Language by Doing

Be language, my friend

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Who can learn languages more easily? Children or adults?

Do children or adults have an advantage when learning languages?

It seems to be a common assumption that children learn languages much more easily than adults, but I doubt that’s true.
Just a few days ago I had a discussion with a friend about the topic. He was arguing that a child’s brain can produce neural connections quicker than an adult’s. I would say that doesn’t play a big role. An adult’s experience in learning and knowledge he already has gained, will enable him to learn languages faster.
It’s true that once you come into this world, you have to learn a lot, and the brain manages to keep up, but compared to most animals it takes a human forever to finally be able to provide for himself. I’m happy the time when eating was a challenge is over (but I still don’t like to wear white to dinners). The brain is prepared to work with all the input and it does fascinating things. It takes a while, though.
Everything is new – If you have no reference, then it’s hard to learn a new movement, or language. Jumping isn’t that hard once you can stand and walk, but standing for the first time is WTF!? Jumping must seem like some crazy super skill mutants have at that stage.
There is no reference.

“What unholy powers do you command, demon-person!?” – child

Having a reference helps a lot

It’s similar for languages: If you already understand Latin, then French, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian should come quite easily, but Japanese might still be a challenge. You feel like you don’t have a language reference to compare it to.
But: Language is made up of more than vocabulary. You have knowledge of other elements of the language or the skills required to learn them quickly.
You know a grammatical system you can compare the language to and you can work by comparing it with the language you’re learning. Oh? The verb comes at the end of the sentence? That’s different, but alright. WTF moments will still come up. There are HOW many ways of saying ‘I’ in Japanese?  Like 9 common forms or something!?
You also have the skill of moving your pronunciation apparatus (sounds like a band name) more skillfully than a child. I do think it’s harder for adults to sound like a native speaker, but that’s not because it’s impossible, but because they’re too embarrassed to try. For some weird reason, it’s not appreciated to pronounce a language like a native. In school you get teased for sounding too ‘french’ in French class and there are jokes about newscasters who pronounce names the way they’re meant to be pronounced.
Actors can do it for roles, and so can you. It’s fine if your voice changes a bit when switching languages. I use my mouth differently when speaking English compared to German, and that’s something that can definitely be taught.

They can do it well sometimes.

Use your experience

Adults also have the advantage of being able to systematically learn. You might even have figured out what works best for you. Do you learn visually? Do you need to hear a lot? Do you just want to immerse yourself in something you like doing while learning a language (that concept sounds familiar…). If you take the time to think about you can find the method that will let you learn language naturally.
A child doesn’t have that advantage. It couldn’t have figured out what works for when learning a new skill because this takes time and experience.
I’d say the adults come out on top in this one, they learn quicker and better. That’s why you don’t train children to become doctors or pilots.

Although I’m starting to think we should. The outfit is perfect.

I haven’t heard of too many great child poets or novelists, either. Being able to use a language skillfully takes the abilities and experience of an adult.
It’s better to have a foundation of skills that you can build on and when it comes to language learning, and even if you only speak your native language, you have an advantage compared to a child learning a language for the first time.
Why do children still learn quickly? It’s not because they have better brains, but because they want to join a community and language is the only way to do so. We’ll talk about that in another post.
What are your thoughts on the topic? Let us know in the comments.

If you want to be kept up-to date on what’s happening, then sign up for the newsletter in the sidebar or in the footer area. This project will be be awesome because of participation and contribution by awesome people (that’s you). If you want to host an event, write a mail to and I’ll set it up in the calendar.

Unleash the Dynamite

The other day I saw something great over at Irina’s blog Language Catalyst: Read about it here

She talked about unleashing your inner Napoleon Dynamite. It wasn’t about voting for Pedro every chance you got, but just keeping it real and doing what you do whole-heartedly when the time comes. Her example was the dance scene at the end of the movie where Napoleon gets on stage and does a super quirky, but lovable, funky dance routine.

