Young Parent’s Guide to Language Learning. Take One

Baby age: 0–5 months.

For as long as I can remember myself, I enjoyed learning languages. I learned English as a kid—after passing the beginner level, mostly on my own, devoting a couple of hours a day to it, every day, no nudging on the side of my parents. In the university came Greek (which, sadly, is now almost forgotten); then I tried Spanish — without much success, but enough to get by as a tourist; and then I spent two years learning French. German was sort of my one night stand, when I made a humble attempt at it at the age of maybe 13. I ended up not learning it.

Until now. Thanks to the circumstances, I found myself in Berlin, at a time when it’s quite hard for me to take up any formal course. With a baby on me 24/7, no nannies or relatives to stay with her, I can’t commit to a strict schedule of a proper course, with classes several times a week. Even Skype lessons wouldn’t work since I can’t guarantee that she’ll be sound asleep in that particular hour. This is bad news.

The good news is that I’m surrounded by native speakers.

To learn a language, you need to start speaking

Every day there are numerous opportunities and challenges everywhere I go. This is great for me, because starting to speak has been a problem for me. Mentally, I have to be sure that I know a language before I use it. Of course, it’s a very wrong approach. My French teacher was surprised the first couple of months when I was way better at writing and listening than at speaking. Here in Berlin, I am forced to use the language, even if I can only say a few separate words, without the ability to form a proper sentence. Or to work around the words I don’t know. Or to admit that I don’t understand—without feeling bad about myself. At first, you’re scared to make a mistake. After a few times, shyness disappears. This is what you have: you’ll make mistakes. Be prepared for it. Don’t let it stop you.

Practice makes (if not perfect) okay

Practice the hell out of yourself. Use whatever opportunity you have. In Berlin, you can often do without German, or at least never get past basic survival phrases. Most of the people speak English. If your German is sufficient for buying a cup of coffee in a Backerei, but you don’t understand when asked, buying beans, if you actually want beans or ‘gemahlenen Kaffee’ (ground coffee), there’s someone to help you out and translate for you. Most people, sensing a foreigner will switch to English, and if you’re shy or insecure with your German, there’s a great temptation to only speak English. Fight it! Start speaking whatever German you know, and switch to English only when you’re stuck.

Baby draws attention

You get even more opportunities when walking around with a baby. “Sie ist so süß!” was one of the first phrases I learned in Berlin. Süß soon became her second name. So you don’t even have to do much about it, just listen to the strangers coo at your little one.

Pick up your phone

All my “formal” language learning is on my phone. I have Duolingo and Memrise, and the truth is, I feel this is the backbone of my language acquisition right now. Baby in one hand, phone in another is my basic setup. Of course, these are not enough, but at least I get some progress every day. And honestly, it’s much better to practice a little bit daily, sometimes several times a day, than to hope for an hour-long language learning session, that really might not happen anytime soon.

I started with Duolingo before moving to Berlin, and I have a 100+ days strike right now. With Memrise, I’ve been on and off, until I got into a habit of it, too. Unfortunately, I missed a day recently, so I only crossed double digits in my strike. Strikes don’t matter, learning does. But the gamification of learning works wonders.

Podcasts are your friends

I started listening to lessons and news during long walks with the stroller. You get much free time (see note on free time), and you can fill it with language lessons. A lot of the times, the organized part of me wants to stop and make a meticulous list of vocabulary I’m learning. No need, just listen several times to the same episode. The same goes with my language apps. Repetition and review sessions make writing down words unnecessary (although motoric memory is helpful, I consider it a bonus, not the necessity).

Listen beyond your comfort level

Now, this was a big question mark for me. After all, the flow of speech I don’t understand gets lost in the background of my thoughts that start to emerge almost immediately. The first couple of minutes, I try to listen for the words I know, but after all get lost in thought. Anyway, I still think it’s an important exercise: to get used to the language. You might think that you’d pick up a lot of phrases from the street, but the truth is you’re not actively participating in many conversations, and you don’t normally eavesdrop on people.

Look for other opportunities

I learned that there are language learning groups for parents with little kids. I’m planning to join one to see how it goes. I’ve always been best when learning one on one with a tutor, groups seem to be too slow for me. But I think that once a week will anyway be only an add-on to my path to speaking German. And having a group to practice is great as well.

This is probably not the last post on the topic of language learning. I’m starting with the basics, and hope to make more progress. I always have to remind myself, though, that language learning is a long-term game. When I’m thinking that my learning is too slow, I stop and breathe and go on.