On Assimilation and Anxiety: Growing Up in Three Different Countries

At the beginning of each course, I usually ask my students where they’re from and what brought them to Switzerland. Believe me, I’ve heard a range of interesting stories but at the end of the day it all boils down to either better opportunities or living closer to their loved ones. Since I think that it’s crucial as a teacher to form a genuine connection with your students instead of just being “that one German teacher”, I also share my story with them. By sharing and identifying with each other’s stories, you become more approachable and eventually you should consider attaching the title
“psychologist/ life coach” to your linguistics degree, which turns out to be my favourite part of the job. Therefore, I’ll share my story one more time:

As soon as I open my mouth, people realize that I’m German. I was born and raised in Germany until the age of nine. My family lived in the same house as my grandparents, which my grandfather built with his own two hands. Every evening, he would have his “Feierabend-Bier”, which is basically the beer you have after finishing work, and watch a football match. It does not get more stereotypical than this, I know. All in all, I grew up speaking my mother tongue with a German dialectal twist to it. Interestingly, “pure” High German was therefore always reserved for school contexts and thus I don’t perceive it as the language which is closest to my heart.

When I was nine, my father was offered a job in the US. Luckily, my father spoke English already, which was however not true for myself. As a consequence, we started taking lessons. Unfortunately, these lessons were restricted to filling out grammar exercises, which got us (surprise!) nowhere. So, when we arrived in the US, my parents made the decision to send us to a normal school right away. This time (to no one’s surprise), we soaked up English in less than three months since we actually had
to use it every single day. German was now restricted to our family, whereas English was used for making new friends.

After two years in the US, the company my father worked for decided to cut jobs, which forced us to go back to Germany. Shortly after, my father was offered a job in Switzerland. Again, we squeezed our home in a van and hit the road. Since I grew up speaking German, I initially thought language wasn’t going to be an issue this time, which turned out to be not true. I had to realize very quickly that Swiss German does not equal High German, no matter how you turn and twist it (additionally, we lived in the Rumantsch-speaking part of Switzerland). After three full months, I was finally able to understand what people were saying around me. I always wanted to take the next step and try to speak Swiss German myself, but some sort of anxiety regarding people’s reaction held me back. At the end, I decided to give it a go when I started university. Until today, I still have a German accent, which I’m constantly working on. However, my anxiety was absolutely unnecessary (surprise!). Literally everybody reacted very positively and appreciated my efforts to integrate, even though I could get around with High German easily.

In conclusion, psychological barriers to use a new language are often merely products of our own fear regarding people’s reactions. Once you decide not to care about these things as much, life becomes a lot easier and a rapid learning process kicks in. By using stories as a sort of connection
mechanism, I hope to achieve that my students worry less about people’s perception of them and focus on the positive aspects of learning a new language, namely feeling at home in a foreign country.

So, what’s your story?

PS: My brother speaks German, English, Rumantsch and Japanese. This might be a story worth telling next!

German is a Treasure – My Favourite Words in the German Language

Many of you may be familiar with the videos in which the sound of single words in different languages are compared to each other, for example the gracious butterfly. Usually, the elegancy of languages such as French (papillon) or Italian (farfalla) is contrasted with the seeming harshness of German SCHMETTERLING. While any word in any language spat out in rage will sound like a furious command to crush a fluffy kitten, no one can deny that there are sounds more pleasing to the human ear than a person shouting at you in German. But why get bound up with the acoustics when the actual meaning of some words is much more fascinating?

So let’s for once focus on semantics and enjoy the 5 most magical words the German language has to offer:

Let me start with what we are talking about here: vocabulary. Except in German, there is a much more sophisticated term for that: Wortschatz. This metaphor literally means ‘treasure of words’. Maybe you’ll be a tiny bit richer after reading this article.

This lovely expression definitely deserves second rank. It used to refer to «the evening before a holiday» but then the meaning got extended to the time after working hours. Even though the same concept can be expressed by after-work beer, the English word just doesn’t really cut it. In the German term there is a ring of celebration to it (Feiern), and that’s just beautiful.

If someone is lucky enough to leave work early for their Feierabendbier, they really are a Glückspilz. A fortunate mushroom, that is. Originally with a derogatory meaning of someone getting lucky unexpectedly, an (undeserving) social climber, shooting up from the soil like a mushroom, today the connotations are entirely positive. While lucky beggars or devils exist in the English speaking world, the image of mushroom grinning at their unbelievable fortune is nothing short of adorable.

In this same office, the person staying in late because they were handed a Hercules labour last minute is by the way a Pechvogel. Literally, this unfortunate person is compared to a «tarred/tarry bird» – tree branches smeared with a sticky substance used to serve as traps to catch birds. Indeed, how miserable is the animal that gets caught in one! While this technique of capturing birds is illegal in many states nowadays, the metaphor in the German language remained.

