Lernen, Studieren and German as a Foreign Language

I consider myself rather lucky. I’m an American, I speak English which is the international business language, and I moved to a country that has a relatively strong English-speaking background. The part of Germany that I live in, Bavaria, was (still kind of is) occupied by the Americans after the war. This means that along with the German requirement that students learn English in school because it’s the ‘international language’, the people of this region got to practice it because of the troops that were stationed in the area.

So I understand that just about everyone my age (I’m 29) around here knows at least a decent amount of English words, even if they are scared to use them.

I’m an English teacher here. And let’s be obvious, that’s pretty much the ONLY thing I can do as a Beruf until my German is pretty flawless, which it is not. I’m a high level 2, an intermediate, but as I said in an earlier post, I didn’t learn Yoga or Graphic Design German in my integration course.

My students, though, have had a lot more time to learn English than I have had to learn German. I go a little easier on the ones that are older than me because they may not have had to learn as much English in school, or it is all lost on them because it was long ago, but I still expect them to work if they’re going to be in my class.

I have it a little easier than my students, I’ll admit. All I have to do is walk outside and I get to practice my German. I turn on the TV and it’s an opportunity to practice German. For them, it’s not so easy. They have kids, full-time jobs and maybe they don’t have the amount to TV channels that I have at my house and therefore don’t get the BBC or CNN stations, whatever. People on the street aren’t speaking English unless they’re tourists, and I don’t expect my students to just walk up to strangers and start talking; most of them are far too shy for that.

But when a student comes into my class and presents me with the homework, and it is obvious that they used an online translator, I’ve got issues. Take, for example, the words from the title. Lernen literally means ‘to learn’, while studieren means ‘to study’. In the German language, I understand that one can say ‘Zuhause lerne ich Deutsch‘, and that means that one studies, reviews OR learns German at home.

These two words constantly come up between me and my students, for many reasons. In English, I wouldn’t say that I’m ‘learning English at home‘ unless I was doing it all on my own and not attending a class once a week. I have to constantly correct my students, who want to say ‘I learned English over the weekend‘, because technically, unless they learned new words, this is false. They usually mean to say that they did their homework and studied a bit. That’s not really learning, to me, that’s reviewing what they’ve already learned in class. I remind them often that you generally only learn something once, and the rest is just studying. This is where the word studieren comes into play. But the fact is that studieren has a deeper meaning in German, so effectively this entire issue is lost to translation.

My students often discuss with me their difficulties learning English, since they don’t ‘have it easy’ like I do. And they are right. My response is that you have to want to learn a language, in order to learn it. If one only goes to an English class for 90 minutes once a week and rarely bothers to do the homework, then they are not going to learn English fast enough to be happy. In fact, they may not even retain anything. This is especially true when instead of thinking while doing their homework, they expect a translator to do the thinking for them. If, however, they take an interest in learning outside of the classroom, there are many ways in which to learn or at least practice the language.

A great thing about Germany (for me, personally) is its television. Most of the prime-time shows are actually American sitcoms or dramas. Over here, I get to keep up with SVU, Law and Order, the Big Bang Theory, How I Met Your Mother, CSI, NCIS, Glee, the Tudors, Futurama, Family Guy, you get it… and those are just the shows that I enjoy watching! Let’s not forget half of the MTv lineup and all of the movies. Germany doesn’t have a movie industry to compete with Hollywood, but they have (as I mentioned in yet another post) a booming voice-over industry.

When I ask my students what their favorite movies or TV shows are, they immediately name something that came from America. Do you own it on DVD? There is always a resounding ‘of course!’.

I think you can see where this is going… even if I sit at home on my couch all day blogging and talk to no one, I get to practice German. Why? because I turn on my television and watch (or listen to) a show I’ve already seen, but in German. Part of my illness is something called a ‘relapse’. And I’ve had some that knocked me out so badly, that all I could do was lay on the couch for two weeks watching SVU rerun marathons on the weekdays. I have seen EVERY episode. So when I watch SVU over here, I don’t have to strain myself to understand what’s happening. I already know. This allows me to focus on the words, on what they are actually saying, rather than the deeper meaning.

I relate this to my students.

They look at me like I’ve got two heads.

Every one of their DVDs of an American movie or TV show at home is guaranteed to have an ‘original language’ (English) setting. You love How I Met Your Mother so much? Switch the language setting to English and watch it again.

Leave the subtitles in German on if you want, but try it. The best way to learn how English people really speak is to listen to them speaking something you already know.

This is true in all cases except when your favorite movies are Shakespeare or period productions.

If you go to the translation site LEO and type in Lernen, you get (in order): learning, study, to learn something, to learn about something, to review, revise to study. It’s up to you to learn which one of those is the correct word for the sentence you’re trying to make. And that’s not something an online translator or a dictionary can tell you, that’s something that you literally have to LEARN.

— Gina-Marie

One thought on “Lernen, Studieren and German as a Foreign Language

  1. “To study” and “to learn” – similar words, differnt meaning.

    “False friends” like this you really have to learn, otherwise what in German is kurz und prägnant becomes short and pregnant in English.


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