Diary of a language learner – a Good Samaritan passes by….

You can say what you like about social media, but I’m sure I’m not the only one who is constantly amazed and impressed by the help that people offer there. I just received this extended tweet with some tips about learning German. It came from a teacher called Hannah Gurr, who’s based in Bristol.

All I can say is – I wish Hannah was my German teacher. She seems to have nailed the challenge of a language with lots of fiddly endings with some clever mnemonics and some classy use of chunks and contexts.

 Here’s what she wrote:

Great to read on your blog that you’re learning German. You’ve given me so many teaching ideas and tips that I’d like to share with you my tips for learning German as an adult. I’ll tell you the main ones, and you can accept/reject as you like.

Firstly, I’d recommend the lexical approach for mastering article endings. For example, for almost all forms of transport you can say ‘Ich bin mit dem X gefahren’ and you don’t have to worry whether it’s das Auto or der Wagen. There’s only one exception (as in English) ‘on foot’ (zu Fuß).

I think articles and adjective endings in German, are a bit like gerunds/infinitives in English: native-speakers never make mistakes with them, learners constantly do, but mistakes rarely impede communication. However, I wish I had known that it’s best to learn them in chunks rather than just learning a noun and disregarding its gender. Also, it’s confusing for a learner when you’re pretty sure it’s die Tür and then someone says ‘Er hat den Fuß in der Tür’.

You can also take a phrase you might realistically be able to frequently drop into conversation, and use that as a mnemonic. For example, if you say ‘I went there/I did that/I had dinner … with my beautiful wife’ (mit meiner schönen Frau) and learn that by heart, then you will always know how to apply the dative endings to the feminine singular article and adjective.

Ed’s note – she’s right about meine schöne Frau

Meine schöne Frau in Havana Cuba (Kuba?)

Do you have kids? Choose an appropriate epithet and you’ve got a ready-made crib for the dative plural.

Ed’s note – kids?? I have GRANDkids! Here’s a totally gratuitous picture of me with two of them…

Me and Mo and Sadie…

If I were teaching German to English speakers, I would put the articles into four case groups, on large posters on the four walls of the class. I’d also assign a colour as well as a position to the cases.

•    The first I would call ‘Group 0’ (nominative) because there are zero new things to learn, as everybody knows German has der, die, das and plural die. Used with the verb ‘be’.

•    Group 1 (accusative) so-called because there is only one change, as der becomes den. No other changes. Practice with verbs such as ‘have’ Ich habe keinen Stift and ‘know’ Ich kenne ihn gut.

•    Group 2/to (dative – remember to say dem der dem DEN! – it sounds so dramatic!) because this is used with verbs such as ‘give to’ ‘say to’ ‘bring to’.

Practise with these verbs first, then drop in ‘help’ because it’s common – although learners will just have to accept it doesn’t fit in with the ‘to’ mnemonic.

Also, during the course, add to the poster the prepositions which always take the dative: zu, mit, bei – learn useful chunks such as Herzlichen Glückwunsch zum Geburtstag! and zum Fruhstuck. It helps avoid L1 transference as in English we say ‘for breakfast’, ‘for my birthday’, whereas German uses zum not für.

•    The final group (genitive) is best remembered in chunks such as am Ende des Monats/Ende der Woche. By the time you get to this case, your learners should have already encountered it many times! Nothing new to learn! German uses the same system as English for possessives but drops the apostrophe – Kens Auto, and when in doubt, the Genitive can be avoided by using von + dative.

The preposition takes priority when choosing case, but when (as with in) there is a choice, I use the mnemonic ACtion is ACcusative, state is dative, so you know to walk ins Zimmer and to be/stand/sit im Zimmer.

You also have trouble with word order, as you say in your blog: “I’ve only ever made working visits to Länder wo spricht man Deutsch” which should be “Länder wo man Deutsch spricht”.

Ed’s note: If that’s the only mistake I’ve made in the German in these blogs, then I am WELL pleased!

As I continued to learn German I realised I was very adept at using the correct syntax in these types of sentences, as well as the use of ‘him’ and ‘her’, which are particularly tricky.

As in English, the books are organised with what has been judged to be simpler/more fundamental structures first. As I made my way through the units, learning a lot of vocabulary along the way and constantly struggling with articles and adjective endings, I would come up against these ‘advanced’ structures and realise I had mastered them way back.

Hope you weren’t bored by these ideas, and that some of them turn out to be useful for you.

All the best

Hannah Gurra TEFL teacher in Bristol

5 thoughts on “Diary of a language learner – a Good Samaritan passes by….

  1. Ha! I’m relearning Russian, so the point about using my kids for conjuring with dative plurals is very welcome.

    I’m really enjoying these ‘Diary of…’ postings of yours, Ken, as they offer a curiously obverse view of the learning and teaching process. Keep ’em coming, please!

  2. You can’t have her, I want her as MY German teacher! PLEASE I echo what Sandy said, really enjoying reading your posts and comparing them to my German class.

  3. I agree with you that these are excellent ideas and am about to make four small posters and take up German again.

  4. These are some excellent tips. I started learning German at school, and for the first six years I never bothered learning articles with the nouns, mainly because I didn’t believe they were useful and had no idea cases existed. This meant that when I got to studying it at uni I had some problems with some basic words which I had learnt but was never sure of the gender of. I found two things which helped, along with putting them into phrases, one of which is along the lines of the posters. I put colour-coded post-it notes on my windows, with one window for each gender, and one post-it note per word. This really helped me visualise the genders.

    The other useful thing is knowing that certain suffixes normally go with certain genders, and that you can learn these (which I only ever managed to remember for ‘das’ with a self-made rhythm, so those ones are easy for me!):
    der: er (because it’s like ‘der’)
    die: heit/keit, ung,
    das: chen, lein, ma, ment, tel, tum, um
    Unfortunately can’t remember any of the others!

    Generally though it doesn’t really matter, and I didn’t worry about cases/genders when I started to learn Czech either.

    I still have real trouble with plural forms, despite officially having C1 level grammar. Doesn’t stop me from chatting to Germans and enjoying the culture though 🙂

    I studied German for a long time before I fell in love with it, and now some of my favourite music is German. I love listening to Ich + Ich, especially their song ‘Vom selben Stern’, and Rosenstolz. Did you know you can practise with the lyrics of German songs on lyricstraining.com too?

    Really like your photos 🙂 and looking forward to meeting you at IATEFL in a couple of weeks.


  5. I never advanced beyond a very basic level in German. But I guess I would’ve made a marvelous progress if my teacher had pointed out all these possible these mnemonic devices. Does Hannah offer tips re any other languages?

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