Poetry, My Secret Weapon for Language Learning

James Lynden
Mar 25, 2018 · 4 min read
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Photo by David Iskander on Unsplash

I’ve started learning German. Right now, I have just about enough German to say that ich spreche kein Deutsch. That is, I’m a total beginner. But I’m already gathering a list of poems in the language, poems which I plan to understand and even memorise.

With this secret geeky weekend ritual, through Spanish, Portuguese, Danish and now German, I’ve found that poetry is my most useful tool in learning a language. So, fellow language learners, allow me to make a case for poetry.

Apps like DuoLingo and Memrise are great for cramming vocabulary. But damn, they butcher the language. I’ve slavishly used DuoLingo in the past, and become frustrated by endless repetition of “The penguin eats four lions” and sentences of that ilk.

Language textbooks are equally mind-numbing. We probably share dull memories of Spanish textbooks asking inane questions like ¿Donde están los zapatos de Miguel? Who cares where Miguel left his shoes? Textbooks are useful for learning grammar, but they are weak on engaging content.

For me, the same is true of reading children’s books. Yes, to get comfortable in a language you need to be ready to infantilise yourself a bit at the beginning. I hate compromising on my appetite for depth, complexity and meaning. Poetry offers the perfect solution.

First up, poetry is bite-sized and digestible. In any of the languages I’m learning, I’d struggle with a classic or contemporary novel harder than the Harry Potter series. But it’s easier to handle difficulty in small doses.

And because poems are digestibly sized, it is easier to form habits and goals around them. For me, one poem a week is manageable. Each time, it feels like a mindful treat and a deliciously analogue break from the screen.

Contemporary poems are best. Poems with short lines and particularly ones with some element of repetition are even better. I just discovered the perfect first poem for losing my German language virginity, Es Ist Was Est Ist by Eric Fried. Clear, repetitive, meaningful and with a smattering of useful vocabulary.

Poetry offers a feel for the sounds of its language. For example, it’s easier to guess the pronunciation of a word in a poem because any rhythm or rhyming give context. Reading Portuguese poetry out loud forces my tongue to make rolling vowel sounds, and Danish poetry requires my mouth to make mashed potato out of consonants. Great practice.

Then, poetry gives unique access to the culture behind the language. Lots of Spanish poetry is fiery, bright, emotionally charged. Danish poetry celebrates the is down-to-earth and often quite cosy. Portuguese poetry is often nostalgic, melancholy.

Language learning is messy, and it can often feel like you are not making progress. There are days when I’m sure my Danish never even existed. My Spanish works like a rusty but reliable car. In Portuguese though, my favourite language, I can barely form a sentence these days.

Of course, the poems slip out of your head too. But the poems you get familiar with go on to provide a secure anchor back to the language. A reminder that it is there, hiding away in grey matter, waiting to come out again when it’s needed.

When I pick up Fernando Pessoas’ Mensagem and turn to his tantalising poem Horizonte, Portuguese rolls off my tongue again. After, I feel like a trip to Portugal or Brazil would be enough to jump-start this language.

Learning Danish has been an uphill battle, full of cultural obstacles and impossible sounds.

One poem in Danish, Livets Hastighed by Michael Strunge, gave me a fundamental breakthrough. I connected with the poem and managed to learn it, painstakingly line by line. That one poem somehow allowed me to prove to myself that, yes, I do have a handle on this language.

It’s a vacuous point, but language learning is so much about confidence. I’m not advising you recite a poem next time you order a cappuccino in a second language. Simply, I think that arming yourself with a few poems in the language at hand will help you have the confidence to order said cappuccino.

True, engaging with any media in the language you are trying to learn will help. Simply, I believe poetry provides an effective and overlooked tool in language learning.

Poems are digestibly-sized, meaningful, train pronunciation and give a key to the culture. They also help you become more confident in and stay connected to the language. Choosing poetry which is clear and contemporary is the best starting point.

Language-learners, try this: Once a week, familiarise yourself with a poem from the language you are trying to learn. You don’t need to learn it completely flawlessly by heart. Just enough to be able to read it with occasional prompts. Perhaps choose a favourite new word from the poem, and cherish it.

Then, come back to the poem, ten years later, when the language has faded from your mind, and it’ll still be there waiting for you.

James Lynden

Written by

Innovation strategist & facilitator @ IXDS Berlin. Technology ethics and systems thinking. Making space for deep work. Formerly B&O & O2. jameslynden.me

James Lynden

Written by

Innovation strategist & facilitator @ IXDS Berlin. Technology ethics and systems thinking. Making space for deep work. Formerly B&O & O2. jameslynden.me

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