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To German Grammar or not to German Grammar?

To German grammar or not to German grammar? I have been constantly asking myself this question since I amped up my Deutsch lernen this summer. The grammar question always seems to come up in language learning circles. Even though I always stress Spanish grammar in my classes, I do believe that my students don’t need to possess excellent grammar to be understood in Spanish. Sure, they need to understand it to perform well on tests, but if their goal is to simply speak Spanish, then it can be done without mastering the grammar. On the other hand, if someone wants to achieve perfection, then grammar is essential.

Seeing as my main goal in learning German is to pass a reading exam, I’m not worrying too much about grammar. Thus far, I haven’t found the majority of German grammar to be too difficult, but there are a few things that I simply don’t have the time, energy, or desire to master – the different cases and their corresponding endings and prepositions (!!!). Oh, and I tend to guess on noun gender (oops!). At first I tried to understand the cases, but after puttering along I quickly realized that if my ultimate goal is to pass a reading exam in German then it isn’t necessary to be able to produce them to perfection. All I need to do is understand what is being said or on the page and, thus far (fingers crossed), this hasn’t been an issue. For example if I see “ein, eine, eines, or einen,” I know it is some form of “ein” and means a or an in English.

Furthermore, if I want to order an apple strudel or a beer in Salzburg or Munich, I don’t need to know the accusative case. I will be understood regardless of my grammar. I know this might sound lazy and make me come across as a poor speaker, but that does not bother me. As long as I am eating that apple strudel and drinking beer form a stein then I will be satisfied.

Nevertheless, I like grammar far too much to completely disregard it. I hope to someday come back and relearn everything in its entirety. While I don’t need to know every single aspect of German grammar to pass a reading exam, I still am far too interested in it to never truly learn it. As long as I maintain my level while I finish my PhD, there will be “more time” later. Grammar is important. There is no denying this. The more grammar you possess, the more proficient and more fluent you become. It is too much of a disservice to myself to know tons of German without being sound grammatically and not sounding uneducated when I order that beer and apple strudel.

For now, I’m learning as little German grammar as I need to in order to read. I look over the explanations of grammar and practice using it in exercises, but after that I move on to the next thing. Building vocabulary and understanding verbs is more important at this point. Therefore, I am focusing on vocabulary and verb conjugations while constantly upping my reading level and length. It is working so far and that makes me happy. I’m probably never going to write an academic paper or even a blog post in German so I’m choosing not to worry about the little things at this point. I’ll just wing it for now and that’s ok.

Reading in French

My Spanish students always hate reading assignments and reading comprehension sections on quizzes and exams. This is understandable to an extent. It can be a bit overwhelming at first when you see a paragraph or more in Spanish or any other language you are learning. Regardless if reading in your target language is difficult for you or not, it is quite rewarding and essential if you truly want to progress and advance to a higher level of language proficiency. That’s why we assign readings and that’s precisely why reading has been one of my primary focuses in relearning French.

It’s a bit more complicated for me. At the peak of my French ability, I was able to read French literature (for the most part). I took several undergraduate literature courses in French and I held my own with student’s who had been studying the language for far longer. Therefore, I unquestionably have more reading comprehension capability than a student starting from zero at the “same” level for example. Still, I can’t read at the same speed as I could 5 years ago; my vocabulary bank is smaller and, while I usually recognize verbs, I sometimes forget which of the more complicated tenses is being used. This creates a challenge on more challenging texts, but I’m positive that I can achieve a high level if I stay consistent in my studies and gradually increase the level and length of my readings.

As I’ve said in a previous post, I’ve been using Easy French Reader as a stepping stone. I bought this book years ago when I was still a true beginner student and I always fall back on it when I feel like I am forgetting the language. It is a three-part text that includes readings that gradually advance in level and content. The last part of the book contains actual French short stories. It can be a bit elementary in content at times, but that is something I have seen across a wide variety of texts in several languages. I try to read between one and two chapters a day and always out loud (unless my wife is home). I find that speaking while reading kills two birds with one stone. If you’re learning a language then it is imperative to speak! You wouldn’t believe the amount of my students who tell me they study in silence for an oral exam/interview. It makes no sense to me. You have to train your tongue and mouth to speak a foreign language. The more you speak the better you will be. Bottom line.

I’m also using No Nonsense Knowledge’s French Made Simple. This is an excellent book for those with some previous French knowledge, but need a refresher course. The book is set up into 40 5-6 page chapters with periodical review sections. Each chapter includes a dialogue and a reading and then there are tons of practice exercises that reuse the vocabulary and verbs while focusing on the chapter’s theme. The readings in this book have been very beneficial thus far as they reinforce lots of elementary level vocabulary and sentence structures while steadily advancing in length and difficulty. As I do with my other reading material, I read everything 1-2 times out loud or until I can comfortably say it.