There are times in life when you should unleash the Dynamite. Often enough, if you can do it, it will make people open up to you as well. Show some mistakes, some vulnerability and just put yourselves out there- chances are most people will appreciate the honesty and choose to help you over ridiculing you (the ones who choose to be negative about it shouldn’t be in your life).
You will make mistakes when you learn a new language, but as mentioned before, go with the flow, embrace and enjoy the weird situations that might arise and don’t let it get you down.
You can try to appear as perfect by only showing what you know, but leave your comfort zone and be more concerned about getting better, rather than being good.
This is a very valuable lesson for any skill you hope to acquire. Lifelong learning, never settling and always finding something to improve is a great guideline for a productive life.

So how do we combine unleashing the inner Dynamite with leaving our comfort zone while having fun? Karaoke of course!
Most of us seem pretty vulnerable while singing, but everybody can do it. Karaoke is great fun and the place we’re going to has small booths to rent, so we don’t have to get in front a large audience.
So we will get together for German Karaoke at Monster Ronson’s Ichiban Karaoke at Warschauer Straße. You can register here: Register here


Epic Movie Adventures

Ramstein, the city, not the band

When I was younger I lived close to Kaiserslautern. A small town not too far from the French border, but that’s not what it’s known for. Ramstein (not these guys with two ‘m’s) is  nearby and because of the military bases there are about 50.000 Americans in the K-Town area. That makes the are the largest gathering of Americans outside the U.S. and that comes with some perks.
I used to always get the DVDs (or VHS cassettes) much sooner than all the German kids because I could shop on the military base close to where I grew up.

Release dates used to matter

Back in the 90s, before Napster, before Kazaa and before Streaming Sites which would’ve been hell with the 56k modem anyway, the movie release dates were still very different around the globe. I do miss that sound, though.

Movies would get released in the States and sometimes it would take a full year until they were released abroad. I remember watching Episode I 8 months or so before it hit German theaters. Don’t quite remember if I was being a bastard and spoiling it for everyone else.
Often enough by the time the movies came out in the theaters in Germany they would be released on DVD in the States.
That was pretty cool for me. On the base, everything was American – you paid in Dollars, the fast food places were American and so was all the media. Movies and video games were on the American release schedule as well, very cool.

The cow exploded

It took a while, but now we’re getting to the language learning part:
I had a friend with whom I used to hang out every day. He was German, didn’t really speak English with a lot of people, his school wasn’t that great, so his English lessons sucked, but the kid could speak the language.
What happened was we watched so many movies together and we played so many video games that he learned a LOT through them.
All the games and movies were in English of course and we both preferred watching the ‘original’ movies. Japanese wasn’t an option back then, English translations for the video games were much better than the German ones back then and there were more titles available than in Germany. Being able to watch the movies and play the games sooner than the other German kids was an added bonus.
Luckily, his vocabulary wasn’t limited to insults and typical vocabulary you’d need to save the world.

He picked up a lot of grammar from the RPGs we played together and some cool expressions from the movies we watched.

I got some Samurai-talk lessons later on thanks to Akira Kurosawa and another line that personally stood out to me was “the cow exploded” in Three Kings.

I still like to find out how to say that in many languages.
La vache a explosé
la mucca è esplosa
lehmä räjähti

I am prepared for this one situation where I might need to comment on this specific scenario unfolding, but at the same time I hope it never happens.

Movie nights and film discussions

It’s difficult to compress these years of intense nerding out into an event, but starting with a movie night and a discussion about the film might be a good idea.
There are lots of German movies that are worth watching, some made it overseas: Das Boot, Lola rennt and Der Untergang are famous and there are some lesser known gems.
Contrary to popular belief Germans can be very funny, so there are some great comedies and we will get together to check some of them out.

If you want to be kept up-to date on what’s happening, then sign up for the newsletter in the sidebar or here. This project will be be awesome because of participation and contribution by awesome people (that’s you). If you want to host an event, write a mail to and I’ll set it up in the calendar.



Photowalk in Berlin

A photowalk is a great thing and since we’re all about great things, a photowalk is in order.
We get a small group of people who want to practice their English, meet at a location in Berlin (I’d recommend Warschauer Straße) and we explore from there. I can’t really guide people, since I’ve only been here for a few months, but that’s cool – we can just venture forth into the great unknown as the fellowship of the aperture ring. We’ll figure something out.

One ring to rule them all.

One ring to rule them all.