If birds aren’t your cup of tea, there is another expression you can use in German when you’re speaking of a poor sod who just never seems to have any luck in their lives: armes Schwein («poor pig»)! Wich brings me to my personal favourite German word, Hängebauchschwein. The pot-bellied pig in German is – as you may agree – very accurately called a ‘pig with a hanging belly’. They are, I assume, oblivious to our body standards and do not take offence at being reduced to their adorable if substantial bellies.

What are your favourite words or concepts in the German language? Share them below 🙂

The Perils of Learning a Foreign Language or How to Remember Words Better

Never will I forget the Russian words for hot water bottle (грелка), to burn yourself (обжечься) and, for that matter, blister (волдырь). You may have guessed the narrative by now – freezing cold winter nights, icy wind creeping in through dorm windows (the space in between them served me as a pretty decent fridge) and a cheap rubber bottle resulting in me waking up with a blister the size of a walnut. It has turned into a respectable scar on my left shin since. After all, who needs tacky souvenirs from Russia if the experience leaves a lasting imprint on the body and mind?

But rather than this unfortunate episode I would like to discuss how our experience with language learning shapes the way we remember. While (in theory) it is possible to learn a foreign language by just studying a list of words and grammar rules, it is much more effective to use it in real life situations. If we use language in real contexts, the episodic memory of our brain gets involved. This is the part of your long term memory responsible for biographical information, all the things you experience in your life. So when you go to the corner shop to buy groceries and actually try having a chat in Italian with the friendly owner, this experience makes the words and structures used much more memorable than just reading them on a page would. Unlike the semantic part of our memory which is responsible for storing factual information, the episodic memory does not rely on repetition to remember. I don’t have to burn my other leg. And I also didn’t need to make an effort to actually learn those Russian words. When you use language in real life, you will likely encode information through many different channels, so the voice of the concerned lady handing me an ointment or the feel of the hot rubber will help to create the necessary connections between your neurons.

Obviously, I do not suggest you learn German the painful way, at a rate of three words per accident this might be too high a price. However, and this is what we emphasise in our classroom, try to include your episodic memory while studying German. You live in the German speaking part of Switzerland, use it to your advantage! Order your Rösti in German. Buy your tram ticket in German. Discover the latest art exhibition and join a German speaking tour guide. Watch a football match in German in your Quartierbeiz. During the lesson, we specifically focus on the vocabulary tailored to your needs and interests so you are ready for your German adventure «in the real world».

The Child-Bouquet to Learn a Language

«Learning German is a piece of cake» is something you probably do not hear often. You might remember taking a deep breath before having to speak and your imagination makes you think of all the things that could go wrong and that you should worry about. For kids, though – and that does not only apply to German – the learning process for languages is smoother and, if not always a piece of cake, the path is not too difficult.

I am going to tell you about two childhood stories to illustrate this and remind you that it can also be a piece of cake for you.

La blume blume blume: why it is important to make mistakes while
learning a language

A story I like to tell is the one of my father and one of his first experiences with French. Before starting middle school he asked an older friend if French was easy and this friend assured him that it was. He also gave him an example: He told him that flower meant “la blume”, a bouquet of flowers “la blume blume” and “la blume blume blume” a plant nursery. As a native (Swiss) German speaker, it completely made sense to him, since a flower was called “eine Blume” in German. So he became friends with the idea that it would be an easy task to learn French. Sadly, after summer holidays, his world was turned upside down, figuring out that “the plant nursery” was not “la blume blume blume”. His path with French was hard the following years. But he kept telling this story to his children. When you think about it, the calculation behind “blume equals flower therefore blume blume blume equals plant nursery” makes sense from a mathematical perspective and my father turned out to be great in Maths, Physics and Chemistry and this first experience with French showed this at an early age. So next to the fact that he never forgot what the real word for flower was, he also learned something about himself. And best of all, it gave a great story to tell. What this means for us is that it is important to make mistakes and to be curious when you learn a language.

Stay courageous while learning languages

Another story I do not often share with my students is that I also used to struggle a lot with the German language. It all started when I was five years old and was found to have a language issue. I started mixing up sentence structures and mispronouncing many letters. The result was that only my mother and I could understand myself. Sometimes I tell people that this kept me from talking, so I need to compensate that with talking a lot now – but that was not true. I kept talking no matter what. I mean, passion is passion. And since my mother was my personal translator, I also did not really notice that I was not understandable. Of course, I did notice that the kids around me could not understand me and it made little me sad. But after getting help in a great language school and continuing to talk a lot, I was able to overcome my issue.

This story taught me years later that this is how we should all learn languages. We should keep talking and improving and not care so much about what other people think. It gives you the chance to make mistakes, to learn and most importantly, to find your own voice in the language you wish to speak. This language issue also gave me the ambition to teach German, as I grew up and now that I am a teacher at VOX, I get to help people and encourage them to speak, speak and speak again. They can make mistakes, it is fine and an important part of the process. What is important is to speak without the fear of being judged, just the same way a little kid with a language issue used to do.

