Pick Your Battles!

Disclaimer: please do not take my analogies too seriously.  A conversation is not a war; it is a partnership.

For every learner of a language, there are times when the quest to master a language seems like a war.  Every word, every piece of grammar a bitter battle, evenings spent studying the language as thoroughly as if studying an enemy for weaknesses.  The learner, in that case, is a warrior.  Come to think of it, is that such a bad analogy?  Like warriors, you have weapons: your dictionary, your textbook, your notepads.  You may have allies – your classmates, for example.  Perhaps you have a general, the skill of whom will, to a large extent, govern your outcome.  So, for the Warriors of Words, here is some advice from Sun Tzu, which I hope is correctly translated:

„He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight.“

The mistake that a lot of learners make is to attempt to speak in their learnt language in the same way as in their mother tongue.  This is only natural: after all, we want to appear as intelligent as we are, no matter which language we are speaking in.  I have seen students become totally fixated on remembering the perfect word, sacrificing the fluency of their conversation, as if the word were a weapon with which to ‚win‘ the conversation.  In truth, however, this is just one more word among many.  Even if you do eventually manage to remember it, there will be another word-shaped hole in three or four sentences.  Are you going to make your conversation partner wait while you remember that one, too?

What’s the solution, then?  Perhaps Sun Tzu can help.  To talk fluently, we should pick our topics as carefully as a general picks their battles.  In English, I am proficient in the science of music.  In German, I know that I could not hope to explain myself clearly; it would be useless for me to try.  There is no shame in this.  As I have said before, a gap in one’s knowledge, once identified, is nothing more than a compass, pointing me to where I should apply myself next.  The Warrior of Words should understand that words are nothing more than tools – often, one perfect word will do that job of many, but if I do not have that perfect word, I can still use the many.

Before my career is over, I will say this a million times, I am sure, but here it is again: Get it said.  Use your hands, your eyes, draw what you mean on a receipt left in your pocket from your last shopping trip.  Does it really matter how the other person understands you?  Of course not.  Only that they understand you.  When you learn to fight this way, your war will become many times easier.  Before too long, you will surprise yourself by speaking first one sentence, and then many sentences totally naturally, without thinking.  Thank you, Sun Tzu.

„The greatest victory is that which requires no battle.“

Disclaimer = Verzichterklärung
Come to think of it,… = Wenn ich es mir recht überlege, …
apply oneself = sich anstrengen

Lovely weather, isn’t it?

Today is another beautiful day in sunny Saarbrücken.  Although the chill of winter is still in the air, it’s clear that Spring is finally here.  With that in mind, I thought I would share with you all some British insights on the weather.

Of course, the weather is very important to us Brits, and, in my opinion, to the English most of all.  Where I come from, the vast majority of skies are overcast, to the extent that most people can distinguish between many kinds of grey sky.  The optimistic call of „It’s brightening up!“ is often followed, a few minutes later, by „Do the burgers under the grill, love.  It’s spitting again.“

I jokingly tell my students that the reason the English love to drink is because of the weather.  The skies are somewhat monotonous, making our very lives seem monotonous.  Not only that, but it rains so often that we have a score of classifications for rain based on its severity, ranging from ’spitting‘ to ‚bucketing‘, passing through ’smattering‘, ‚pouring‘ and ‚tipping it down‘ on the way.  „We drink to cope with this most depressing onslaught of water from above,“ I tell them, but this is only half true.

You may have heard of the British ’stiff upper lip‘, and it is exactly this phenomenon that I think our weather has gifted us with.  We remain a relentlessly chipper people, a people who race outside on the first day the sun makes an appearance, who return to the window one hundred times on a wet day in June, just to check that it is, in fact, still raining.  We are the people who visit windswept, barren beaches, swim in freezing water, and stretch the definition of ’sunbathing‘ to its limit.  If you are looking for a person who stubbornly refuses to acknowledge that it is rather too cold to be going around without a shirt on, come to England in late Summer.

No matter how bad it gets, a true Brit will always be looking for the gap in the clouds.

It’s brightening up!

Bonus activity: find all the words in this piece that describe the weather.  Categorise them according to the kind of weather they describe, and then add ten of your own.

Start Close

Would you like to test your vocabulary, fluency, and grammar at the same time?  Then present yourself!

Start with yourself – your name, age, hobbies, job

Then take one step outside yourself – your family, your home town/country, your pets, your neighbourhood

Then take another step – Your friends, their jobs, their families, their jobs, etc.

You may find that the subjects that are further from yourself are more difficult to talk about.  Remember to start small.  You can talk about your responsibilities at work, but perhaps it is too difficult right now to talk about your friends‘ responsibilities – don’t worry!  Research, study, and learn.

When you are an advanced speaker, you will be able to talk about things which are globally-reaching: environmental issues, world politics, and so on.  For now, however, focus on the personal, and take baby steps.

Good luck, and let me know how you get on.


Problems Communicating?

Recently, a student and I were doing a review session.  We began with vocabulary, then looked at some grammar.  Everything was going great, and we were both pleased with the amount of information the student had retained.  Eventually, we decided to try a few role plays – and that is when the problems started.

It seemed like there was a mental block preventing the student from thinking clearly.  The rehearsed phrases and vocabulary came out garbled and nonsensical.  At times it was as if the student couldn’t even remember what their role was or why they were talking.  We paused and began to talk about why this might be, and the answers were, I believe, quite interesting.

For a start, why do we communicate?  It is because we want something; we have a goal.  Let us assume you are disappointed with a product or service, and that you call the company to complain.  Your goal is to voice your displeasure, to communicate your message of discontent to the employee you call.  And on the other side?  The customer service employee, theoretically, has the goal of making turning disgruntled customers into satisfied ones.  This might involve secondary goals like identifying the nature of the problem and the actions which the customer might consider a satisfactory conclusion.

‚And what about small talk?‘ I hear you ask.  The goals here are not so clear, and that is why many people find small talk to be challenging.  With no goal to focus on, many learners tend to panic and proceed to say nothing at all.  I therefore suggest making small-talk goals for yourself.  They might include:

– Find out three new things about the person

– Learn about the person’s hobby/work/home town

– Ask as many questions as possible about the person’s meal in a restaurant

With a concrete goal in mind, you may find it easier to achieve that most difficult of things, a ‚chat‘ in another language.  Remember, it matters less what you say, it matters less how you say it, what matters is that your basic message is understood, that your communication objective is fulfilled.

Get it done, it doesn’t matter how.