By definition, language requires more than one party to be involved; it’s about communication and interaction between people, not a solo performance. So it might seem impossible to teach yourself a language. Don’t you need a class, or at least a teacher?
With the resources available to us today, though, you can come quite far without talking to an actual person. I’ve tried out several of these in my attempts to learn German and to brush up my French. Some work better for me than others, and the ones I like might not be suitable for you. But they do provide some exciting, and often inexpensive ways to improve your language skills.
I made a big mistake when I spent a lot of money to buy a well-reviewed German course that turned out not to be for me. It was too boring and repetitive, although lots of people seem to love it. The presentations of grammar rules were pretty good, but there were no exercises to effectively practice the new learning, or any meaningful context, which for me is really important. Unfortunately the 30-day return date was past by the time I figured this out, so I will have to count it as another kind of learning experience.
Also somewhat costly, but much better for me have been the Pimsleur courses. These are 30-minute audio courses, sold in sets of 30 lessons, that work purely orally. You listen and repeat new language, and practice using it in different dialogues that are based on real-life contexts like traveling or talking about issues at work. The vocabulary is repeated at graded intervals that get it into your long-term memory if you pay attention and follow the program consistently.
It’s a slow method, but very effective. It really helped me to get a feeling for German word order and pronunciation. However, there are almost no explanations of grammar and that was frustrating. The program points out when to say “den” or “dem,” for example, but not why. This makes it hard to do anything but repeat the limited vocabulary and sentence structure of the programs themselves.
When I found the free video course from Deutsche Welle called “Nico’s Weg,” I was very happy to find that through an ongoing story it presented grammar in context, with exercises, and in a sensibly built-up, sequential way. The videos are very well produced and quite fun to watch, even as they contain some absurdities (Nico is supposedly a young man from Spain who knows no German, but within a few lessons he’s talking like a native).
My downfall remains learning vocabulary. I just hate flashcards and rote learning! But at some point I have to buckle down and learn more words (including noun genders, ugh). A final resource I’ve been using is the Graded German Reader by Crossgrove and Hagboldt. I’m at the point where I’m able to read the simple fables in Part II, and figure out a lot of words from context. If I can’t, there are helpful footnotes so I don’t have to haul out a dictionary. Learning language through literature is my passion, so this is perfect for me.
In spite of all these aids, I do notice what a difference it makes to be in real-life situations where I have to struggle to understand and make myself understood, connect words with real things and actions, and sometimes just take in language that is over my head but still has an unconscious formative effect. Language is not just an intellectual code for transmitting thoughts; it is a spatial and movement activity. It embodies thoughts, and to learn a new language means to build a new body.
That is really hard, if not impossible, to do all by yourself. So I’ll keep looking for helpers, both real and virtual, as I continue with my learning.
Have you found any independent language learning resources that help you? How do they compare to real-life practice?