I’ve been thinking lately about my German skills, and comparing my feelings about German to other languages. In German, there are certain grammatical aspects that I find annoying, but I’ve found ways to function without having to learn them totally precisely. I can understand everything I read in books, for example, but I’m not good enough to write these grammatical details completely correctly (although I can get them mostly right by gut intuition).
When I compare with Dutch, I find that I’m more willing to try writing Dutch, because Dutch has simpler grammar and I feel more confident because the adjective endings aren’t so tricky. When I compare to Chinese, it feels more like an adventure to try and learn thousands of characters, but in German it just feels like a chore to try and memorize thousands of noun genders, and the appropriate adjective endings according to gender and case.
Logically, German should be easier to work on than Chinese characters, but I think another thing that’s holding me back is that I’m somewhat complacent. I can read without problems (unlike in Chinese, where it’s a strain still). In some sense, I’m “good enough”, and this has led me to an educational dead-end, a plateau beyond which I won’t advance.
I think the situation is similar to learning to type, as mentioned in this fantastic article about training your memory skills. The author explains that as we start typing, we have to hunt around and think about things a lot, and it goes slowly. In the beginning, you’re just looking for patterns, and the more examples you get, the more that pattern becomes familiar to you. Then it gradually gets easier until one day we’re just typing along on “auto-pilot” without thinking about it. Conscious thought is no longer required…it just “happens”.
This can be a great feeling…juggling some balls without needing to calculate where they all go…riding a bike without thinking about staying upright…speaking without halting and searching for words. Although this is a great place to be, it’s also a plateau, an educational dead-end. People don’t improve their speed after this, even if they type for hours each day (as many of us do). If you want to improve further, you have to challenge yourself somehow, rather than continuing to type the same way you do every day. You have to push yourself until you make mistakes, and then figure out how to correct those mistakes.
I think I’m currently at a plateau with German. I read books without thinking…I just enjoy them. But I know that there are words in there that I don’t know, and grammar points that I recognize, but can’t reproduce 100% correctly. I’m not as good as I want to be, but most of the time I’m just content where I am. To break out of this, I have to challenge myself to notice new things. I have to force myself into the places where I’m uncertain, instead of letting them pass me by so that I can stay comfortable.
So, although I sometimes still want to read for pleasure, it’s no longer that much of a learning experience. To remake it into a learning experience, I need to actively search out those places where I make mistakes, and I need to have immediate correction so that I can evaluate my responses.
The first task I’ve given myself is to be able to produce noun genders correctly, as well as the adjective endings that go along with them in the various cases. Right now, I mostly ignore these as I’m reading, since I recognize just enough to get me the correct meaning, but I can’t reproduce them on my own 100% reliably. In order to really learn them, I have to make myself intently aware of them as I read, and try to state explicitly what they imply and how they’d look in a similar situation. I just try to really be aware of all aspects of these patterns in any way I can.
Then, in order to complete the learning process, I need immediate feedback. While I’m reading, I keep open a grammar table that lists the possibilities, and I double check on there to make sure my guesses were correct, or to figure things out when I get stuck. So, 3 things: intentional awareness, an attempt to produce something on my own (to build the active skill), and then double-check / confirmation. All of this ensures that I won’t read right past the potential learning experiences, and that I’m putting myself into unknown territory that will push me out of the plateau.
Another important aspect of this process is to remember that you don’t need to be perfect at the start. Don’t try super hard to do everything 100%, you just need to make those learning experiences more “available” to your mind, and they will get absorbed. I know that if I keep reading and try to recite the noun genders as I go, I may not be perfect at the start, but it will come. I don’t have to be super diligent about drilling each individual word 100 times each…I just have to make each one into a conscious learning experience, and all of those experiences will add up.
This is in contrast to the situation before, where I would just read past them. I was reading for comprehension and vocabulary, rather than grammatical perfection. Now my vocabulary is excellent…I know 99.5% of the words in an adult novel in German, but it’s time to really work on those pesky remaining grammar features.
I think this entire process applies well to other tasks, and other language features. Take, for example, the people who speak a language for a long time but still have a strong accent. I believe that they’ve become “good enough” to function, and they’ve stopped pushing themselves to watch for those subtle differences in pronunciation. They use the sounds from their native language, and haven’t quite figured out what makes the new sounds different. When you don’t consciously try to notice the new sounds, you can’t train yourself to hear them properly, and you never improve. Complacency and auto-pilot keep you at a plateau, and your accent will never improve until you really push hard to notice what’s going on in detail.