In this post I’m going to reveal to you the biggest lie German teachers and learners tell each other every day. But first I want to tell you a story about when I started learning German.
I had been learning for just a few months, when one day I thought to myself, “I wonder how to say ‘to practise’ in German.” I went to dict.cc, typed in “practise”, and found the verb.
I was even careful to make sure how to use it properly. In English it says “to practise sth.” and in German “etw. betreiben” – perfect, I thought. That matches up with the English word I wanted. I practise something – I practise piano. Great!
I started practising it right away: I made some sentences.
I need to practise German. Ich muss Deutsch betreiben. I’m going to practise piano tomorrow. Ich werde morgen Klavier betreiben.
I used this verb for just a week or so. I don’t remember what happened next. Either somebody corrected me or I realised the error myself. I found out that the correct way to translate the verb “practise” in this context, was:
“Ok, no big deal,” I thought. “I’ll just start using üben from now on instead!”
I need to practise German. Ich muss Deutsch üben. I’m going to practise piano tomorrow. Ich werde morgen Klavier üben.
My Error Dawns on Me
A few weeks later, I started to notice something weird happening. I noticed that whenever I wanted to say “practise”, a voice in my head said betreiben.
I knew it was wrong, but the voice wouldn’t stop. Every time I wanted to say practise, the little voice in my head said betreiben.
This went on for………………… ten years.
No, I’m not kidding. I still occasionally heard this echo in my brain ten years later. Of course, I knew that I should say üben instead, and I didn’t make the mistake anymore, but my brain just couldn’t let go of it.
The voice couldn’t help it! It just wanted to help me.
The voice is also pretty stupid. All it does is repeat back whatever you tell it repeatedly.
If you keep telling it that blue in German is blau, the next time you want to say blue, it will say, “Hey I know this one! Blau blau blau blau!!”
This is fine, of course. It’s helpful. The word we need is there automatically. All you have to do is think of the word you want and the little voice finds it in the library and boom, it’s there!
Unfortunately, if you feed the voice garbage, it will give you garbage back. The voice likes to get dirty. Your job is to keep it clean.
Anything sounds right if you repeat it enough
I noticed that if you repeat things, they start to sound right. This is good and bad.
It’s good because in order to learn languages you need to develop the voice in your head, and you need to develop a feeling for what is correct.
It’s bad because it means that if you keep hearing / reading / saying things that are wrong, they will start to sound right. Pretty soon you won’t know what’s right and what’s wrong.
This led me to come up with the term “learning hygiene” to describe this concept.
I wanted to avoid this happening again, so I became very particular about what German I came into contact with. I only read things written by native speakers, only listened to podcasts and videos by native speakers, and I only said things that I knew were right.
If I heard a native speaker say something, I marked it as “safe” in my head. This construction is decontaminated and safe for human consumption!
And it paid off. German speakers often tell me that I don’t make mistakes when I speak German. They just don’t know the trick I am using – only saying things I know are right. I was able to do this because I maintained learning hygiene.
The Biggest Lie about Learning German
Which brings me to the biggest lie teachers and students tell each other all the time.
“Mistakes are part of the learning process! We learn from our mistakes!”
Bleurrrghhh!!!! I need to take a shower just thinking about it.
I think we can agree on one thing – mistakes are bad. Given the choice of speaking perfectly without making any mistakes, or speaking with mistakes, everybody would prefer to not make mistakes.
Mistakes are not part of the learning process! The learning process is hearing and reading sentences produced by native speakers, and imitating them. If there are mistakes, then you’re making a mistake yourself.
Of course I know mistakes are inevitable, and I know this is a bit extreme, but it is a principle I try to adhere to.
Learning from Mistakes
People say we learn from our mistakes. This is only partially accurate. Mistakes can help us improve, but only if they are identified and destroyed immediately.
The reality is, most native speakers don’t correct people’s mistakes. They think it’s rude, or they don’t want to interrupt the flow of the conversation.
