Taking Control of Your Language Learning

Let us assume that the people learning the language, really want to learn and are motivated. This should not be taken for granted. For instance, I find people who spend their own money are better students than students for whom the course is paid for. i.e. courses run in companies have a high drop-out rate. If you’re the teacher, there’s no reason to take this personally. This approach would probably work for students in public school but I’m interested here in adult learners.

If the student is living in the country where the language is spoken it’s a lot easier. Otherwise it may be an academic exercise. There are exceptions to this. If you live in an international city (which you probably do) you might be able to get by with English. You might be discouraged that you try in the target language and people respond in English. There are ways around that. I write about it here where the target language is German and the problems of those who live in Berlin are discussed:


Learning a language is not necessarily ‘hard’, it is however always time consuming. It’s really important that the time taken to study is as close to 100% effective as possible. i.e. spending time figuring out what you’re going to do is to be minimized.

Motivation is obviously important. Learning a language is like doing DIY projects around the home. The job itself is probably very do-able. The task of figuring out how to do the project, finding the tools, and buying the materials is a pain in the ass. If you have 30 minutes to learn — you do not want to be discouraged by not knowing what exactly you should be doing.

The textbooks and the A1.1 — C2 level system sounds like it’s a good idea, but I don’t buy it. When you look into the contents of what’s really inside these levels it turns out to be vague. It is essentially left to textbook publishers to decide what goes on in each level. The levels are artificially segmented. It is much more natural to take a topic and explore it fully regardless of what these artificial levels say. The textbook publishers have an interest in selling more textbooks — one for each sub-level. Level A is broken down into 4 sub-levels as is level B. That’s 8 levels and each one typically takes a month in a language school. That’s far too long and unless you’re jobless and wealthy it’s a non-starter. You already know at least one language very well. You are a language expert already, therefore the key is to harness what you already know about language and understand the differences between what you know and what you want to learn.

This works for the typical language school because every sub-level requires a new book and a new course and another month to go through it. The language school has an interest in the process taking as long as possible, because then you have to keep coming and keep paying.

Because the textbooks are aligned to artificial sub-levels they are very boring. They work against the principle of keeping the student entertained. If the student isn’t having fun, their motivation goes down and they give up. If the student doesn’t understand how the material fits into the process of ultimately acquiring the language they give up. (The mystery being why the student often blames herself rather than the book and the method). If there’s no clear methodology (pedagogy) that underpins the textbook — the student cannot trust it. If the teacher’s job is essentially to walk the student through the book and the book is flawed, it doesn’t matter how good the teacher is because again the student becomes demotivated and gives up.

Textbooks are flawed. They are unnecessary. It is the job of the teacher to structure the course. The object of the course is to get the student to speak confidently in as short a period of time as possible.

This is not to say that a good grammar book is useless. Far from it. A good grammar book, although hard to find, is very useful. There are lots of resources on the internet, but the quality varies so I recommend you find a good grammar book. Learning grammar in your native language (or in English if you’re comfortable with English) is smart. Let’s look at it — if you don’t know the new language yet, how are you going to understand the grammar of it expressed in a language you don’t yet know? That’s counter-intuitive.

This is a good grammar book (German): Hammer’s German Grammar and Usage — Martin Durrell (Routledge 5th Ed. 2011)

This is a good German exercise book — it goes from A1-B1 and is free of bullshit. ‘Lern — und Übungsgrammatik Deutsch als Fremdsprache A1-B1 (Duden 2017)

The analogy with adults learning like children/babies do is not helpful. Adults are not children. Children learn the language in the Kita through play. Adults do not have the luxury of playing all day long and literally picking up the language as they go along. Adults are burdened with the fear of making mistakes and sounding and looking stupid. Children are not. If you want to speak the language you have to get over your fear of looking dumb.