The area around there is kind of interesting, the whole complex at Revaler Straße is nice during the day, even though it’s a lot less busy than around the time people stumble out of Cassiopeia. The area is what a lot of people would call typical Berlin, so we should also be able get some nice street photography shots (There probably are areas with more variety for that, though).
The group shouldn’t look too much like a bunch of tourists, so it’s only going to be 4 people max and no tripods or huge lenses. Let’s try to blend in a bit, or at least not look too crazy. Tourists with huge camera setups… I never trust them.

That dude is shady.

Disclaimer: I’m not a professional photographer. I’d consider myself an enthusiast, so I could show beginners a few things about their cameras, but pros will likely be more interested in the language part.
Some questions we can definitely clear up:

  • What do all those numbers on the back of my camera mean? Is it some sort of countdown?
  • What’s an exposure triangle?
  • What’s the rule of thirds?
  • How do I adjust aperture and what does it do? (aperture? WTF?)

These are all questions that can be answered. If you have no idea about them in your native language, you might as well learn in English. There are waaaay more resources available online to dive into if you’re curious.

So many people give online tips about the basics of photography, there are websites dedicated to it, youtube tutorials and of course tips by pros on their websites.
Since even the non-English native speakers write so that they target the largest possible audience, English is the way to go.If you can understand what they’re talking about you can improve your photography so much.
So if you’ve wanted to get out of Auto mode on your camera, join on a photo walk!

After the walk we can sit down someplace and have a nice beer, talk about our experiences and maybe check out some shots from that day.


Small groups will make ya jump jump

Small groups will make ya jump jump

The traditional classroom environment works for a lot of people.
It’s been that way for quite a while and it works for certain situations. A teacher stands at the top of the room, instructing students in the given subject and they duly take notes. There’s no easier way to teach 40 eager young minds at once ( imagine trying to keep the attention of children through Skype. Not happening).
There aren’t too many options in school when you have to teach large groups or when there’s a standardized curriculum.

Thankfully, most of us don’t learn in classes of 40 people. We’re not in school anymore and we’re all individuals, so we shouldn’t try to adjust to what’s good enough for most people, but find out what’s perfect for ourselves. Not everyone learns the same way or is interested in the same topics. Class schedules are usually so broad that nobody is offended or excluded from joining the lesson, but on the other hand, nobody is really into any topic.

And then you get classes about water. Water? Yeah….That’s pretty safe, there aren’t too many people who hate water. If you’re not a water sommelier (!) however, chances are it’s not the most fascinating topic for you. No disrespect to the water fanatics out there.
One on one classes are often great to focus on something you like, small groups are groovy as well. You can direct the conversation or join up with people who share your interests. You have to be able to talk. You need an environment you want to join and surroundings that will allow you to join. That just doesn’t happen as much if you’re in a crowd that’s being directed by someone else, or if the group is too big.
Ever notice that sitcoms generally have at least three (or two-and-a-half) people in every scene? That’s because conversation works best with around three people: ideas flow and two people think while one person talks. Bigger groups coming together works great as well, but usually the actual conversations happen in smaller groups.
The logic for learning in small groups outside of the classroom is similar. Conversation flows naturally and students are encouraged to express themselves, rather than being confined by the structure of a textbook. Take grammar as an example. Students learn first person singular through to third person plural. This pattern is repeated through all the verbs. But how many times does a student use any of those verbs in practical situations?
“I jump, you jump, he/she jumps, we jump…” We jump? When does that ever happen? If you’re at a 90s party somewhere in Berlin, that’s an entirely different story.

Kris Kros will make ya jump jump. That’s a fact.
The beauty of conversing in natural situations is that you use the relevant verbs again and again. They become ingrained without you ever knowing it.  And by repeating them, you’re learning verb structures, both stems and endings. Students begin to learn how to construct verbs from the patterns they see in other verbs, rather than rote learning. That’s part of the logic of learning outside of class.
How do you know if it works for you?

Try it!

If you want to be kept up-to date on what’s happening, then sign up for the newsletter in the sidebar or here. This project will be be awesome because of participation and contribution by awesome people (you are awesome). If you want to host an event, write a mail to and I’ll set it up in the calendar.

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