Communication is the most important thing, and giving constant corrections interferes with the flow of the conversation. Sometimes they will correct the biggest mistakes, but generally they won’t say anything as long as they understand what you’re trying to say.
There is very little “learning from mistakes” occuring. It’s just reinforcing mistakes, and occasionally correcting one.
What’s more, pointing out a mistake isn’t sufficient to correct it. A friend of mine from Poland always used to say things like, “I’m not sure what is the problem.” I told him it should be “what the problem is” and he thanked me. He then made the same mistake again 10 seconds later.
Once you’ve learnt a mistake and it has become part of your language, it’s extremely difficult to unlearn.
Instead of unlearning incorrect sentences, why not just learn correct ones in the first place?
Don’t Invent Your Own Language
This ties in closely with the popular activity of “practising speaking”.
Speaking is the most obvious manifestation of knowing a language well, and it’s the skill that most people want. Usually when we want to get better at something, we practise it. Practice makes perfect, after all. Therefore, in order to get better at speaking, we need to practise speaking, right?
But only perfect practice makes perfect!
Most of the time when people think they are practising speaking, they are in fact inventing their own language and practising that. Teachers often make their students practise discussing topics that are well above their level. They scratch around trying to find words and constructions from their impoverished vocabulary store and try their best to get their message across.
The little voice hears all those things and it starts to think they’re correct. They will start to sound right, and they will pop into your head next time. If you say something once, you will be more likely to say it again.
As I said before: This is good because it allows you to absorb correct language, but bad because it also allows you to reabsorb your own invented version of the language – which has a high chance of being garbage. If you make something up, it will probably be wrong.
Another popular activity is doing a backwards language tandem with someone who is native in your target language and learning your native language.
A backwards language tandem is when learners speak the language they are learning to a native speaker, and the native speaker answers in your native language.
Say I want to learn German and my partner, a German, wants to learn English. I speak German and they speak English. What an absolute nightmare! How are you supposed to learn from your own voice?
If you have a native speaker in front of you, you should get them to speak and then imitate them!
Doing a backwards tandem is like watching a German series on Netflix with the audio and subtitles set to English. How is that gonna help you??
Alternatively, speak German for 30 minutes and then English for 30 minutes, focusing on identifying and destroying each other’s mistakes.
How to Never Make a Single Mistake Ever Again
I am going to tell you some tricks for never making mistakes. I must warn you that they are quite extreme. If you’re someone who doesn’t care about making mistakes, then you can skip them.
Only say things you know are correct
Pay attention to what native speakers say and write. If you hear someone use a specific construction or you learn that a word has a specific gender or a specific plural, make a mental note of it and mark it as “safe”. When speaking or writing, only make very small changes to sentences you have heard before.
For example, if you hear someone say “ich habe ein Foto gemacht“, then you know that Foto goes with machen, and you can say, “er hat gestern ein Foto gemacht.” If you want to say “I took a photo” but you’ve never heard that construction before, don’t try to guess. You’ll probably guess something like “ich habe ein Foto genommen“, which is wrong. Make a note of it and find out the correct way to say it.
If you aren’t sure whether something is correct, don’t say it.
“Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and to remove all doubt.”
If you can’t say what you want to say correctly, say something else. If you don’t know how to say that you took a photo, say that the weather is nice instead. Talk about what you want to do later. Ask a question.
I am fully aware that this is extreme and not for everyone. Sometimes you just want to communicate. But there is a simple solution – you ask your conversation partner (assuming they are a native speaker, which they should be) how to say the thing you want to say, and then say it.
This kind of approach requires constant diligence and self-awareness of what comes out of your mouth. But that is the price of speaking perfectly.
Make a note of things you want to be able to say
If you find something you don’t know how to say, make a note of it and find out how to say it correctly. Imitate real German – don’t invent your own version of it.
A Plea to Teachers
If you’re a teacher who makes their students speak above their level, and an advocate of “learning from mistakes”, then I urge you to reconsider, and put this lie to bed for good.
Stop inventing and start imitating.
Mistakes are bad.
Anyone who still thinks mistakes are good is welcome to contact me.