Here I write about fear of looking dumb: https://medium.com/language-gym-berlin/fear-of-sounding-dumb-4e81dfed5e32

To get over this fear the student needs confidence that the chances of what they want to say, as the thought occurs to them in their native language (or the language they think in!), they have a good chance of saying in the target language correctly — and therefore not embarrassing themselves. Maybe you’re one of those people who does not worry about this and you realize that making mistakes is an opportunity. If so, then good, you will make progress very quickly. If not, you need to understand the fundamental patterns that underpin your target language, and to practice them until when you look inside your head with the aim of saying something the words fall into the patterns you’ve learned. It’s not so much the words that are the problem, rather it is the patterns. The words are relatively easy to learn. It’s the patterns that are more important.

Components of language learning

Grammar: learn the patterns that underpin the language.

Here is the movie I made that got me very excited about teaching the German case system. That’s all that [der, das, die…] stuff. (And it really is der, DAS, die — and not der, die, das) The wrong order sets learners back at least a year if not longer, if not forever!

CASE (13 minutes — get a pen and paper)


Here I describe the fundamental patterns that underpin German.


This can be done for French, Russian, Chinese: whatever. It’s the sort of thinking that comes from having studied computer science.

Reading: read books to build vocabulary and to identify the patterns you have learned while studying grammar. When you’re starting read books from publishers that publish books intended for native speakers who have language/learning difficulties. i.e. read books that are simplified. Read interesting appropriate books. Read books with short chapters. Read books with a lot of dialog (read plays). Read books in translation that you have already read in your native language.

This is the first book all my students read — it’s in simplified language (Einfacher Sprache). ‘Ziemlich best Freunde’ Philippe Pozzo di Borgo Spaß am Lesen Verlag 2013 www.spassamlesenverlag.de

Before you read — prepare to read. Task switching is ineffective. Take a chapter. At a minimum identify all the verbs and nouns with a highlighter pen. Use mind maps and spaced repetition (flash cards) to master the vocabulary. Then read the chapter. Then move on to the next chapter. This gives you a sense of accomplishment. You are encouraged. You continue. Soon you’ve read your first book. How does it feel? Pretty good and it wasn’t boring, and your retention of the vocabulary is high.

Here’s the link to the mind maps and quizzes I developed for people reading ‘Ziemlich beste Freunde’, along with instructions.


Writing: write stories that are taken from your life (personal narrative). The first story will be ‘A day in your life’ (like a long diary entry).

Here’s a link to some of the stories written by students (uploaded by me…)


Speaking — Let’s face it — the objective of the whole thing is to speak the language and speak it well. The problem with ‘speaking’ is the range of language the learner is able to explore. Small talk is necessary but it soon becomes boring and it often does not lead anywhere interesting. Role playing situations is more interesting but it’s an awful lot of work to set something up that is by definition artificial.

Speaking/Storytelling — the ‘storytelling’ I’m advocating here has nothing to do with fiction. I’m speaking about you telling your own stories — stories from your life. This works, because first you have to write the story. You know your story, because it happened to you and therefore you are ‘invested’ in it. You care. All my students speak English already, so they write the story in English, I simplify it. They translate the simplification. I correct it.

The story then needs to be simplified because in the beginning you will always make it too complicated. You will include opinions, feelings, summaries and analysis. None of this is necessary. Instead, following the lead of non-violent communication, you only say what happened.

However, we don’t want anybody memorizing their story and saying that. That’s counter-productive. Instead the story is then again simplified transforming a written work into an oral version (i.e. the kind of language somebody might tell a story sitting in a pub or around the dinner table). From this work the correct nouns and verbs are extracted. Ideally the learner then lets go of the words and identifies a series of pictures, they can recall and see in their head. The task then becomes to simply describe what one sees in the pictures.

This is done once the grammar patterns have been sufficiently internalized and the learner has a fair grasp on the underlying patterns. They then fit the nouns and verbs into the patterns they have learned.

In a storytelling session, the speaker speaks uninterrupted up to the point they make an error the teacher feels serious enough to correct. The speaker then repeats the phrase, now corrected, and then continues with the narrative. The storytelling group is typically no larger than three students. The students who are not speaking have a written synopsis of the story in the target language. The speaker uses no notes.

