Days of Deutsch: Learning a Language through Labeling

Posted on 28. Jan, 2015 by in Language Learning

They say that when you learn a new language you should label your day to day objects, stick a post-it on the fridge, on the oven, on your shelves. Then every time you’re in the kitchen you’ll start to memorise everything around you. My labelling obsession has gone into overdrive. Not satisfied with post-it notes all over my kitchen, I’ve started documenting and labeling the everyday occurrences I come across in Berlin.


My scraps of paper.


Eight months ago I packed up my suitcases and shifted all my stuff from New Zealand to Berlin. I learnt German intensively for a couple of months but was frustrated by my German book which seemed to be stuck in the 90’s – anyone want to know what a video cassette recorder is in German? – and thought there must be something more relevant to me. Unfortunately I no longer have time to attend German classes every day and in Berlin it is so easy to slip into talking English that you have to make a real effort to keep learning. By starting Days of Deutsch I could learn vocabulary that was relevant to my life in Berlin and, by putting it out into the public via social media, I was forcing myself to keep on learning something new every day.

Fast forward 4 months and I’ve learnt 185 words and met a lot of great people along the way.

When I first started out I would see something interesting when I was out and about and I would find the nearest piece of paper to hand, including badly cut pieces of train tickets. Spending time in Germany has made me more efficient and now each time I leave the house I have a load of blank grid paper pieces and a couple of pens just in case I see something exciting. Now my flat is covered in little bits of paper and every time I dip my hand into my jacket pockets I pull out a whole load more. I have yet to learn the efficiencies of throwing things away.

The tools of my trade - coloured pens!

The tools of my trade – coloured pens!

Deciding what to post each day has made me more aware of my surroundings as well as more aware of what’s going on in Berlin. I wanted to put Berlin front and centre in my images, be it pictures of the city, the weather or events specific to Berlin. There are a lot of expats and immigrants here, like myself, who struggle to learn German and I wanted this to be relevant to them and their surroundings too. As it has turned out I’ve now got followers from around the world so they get to see a bit of day to day living in the city too. Other images, like my first soft toy or my Christmas traditions are quite personal to me so there’s a bit of a diary aspect to the images too.

If you want to find words for everyday objects around you then here are a few tips I use for my labels:

  1. Check a dictionary translating from your native tongue to the other language e.g. English to German.
  2. Check another dictionary but reverse it from the German to English. See if the translation is the same.
  3. Look up the word in Google images, do the results look like your object? My biggest mistake was to label up the iconic pipes in Berlin (das Rohr) as smoking pipes (die Pfeife) as the differentiation wasn’t clear in the dictionary and Pfeife just sounded right. Fingers crossed, I’ve learnt from my mistakes!
  4. Still in doubt? Ask a native speaking friend. I’m ever grateful to my German speaking friends, Katja, Dave, Ben and my mother who help me work my way through the subtle differences between words and meanings.

    Das Rohr (not die Pfeife)

    Das Rohr (not die Pfeife)

There are a great many ways to learn a language beyond the classroom such as blogs, Instagram, Twitter and Tumblr accounts and even creating a Pinterest board and following similar boards. Nothing beats being taught the basics by a teacher but social media is good for building your vocabulary and your confidence. See you in the social media stratosphere.

Polly Davidson is a freelance social media strategist. A Londoner getting to grips with Berlin after a long sojourn in New Zealand. Days of Deutsch is her way of learning German words, both useful and utterly useless ones. You can find her on Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr and Facebook.

Remember Better with Toons and Tunes

Posted on 26. Jan, 2015 by in Language Learning, Reference/Usage Tips

Itchy Feet Asian Languages Comic by Malachi Ray Rempen

The comic above was a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. When I drew it, I thought I’d just get a laugh out of imagining what different Asian scripts might look like. Since then, though, it’s actually helped me out quite a bit identifying which written language I’m looking at. For instance, thanks to this comic, I can now look at a photo of any random Asian city street and have a good chance of guessing which country it’s in just from the writing on the storefronts and street ads. What started as a silly joke actually became a useful reference tool.

