ICH WERF’ EINE GRANATE! Don’t know what that means? Well, that’s probably a good thing! It means “I’m throwing a grenade” and it was possibly one of my very first German sentences. I guess that’s just what happens when you learn a language through video games.
Before I begin, I’d like to apologize ahead of time to all of the parents who’s children end up stumbling onto this post. You probably FINALLY convinced your son John to stop playing Fortnite and to go outside and get at least five minutes of sunlight, but he can now refuse last minute because he wants to learn new languages while gaming online. I’m sorry, parents, but video games aren’t always bad!
How it all began
I remember first getting interested in German after playing Call of Duty 3 when I was young and still playing Playstation 2. Yes, this story goes waaaaay back. My friends and I would get really into our games as children and we’d jokingly yell the things that the soldiers yelled in Call of Duty while we played outside and that included what the German soldiers yelled. “Gib’ mir Deckung!” (Cover me!) “Ich muss nachladen! (I need to reload!) “Feindlicher troppen in der nähe dieser flackenbauer!” (Enemy troops near that artillery gun!) were a few of the phrases that we’d yell at each other. None of us had any idea what these words and sentences meant, but it was still fun to yell them at each other. These were my first German sentences and looking back on this, I’m very relieved that no German tourists decided to walk near my neighbourhood because they would have been appalled by the alleged “Combat” going on at the park and basketball court. That’s how it all began. I believe this is what planted the seed of interest in my mind to eventually learn German.
The 8th grade
If we fast forward a couple years, we’ll find ourselves in the year 2008. This was the year that I decided to try my luck with a new foreign language. I had been forced to take French immersion up until the 6th grade and hated it. This was the first time that I was learning a language out of my own free will. I decided to try my luck with German. My aunt lent me her old German textbooks and I dove into them as soon as I got home. I had absolutely NO idea what I was doing back then and tried studying grammar at the very beginning. I didn’t know that was wrong back then because all I had as reference was the terrible, grammar based way that French immersion was taught a couple years before. I kept trying to figure out the grammar and I’d write lists of random words and try to pronounce them with English pronunciation and ultimately got nowhere fast. I ended up dropping the language. Language learning just wasn’t for me… I didn’t have what it took.
I eventually tried again after a couple months of being discouraged and still got nowhere. I was getting close to just giving up on languages altogether when I spoke to my principle. She told me that “The more languages you know, the easier subsequent languages get”. I really owe her a thanks for this because this conversation changed my life and the course of my language learning journey. I decided to learn Spanish to make German easier. Yes.. I learned Spanish to learn German, but that’s a story for a different time.
The best Christmas gift ever!
I know most teenagers ask for clothes or video games for Christmas, but I asked for Language learning material and the Christmas of 2009 didn’t disappoint. I got Living Language German AND Italian. I think I originally tried diving into both at the same time in the hopes that one would stick, but ended up dropping Italian for German. I still had no idea what I was doing and tried a bunch of crazy methods such as sleeping with the courses playing in the background and many other things. Nothing was really working and my grammar based approach was once again failing me. I had a better idea of what I was doing due to my Spanish learning experience, but I was still pretty lost. I eventually started to just read and listen to the dialogues and word lists in the books. It didn’t seem to work at first, but then a miracle happened…
Enter the world of Call of Duty
This was both a blessing and a curse… I got Call of duty 2 because I wanted to try beating the game on Veteran (The hardest difficulty) because I apparently liked suffering and having a high GamerScore a bit too much as a teenager… I also said the F word way more then any 15-16 year old ever should during this time frame. In between levels, I’d play online to calm my nerves and I eventually noticed that you could see what country people were from by looking at their GamerTags. A lot of the people I was playing with were from Germany according to their GamerTags. “Wait a minute… Maybe I can find some German’s who are down to game with me and let me speak to them in German” I thought to myself
I started checking everybody’s GamerTags after each game and I eventually found a German guy and tried messaging him in German. He responded and we started playing together. My German was bad enough to make Chuck Norris cry at the time, but he was surprisingly very patient. We added each other as friends and started playing together more often. Sometimes his other German friends would play with us too. I really struggled to speak and I could hardly understand most of what I heard, but I forced myself to push through it. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was creating the perfect immersion setting and was also, unbeknownst to myself, learning German the exact same way a baby learns its first language; through trial, error and pure immersion.
Every day, I’d go through more of my Living language German book and then I’d hop on Xbox and try to use the words and phrases that I’d seen. There wasn’t very much grammar this time because I didn’t have time due to my excessive gaming. My German progress sped up. It was strange… It was almost like the fact that I stopped studying grammar and focused on enjoying the language and taking it in in a natural, baby like manner caused me to learn faster. Strange, right? It almost seemed like ignoring grammar at the beginning and focusing on getting quality input was a better approach. **Hint, Hint**
I started experimenting with more and more resources and eventually found Germanpod101 and also oe24.at which is an Austrian news site. I used both of these rather extensively for input. Every night before bed, I’d listen to a couple episodes of GermanPod101 and then I’d read a few articles on oe24.at. The latter was shown to me by an Austrian guy that I’d also met while gaming. He joined our group too and we all gamed together. This allowed me to hear what different accents sounded like too.