When the speaker is finished telling their story, the other students and the teacher ask him/her questions about the story and in this way a natural conversation ensues.

Here I describe the storytelling module that runs in Berlin:


I moved to Berlin to follow my ‘inner storyteller’ (whatever that means). There’s a reason so few students make it to C1 — they’re bored to death by that time. We should be telling stories! If you run a language school and you want to retain students — I can teach you how to establish a storytelling program. That’s fun. Write to me.

Alternate levels of fluency

I want to introduce some counter measure of language levels. Imagine that instead of talking about levels of A-C as they are (kind of) currently understood, we instead used three levels of fluency. The only levels that count here are levels of fluency, with the difference being the domain of fluency.

  1. Fluency of fact
  2. Fluency of opinion, analysis and summary
  3. Fluency of imagination

Let us consider the first level. Fluency of fact.

Subjects and objects

The man gives the dog the bone

This sentence has a subject and two objects. Verbs that take two objects without the help of any prepositions are called ‘bi-transitive’ verbs. This is a good place to start. Exercises will introduce a broad selection of bi-transitive verbs that follow this pattern.


The old man gives the black dog the delicious bone.

Here adjectives that describe the nouns are introduced. While we have introduced bi-transitive verbs we have the perfect opportunity to explore adjectives. We do this because it is convenient and it makes sense in the context of what has already been introduced.

Languages with gender (i.e. those derived from Latin) requires the patterns/rules that indicate gender are introduced.

Pronouns — personal and possessive

The old man gives the black dog the delicious bone.

He gives the black dog the delicious bone.

He gives it to the black dog

He gives it to him (it)

The exercises will explore all personal pronouns (I/me, you, he/him, it, she/her, they/them, we/us).

The old man gives my black dog his delicious bone.

Verbs — conjugation

I give, you give, he gives, they give, we give… etc.

Verbs — past tense

The old man gave my black dog a delicious bone.

Prepositions of space

on, under, in, beside, between, behind, in front of, over, under

There’s a bone under the table

Prepositions of place

(e.g.) to, from

The dog goes to the corner and then comes back to the house.

Prepositions of time

(e.g.) before, after, in, for, since, ago

After the man sent the letter he waited for two days

Conjunctions — connecting clauses

After the man sent the letter he waited for two days and then he telephoned her.

After the man sent the letter he waited for two days because he wanted to give her time to read it.

In essence, where the learner understands how to use these components, he/she can describe what happened, who did it, to whom was it done, where it was done and when. The learner can also connect two clauses to say more complicated things.

The learner can then write their first ‘story’ which is a ‘Day in the Life’ or an extended personal diary entry.

Here you will find an example:


In this post, I’m only going to describe the first level of fluency — fluency of fact.

If you’re learning German and live in Berlin (probably not… but maybe) then you can study with us by going to languagegym.net.

If you’re learning German and live somewhere else, I hope you get some value out of what I’ve written so far. I’d like to develop a distance program but I’m not interested in 1:1. I’d like to get a video conference together though — so please write to me.

You might advertise for a non-native language teacher, because these people know really well what you’re going through, because they’ve been through it. (makes sense). Remember a native speaker has never had to ‘learn’ the language (not like you have to anyway).

Here I write on the benefits of a non-native speaking language teacher: https://medium.com/language-gym-berlin/the-benefit-of-a-non-native-speaking-language-teacher-59acc77acdbb

If you’re a language teacher of some other language apart from German, you can develop your own radical language program and ditch the silly text books. They’re only a crutch anyway. Write to me and I’ll help where I can.

If you want to support my work and are inspired by what I’ve written here — please post about it to your network or to your Expat group so more people can take control of their own language learning and not get so discouraged.

There is much more to say on all of these subjects. This post must be considered a work in progress. It is my intention to write a book — and so all comments are gratefully received. You can also write to me at peterjmerrick@gmail.com.