In college I took a German class to fulfill my language credit. I’d no idea I was going to move to Germany, nor had I any desire to learn it fluently. That was almost seven years ago, and I remember nothing that the professor taught me except for two incredibly annoying songs to help us remember prepositions and cases. Aus, außer, bei, mit, nach, seit, von, zu are the dative ones, and durch, für, gegen, ohne, um are the accusative ones. Believe it or not, I didn’t even have to look that up, because she made us sing the former to the melody of “the Blue Danube” by Johann Strauss, and the latter to that military “I don’t know but I’ve been told…” cadence call (“durch für gegen ohne um, Deutsch zu lernen ist nicht dumm!”, or in English, “through for against without around, learning German isn’t stupid!” . . . it rhymes in German).

I remember these things because annoying, funny, or stupid tricks actually embed themselves deeper into your brain than just rote memorization. You may have noticed that some airline safety videos are getting funnier these days – it’s been proven that humor helps you remember information better, and songs as well. The Germans took this idea to its wicked, German extreme in this absolutely insane forklift safety video (not for the faint of heart. You’ve been warned!).

What about you? What silly songs or rhymes or games have you learned to remember otherwise boring grammar tables or vocabulary?

Transforming the Economics of Language Learning (Part 1)

Posted on 21. Jan, 2015 by in Language Learning, Trends

Learning another language for professional purposes takes too long and costs too much.

For many recreational learners, the economics, logistics and reliability of acquiring another language are not all that important. For them, the joy is in the journey, and concepts such as time to proficiency, reliability of outcome, or the availability of personnel for operations are not front of mind.

government language training

Image By ganatlguard on

It’s different when individuals or organizations need better language capability to address military, diplomatic, commercial, medical or similar professional requirements. Suddenly the economics are critical. The more disruptive and costly something is, the less it can be used. Imagine that someone is removed from their normal job and sent to a schoolhouse somewhere for language training. Add up expenses for travel, facility, teachers and administrators, student food and lodging. Add to that the estimated dollar value of the disruption to operations because that person is now unavailable to do his or her job.

A two-week training course, typical for many professional skills, is expensive enough, but developing language proficiency takes much, much longer. Beyond the beginner levels, even two more months of training moves the needle only slightly.

America’s success in defense, commerce, security and diplomacy is not optional, and it is widely recognized that to succeed the US needs much better language skills. Unfortunately however, the US is infamously not very language-capable–it’s hard to hire the needed language skills–and budgets are tight.

The only practical solution is to train languages much faster, more compellingly, and more reliably. As Dr. Richard Brecht, founder of our national research lab for language put it, “Train in half the time.” And train with certainty. Don’t let skills fall off after training. At Transparent Language, we’ve made that our mission. We serve many types of customers, including libraries, schools, and corporations, and we love anyone who loves language learning or teaching. But our primary mission is supporting “language transformation” in the most stringent and rigorous language training schools and programs in the US Government.

Smart people have been teaching and learning languages for centuries, so is there any hope that all of a sudden we will be able to “train in half the time,” more reliably, more visibly, more enjoyably, and with less fall-off after training? Surprisingly, the answer is “unequivocally, yes.” Emerging technology makes it possible. Finding one’s way around was revolutionized almost overnight by GPS and mobile devices, and that same degree of change is now available to language learning and teaching, including for less-common languages and for language for specialized professional purposes.

Technology is not the total solution; it’s just the new ingredient in the mix. It’s true you can get better at a language without any technology, or with only technology, but we have found that the best answer by far is blending human instruction or coaching with emerging technology, using each for what each does best. Technology can:

  • execute some aspects of instruction faster and more reliably than human instructors
  • beneficially shift the time or place that work is done
  • drive user engagement with progress and game dynamics
  • bring dispersed people together
  • seamlessly incorporate current, culturally rich authentic materials
  • make under-utilized “stovepiped” content archives more useful and accessible
  • make user time on task and progress significantly more visible and reportable to administrators

And–important for our customers and purposes–this is true not only for general proficiency in the most common languages, but for every different course of instruction, specialized domains, and for less-common and under-supported languages.