Nate Minor

Learning German: Why immersion trumps Duolingo

Ain't no English translation in this German textbook.Ain’t no English translation in this German textbook.

I wrote last week about how it’s important to know German in Austria. Since then, I’ve survived 12 hours of German language instruction (Deutsch sprachkurse) and I’ve noticed a key difference between it and my college courses in Minnesota.

In a nutshell: English is not the base language. My classmates are all Eastern European — Slovakia, Poland, Slovenia, etc. And while they all speak English, I very rarely hear it. I’m not learning to translate German in my head to English; I’m learning German. There’s a big difference between the two and I’m not sure I realized it existed until this week.

For example: When someone doesn’t understand a word, they’ll say so in German. The instructor will use a variety of methods to explain its meaning — by using other German words, or even acting it out or drawing it. The result is that on a very base level, I don’t associate the German word with the English word. I associate it with the action or thing it represents.

That’s the best-case scenario though; there are plenty of times I sneak a peak to my German-English dictionary in class. But I’m beginning to see that it’s doing more harm than good. The most valuable part of this class is that it provides a contextual arena to learn and practice a new language. That’s not something you can get from Duolingo (which I’ve spent HOURS on) or listening to podcasts.

That ties in with this post on Reddit about the best ways to learn a second language. “It’s not enough to drill patterns; the language has to be used to communicate with other people. This is my primary beef with Duolingo,” the post reads.

Not to knock Duolingo — the hours I spent with it this summer helped with building vocabulary. But there’s no way that program alone (or any other I’ve tried, for that matter) can teach me to communicate effectively in another language.

Read this on learning languages from The Atlantic’s Ta-nehisi Coates:

The Intoxicating Fear of Language Immersion

How Learning a Foreign Language Reignited My Imagination

Or Perhaps You Are Too Stupid to Learn French

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One Response to Learning German: Why immersion trumps Duolingo

  1. Anonymous says:

    I actually learned German through immersion ( I.e. not using another language as a reference) with Rosetta Stone, and practiced with Pimsleur (which included English translation but had a lot of German speaking and conversation).
    The result? After 2 months from not knowing a single word in German (1.5-2 hours a day of practice) I was able to spend a month in a small village in central Germany where no one spoke English.
    I was a skeptic, but it’s incredible what one could do nowadays

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