PS : in French, “a flower” is “une fleur”.

The Pros and Cons of Online Lessons

In these dire times, when suddenly a substantial part of our lives is happening online, there might be quite some people asking themselves if it’s worth continuing their language courses online. Let’s have a look at some popular myths and questions about online teaching!

Freedom from fixed locality

This is certainly a first pro because you are free to do the lesson almost everywhere where there is enough net coverage. Teacher and students are not bound to travel long ways to meet at one place each time. The downside can be finding an appropriate place for having your lesson. As some people have their own spacious private desk where they aren’t disturbed during the lesson, others have to create their spot where they can work online without distraction. While this can be a challenge, it’s worth investing in it because the quality of your teaching/learning time depends heavily on it. 

Online lessons are (not) worth the money

This is still a con in many heads, mostly because there are a lot of cheap offers online. Of course, you can argue that a school doesn’t need to invest in a decent location, if lessons are held online and that this already justifies lower prices. But apart from that, why exactly do we think online lessons should be cheaper? Maybe many feel cheated by the purely digital presence of the teacher. This sentiment usually teams with a general aversion to the use of new technological tools and the lesson might be experienced as less personal. There is certainly some truth in that a digital presence doesn’t equal a flesh and blood one, principally, when we think of our senses being fed by a two dimensional input in comparison to a three to four dimensional one. On the other hand, we are told that human beings are “social animals” and as such, we should be very talented adapting to new conditions and finding new ways of satisfying our social needs. In other words, students and teachers quickly become cracks in profiting equally from online teaching situations.

Do I get the same quality of teaching?

Bluntly said: Quality doesn’t really depend on the question if a lesson is held online or in a physical presence situation. The quality of teaching time depends on the teacher and also on the agreement that usually exists between the teacher and his/her students about the goal of their teaching time. This agreement is the base of mutual respect and a productive learning atmosphere. Once established, it doesn’t really matter if the lesson is held online or in person as far as qualitative teaching is concerned. The decisive thing is if teachers as well as students are willing to teach/learn online.

Is teaching complicated or enhanced by technology?

This is a trickier question as the answer depends very much on the technical surrounding and of course on the personal experience of the participants. Let’s look at it this way: If there are technical problems, they can originate from the gear or network or from missing experience in usage of the technical tools. So, yes, there can be problems with insufficient net coverage, slow internet or old computer gear. And until now, I would call the network problem the biggest con when speaking about online teaching! Missing personal experience with technical tools can slow down certain processes, but there is big learning potential! Teachers and students might face certain difficulties adapting to the online teaching situation, like knowing how to share documents, how to use the digital whiteboard or like finding a solution to do group work. With time though, we learn and discover new ways of doing things. And at times, the novelty of a teaching situation helps people in their language learning.

How to Trick One’s Weaker Self or How to Keep Motivated

Whenever we set ourselves any goals we’d like to reach – either to lose some weight or to change bad habits – we generally begin motivated. We strive to achieve our goal as quickly as possible, and with as many measures implemented as possible. Inevitably, after a few weeks, we hit a wall called procrastination. Suddenly, many days go by and we haven’t learned a word of the language we desperately wanted to be able to speak. Too many other things become more important – and we always find something that is more urgent to do at that moment, than learning and developing our language skills. Our subconscious mind takes over and tells us that we should do something else – like watching a movie or visiting some friends – since those are activities that our limbic system knows make us happy, or at least we don’t find them exhausting.

How can one outwit the limbic system?

I would like to show you how you can manipulate your subconscious to support you in reaching your goals.

Step 1:    Go to the website https://ismz.ch/ZRM/7.html and send your brain on holiday. 

Step 2:   Follow the instructions provided, e.g. ‘I want to learn German’. 

Step 3:    Choose the picture that gives you the best feeling, keeping in mind your question. For  example, which picture could best support you on your way to speaking fluent German? 

Step 4:  Associate nouns or adjectives to that picture – whatever comes to your mind  (don’t forget your initial question).  

Step 5:  Choose the most relevant answers (about three, that attract you most). 

Step 6:   Create a positive sentence. E.g., I want to speak German like a leopard running through the grass: lightly, full of energy and always goal-oriented.

The sentence should contain the words you have chosen beforehand; the tense must be present tense – and it should create a picture in your head that makes you feel happy. 

Step 7:    Print out the picture, along with your sentence, and stick it in a prominent place, for instance, on your bathroom mirror. This is the best chance to see the picture daily and help keep your subconscious mind on track. 

This picture is called a prime. It helps you to stabilize your motivation. Every day your stamina will be supported, and the crash into the dreaded wall of procrastination will be avoided. Your subconsciousness supports your learning progress, and you will learn joyfully and therefore successfully.