It’s like learning to surf

“I completed an A2 course and now I want to do B1”. But at a placement interview, it turns out that the language skills and application are not A1 or maybe A2.1. Why is that?

Well, language is a complex system in which there are no clear boundaries. The idea that you have reached a certain level of language is deceptive BECAUSE language is complex and the boundaries are fluid.

1+1=2 and if I can do that, I can do 20+84=104. If I understand plus math with smaller numbers, I can do plus math with larger numbers. Understanding and applying are here two processes that happen almost simultaneously. Related to the learning of the German language this would mean:

I understood how to conjugate the verbs (e, es, t, en, t, en), so now I can say a complete sentence.

Hmmm, everyone who learns German knows that’s not how it works. Understanding and applying in language learning are two completely different things. They don’t happen at the same time. First comes understanding. And THEN you have to open your MOUTH and SPEAK. And that’s where, unfortunately, many people don’t get anywhere. Why? The reason is the language barrier. And this reason can dominate everything: The worry and fear of speaking. Overcoming the language barrier is, on the one hand, a matter of practice: Do I have enough opportunities to use the language – even at the lowest level? Am I encouraged to speak as much as possible in class, and do I also look for situations, outside of class, where I can use the language?

In addition, there may be beliefs such as “It’s better if first speak English until I’ve reached B1 in German and THEN I start speaking German to others.” or “I can speak English. Everyone understands me and plus it’s much easier. German is enough in the classroom” or “German is so different, it’s so hard” and so on. These are definitely NOT helpful and prevent you from immersing yourself in the language and learning it.

It’s like learning to surf. If I tell myself “I’ll never make it”, I won’t make it. But once I dare to stand on the board in deep water, the first hurdle is overcome. And when I’m there, when I can stand on the board, then comes the practicing, so that I can remain standing on the board and become more stable. I can only do that by practicing. It’s not enough to know how to stand. I also have to do it actively.

Gaps and fossilization during German learning

But there is another hurdle: a major misbelief. And that is the fallacy “I have completed course xy, now I can do the next course level”.

Completing a course does not necessarily mean you can do the next level.

Let me put it simply: If at the end of A2 level I can’t use perfect tense, I can’t use separable verbs, I use verbs mostly in present tense or unseparated, if I have gaps in basic vocabulary, if I can’t use subordinate clauses with “weil”, “dass”, “ob”, “wenn” or “als”, or if I don’t understand “ob” and “als”, then I don’t have A2 level either. I may understand the structures and words. But if I can’t use them, that is, speak them, then I don’t have the A2 level.

Of course it’s okay to make mistakes. No question about it. But if I don’t use these words and structures when I speak in the first place and consistently use grammar incorrectly, then I don’t have the language level. In this case it is fatal to do a course at B1 level, because the gaps from A level are much too big.

If you then do the next course anyway, the gaps and mistakes solidify and fossilize. A correction is then a lot of work, which means concentrated training and awareness of the mistakes.

The vocabulary becomes more and more complex up to the higher levels. The use of this new vocabulary needs a solid and stable basic grammar at A1-B1.

Going back to 1+1=2 and 20+84=104: Thinking “I finished the book in this course and now I can do the follow-up course and learn with the next book.” is similar to the principle of mathematical formula, which you can NOT apply to language learning.

Grammar in the German course in the past and today

While in the 1970s/80s it was assumed that grammar played only a minor role and that foreign language teaching should be based on purely communicative methods, today science arrives at quite different results. Practice has shown that omitting grammar in the classroom leads to problems in applying the language. In class, questions about grammar automatically come up when speaking. Not answering these and practicing structures leads to frustration and gaps for learners.

In contrast to the 70s/80s, grammar is the focus today because it is the scaffolding of a language. I need to know how to combine words to say what I want to say.

When I learn the structures, I can only do so by applying them in speaking, writing, listening, and reading. This way, Grammar, can never be seen separately from everything else. On the contrary, on the one hand, I need to focus on grammar, on the other hand I need speaking, reading, learning new words. The answer to this (almost) contradiction is healthy balance of all, so your language process develops in a healthy way. At the same time, the need of each learner – also in a group course – has to be taken into account.

This includes not going directly further in the book, if necessary. But rather going back to repeat topics from lower levels and not finishing the book within a defined period of time, since language development follows different rules than the given time periods and book templates. Only in this way can a German course do justice to each individual learner and their progress.

How can I learn German well?

The first key to success

Use German in EVERY situation. From the very beginning. In the shop, on the street, at work, with other parents, friends etc.

The second key to success

  • actively participate in German classes
  • do homework
  • learn more German for yourself besides homework (watching movies, reading the newspaper, writing, listening to the radio, etc.)

The third key to success

…is to see “What CAN I do after the course I took? Can I apply the words and grammar? Can I SAY them?” The question is not “Did I understand everything in the course?” But “Can I use them?”

How do I know what I have to be able to do in the language after my German course?

Here, “being able to” means “understand AND apply“.

The table of contents gives you an overview of what you have covered in your German course. Then, of course, check your notes and the additional class material that the teacher gave you. Of course, you may make mistakes in what you have learned, but these should diminish with regular use. And that requires active learning. Just like learning to surf.

Our language school in Frankfurt Main is in the center of the city: German courses A1, A2, B1, B2, C1, C2

German evening courses, German intensive courses, German morning courses in small groups, online German courses and offline German courses.

We live what we teach. Join our regular meetings to exchange ideas in German, our excursions to the regions around Frankfurt, celebrations in the city of Frankfurt and of course always with a teacher you can always ask if you want to be corrected or if you want to know something about the German language. Register in our Facebook group with content exclusively for our course participants.

The SprachPassion team is looking forward to meeting YOU!

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