school was an exchange trip to Gifhorn (pictured) in Lower Saxony where I stayed with a host family and spent a week working in a local bookshop.
While I was in Gifhorn I bought the German language version of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and said to myself that one day I would manage to read it from cover to cover!
I used to learn German but I can’t remember the word for….well anything!
The most frustrating part of learning German again was that I’d reached a decent intermediate level by the end of school and I definitely wasn’t there anymore! I could still decline haben (to have) in a million different tenses but I couldn’t remember the word for a kettle! In other words it was hard to find what level of German I was at and where to begin.
My Experiences with Tutors and Web Resources
In the end I decided to find a tutor to help me. I knew I didn’t want to learn in a classroom environment (I tried evening classes a few years ago and they didn’t work for me) but I felt like I needed some guidance.
I’ve had two native German tutors and I’ve been going to a weekly lesson with my current tutor, Rebecca, for over a year. The benefits of learning one-to-one with a native speaker are amazing. I think I get so much more out of that hour than I did in a three-hour class. We now speak almost entirely in German for the whole hour and that hour of speaking practice is really valuable. I also learn at my pace and we use materials that I’m interested in. I can’t ask for much more than that!
A personal tutor is by no means the only option though. Before finding a tutor I used a lot of web resources.
To start with I tested my language level online. I used a short test that determined which of 5 levels of fluency I was currently at. Using my result result I was able to find a lot of free resources on a number of websites including Deutsche Welle. My advice is to be open-minded and find what works best for you – everyone is different!
I found a basic vocabulary app was great for refreshing my memory on all those words that I’d forgotten. It’s amazing how quickly words I knew before came back to me and ‘relearning’ these at the same time as learning new vocabulary has kept it interesting. The app I use at the moment is called Wortschatz but I’ve also used Duolingo amongst others.
My Top Tips
When you’re learning a language it’s great to try and bring that language into your life as often as possible. Here are a few of the things that I’ve done to help me improve my German:
• Write in the language. Write about anything and everything and if possible have someone correct it for you. I’ve found this helps you to think in the language and understand the structure. It’s really helped with improving my listening and speaking too.
• Follow Twitter Feeds. Following twitter feeds has been a great way to see written German everyday. I mainly follow news feeds (Spiegel Online) and can either read the headlines and/or click into articles depending on how much time I have.
• Watch TV. My tutor recommended me to watch Boston Legal in German with English subtitles to get me used to hearing German at the speed it is spoken at by native speakers on a regular basis. I enjoy the program so it doesn’t really feel like I’m ‘working’ on my language skills.
• Read books on an e-reader. I have read a number of books on my Kindle and installing a German dictionary has made it a lot easier and less time consuming to check new words. André Klein has written a good selection of books aimed at learners of German. You can check out what options are available in your chosen language.
• Change voice software to your new language. I have an iPhone and one of the best things I did was to change Siri’s language to German. It’s great for thinking about everyday tasks in your new language and also tests your pronunciation!
I hope this post persuades you to try a new language if you’ve been thinking about it for a while. I’d say there’s nothing to lose and everything to gain. I’m now about a quarter of the way through Harry Potter and it gets easier to read every time I pick it up!
Good Luck / Viel Glück!