These two books are great for an elementary/beginner level and should hold me over until the summer, but, ultimately, my goal is to be able to comfortably read at an advanced French level. I am going to test this based on one of my bucket list entries – Read the Harry Potter Series in French. I think I will realistically be able to start this by the fall. In 2009 I read through the series in Spanish and found it to be very beneficial. I already had a master’s degree in Hispanic Studies, but I learned tons of vocabulary from the books. I think I will take the same approach this time around. As I read through the books, I wrote down every word or phrase that I didn’t know and, after I had about 10 or so, I would make mini-flash cards or import the words into an Anki app on my phone (basically flashcards with an algorithm that greatly increases learning efficiency). By the time I was halfway through the second book, I more or less knew everything that I was reading. Naturally, my reading speed progressed as well. Also, by reading something I was extremely familiar with, I didn’t have to worry about understanding the content and I also didn’t feel rushed to finish the books (For instance, I would lock myself in my house until I finished each new release and this time I was a little more social). I am hoping that reading the series in French will offer a similar experience and truly amp up my reading proficiency. By the end of the series, I should be able to comfortably tackle more advanced pieces if I should ever want to do so. This idea can be applied to any children’s/young adult literature: Hunger Games, Roald Dahl, Twilight, etc.

Reading shouldn’t be overlooked. Many language students just want to be conversational in the target language, but reading offers tons of benefits. Paired with some grammar, listening activities, and conversations/speaking practice, reading is an essential part of the process. It also just happens to be one of the most rewarding. Every once in a while I will finish a novel in Spanish and think “wow, I just read a book in Spanish.” I couldn’t have dreamt of doing such a thing ten years ago. This makes it an incredibly rewarding and satisfying experience and worth the struggles and doubts.

Falling in love with French…again

For a while now I’ve loved French, but not been in love with it. I’ve not been a good lover these last few years.

While at Loyola I was forced to take four semesters of a second language due to being a Spanish major. I reluctantly chose to study French; I was going to get in and get out as quickly as possible. Thanks to Loyola’s inventive post-K scheduling, I was able to take both semesters of Elementary French in two 8 week sessions during the 2006 Spring I semester. Needless to say, it was intense and I loved it! I’m not sure how it happened though, but it did. I quickly grew to become a fully-fledged Francophile. I ended up dragging out my French education into a few classes short of a minor. I loved it and I was good! I actually could speak French pretty fluently. In fact, I probably spoke French better than I did Spanish. During my last semester of college, I went to Paris and had several lengthy conversations in French which was a surreal experience. I spoke effortless French when only 3 years prior I knew absolutely nothing in the language.

Around that time, I went digging through some old projects from elementary school and came across a book about myself – “All About Me” or something else of that nature – and was surprised and amazed to see that my 10 year old self had 5 goals for his life, a sort of bucket list. Looking back, that list is uncanny: “Speak French, Go to Paris, Get a doctorate, Become a professor, and Visit Sydney.” I still am taken back by my 10 year old self’s ability to predict the future when he probably had no earthly idea what getting a doctorate entailed nor did he know anyone who spoke a single word of French (Side note: my parents had been to Paris several times and I devoured their pictures and tourist books. I could see myself waltzing in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles and eating snails at a chic little bistro on the Champs d’Élysée – I was a weird little boy. And I am fairly certain that the first pair of naked lady breasts I saw was in the program from the Lido – Showgirls!).

Well, that 10 year old boy would be ashamed of his 27 year old version. Sure, I’m still working towards that goal of a PhD and Tenure-Track Professorship. I’ve been to Paris 3 times and just visited Sydney on my honeymoon. But here is the embarrassing part – I’ve fallen into the trap of a former language learner in my post-undergraduate years. Distant from the comfy confines of a college classroom, I stopped progressing and started losing my French. Now, thankfully I put in a lot of hard work to learn the language so it has not left me that quickly. When I went to Nice with my friend Karlee, I was able to converse in French with the security guard telling us we could not sleep on the airport floor. I was also able to order croissants with no problem. Hooray!

But since then, I have really let myself down. To be honest, I’m not that out of the loop. I understood Serena Williams’ French Open victory speech in French. Ten points for Ravenclaw! But in no way should Serena be out Frenching me!

However, I must thank my dear Serena for providing that pivotal spark to get me back in the swing of things and make Sallie Mae proud! The last few weeks I have been devoting between 30 minutes to an hour each day to relearn this language. La langue plus belle du monde! That one! It is remarkable the progress I have made in just 2 weeks. I found a great not-a-textbook textbook at Half-Price Books (I was anniversary shopping and bought myself 3 books and the wife 0 books – Fail!) called “French Made Simple.” It is terrific and I highly recommend it to anyone learning a major language (They have Spanish, German, and English versions). I do all of the lessons out loud and write everything out as well so I am able to get optimal practice. I’ve paired this with a great reading book – “Easy French Reader.” As with my other book, I read everything out loud and repeat anything that doesn’t come out fluently. Lastly, I have found some great Podcasts on iTunes- Learn French with Daily Podcast and Learn French by Podcast. I try to listen to one Podcast a day so that I can increase my listening comprehension for my next trip to France or Canada (eh!). And lastly, I still use Benny the Polyglot as inspiration and for his unique “language hacks”  (

In the end, I’ve been amazed at the amount of French I have been able to relearn in such a short period of time. It’s been an exciting experience in the nerdiest of ways and has stirred up many memories of my travels and French classes I took at Loyola with Madame Kornovich and Madame Mabe. It really gives me hope for the future knowing that I can do it and that if I play my cards right then I can even achieve a higher level of French communication. Honestly, I just want to read the Harry Potter series in French which is on my adult bucket list!

Hamming it up in Villefranche-sur-Mer, France in 2009

Hamming it up in Villefranche-sur-Mer, France in 2009