I had terrible insomnia at the time and would often not fall asleep until 6 in the morning or not at all on some days. This was terrible for my high school grades, but great for learning German because it meant I had a few hours every night to get as much input as possible.
On oe24.at, I’d read the articles and whenever, I’d come to a word I didn’t know, I’d stop, look it up and then start reading the article from the beginning again. I’d do this until I understood most of the article and then I’d move onto another one. This allowed me to learn many different words and phrases in context while also staying up to date with the news. Doing this allowed me to amass a decent amount of vocabulary words that I’d then take to Xbox the following day after school and use with the Germans. My method was pretty much “Expose yourself to as many words and phrases in context as you possibly can and then try to use them with native speakers to make them stick” This is still a big part of my language learning method 11 years later.
The Austrian guy and the original German guy also both wanted to learn English, so we began doing a language exchange. They’d speak to me in English and I’d respond to them in German. This was amazing when I was first starting because I was able to speak relatively well after a while, but my listening comprehension lagged behind severely. The two of them would communicate amongst themselves in German which allowed me to train my listening comprehension abilities without any pressure. The German guy also had one buddy who would play with us who couldn’t speak any English at all. If I wanted to communicate with him, it had to be in German. I struggled a lot with understanding what his responses were at the beginning, but got more comfortable and confident with time. I didn’t know at the time, but I had effectively created an authentic and natural immersion setting… IN MY BASEMENT. The language exchange worked out pretty well for all parties involved.
**Before I continue, I’d like to say TAKE THAT, LANGUAGE SCHOOLS WHO CHARGE STUDENTS THOUSANDS OF DOLLARS TO STUDY ENGLISH ABROAD!**
I have nothing personal against language schools as a concept, but I always feel so bad for the students who pay thousands of dollars to go abroad to learn English because they think it’s the only way. Living in the country honestly is probably the best way to learn a new language, but it most definitely isn’t a requirement! I learned German at home, in my basement and all it costed me was the price of an Xbox live subscription and the cost of a few games to play online. You guys can learn without leaving your home country too! Travel is beautiful and enriching, but just don’t feel like it’s a requirement if you want to learn a new language!.
Anyway, back to the story.
I gamed with that group for a couple hours each day. I’m going to be honest with you guys… I gamed a lot more than I’d like to admit. I started improving at more exponential rate. I started listening to German music and slowly started to understand it. My iPod touch slowly became more multicultural than Toronto. I added in German Tv shows such as Wissen macht Ah! and Die strengthen Eltern der Welt. Everything sped up and I slowly began to even think in German. I still remember the first day I caught myself doing it. It was so cool! The most shocking thing to me was the fact that I was enjoying the process as much as I was. The idea of enjoying a language so much confused me because the horrors of French immersion were still relatively fresh in my mind at the time.
After about 9 months, I felt extremely comfortable and “fluent”( Fluent is in parenthesis because my personal definition has since changed). I couldn’t believe the progress I had made and I could even do math in German!
My first break up
As time went on, I stopped gaming as often and started going outside and seeing the sun. I also started going to the gym and doing other things. This meant that I had less time to game and I slowly cut down my time. This also meant that I was speaking German less often and it eventually got to a point where I was hardly speaking it at all. I eventually got into learning other languages and German got less and less attention and then it happened… I broke up with German for Mandarin Chinese. I’m a faithful guy and didn’t want to cheat, but it happened… Mandarin was too tempting… Anyway, as we all know, break ups are never easy and it hurt me to see German go, but some good things come to and end. My Chinese got better and my German got worse and worse and worse… and worse. It hurt to see it get so distant and rusty after all the work I put into it. I tried to rekindle the relationship a few times, but Mandarin had stolen my heart and was jealous.
By 2012, my German was pretty much dormant. I still watched the occasional German show and still listened to German music, but I was still focusing on Chinese.
I eventually decided to start using my languages more and started looking for ways to do so. I found a few meet ups and started going to them. I got to speak German and other languages at these meet ups. At first, it was really really hard and I was extremely rusty. I eventually found a dedicated German meet up and met a girl there. We became friends and would only speak German when ever we hung out. I remember it was soooo hard at first and I struggled so much, but she was very patient. I remember a couple weeks later we were hanging out at Starbucks and I tried telling a ghost story because we were talking about ghosts and paranormal things for some reason. As I told the story, I noticed that I wasn’t stumbling as much as I was before and the German was just flowing out without much effort. I remember going to the bathroom after this and starring into the mirror and thinking to myself “Where the hell did all that come from?”
It turns out I hadn’t actually forgotten German completely, it had just gone dormant and all my hours of gaming were worth it and meant that it wasn’t as hard to revive as it could have been. In other words, we had just gone on a long break and were able to get back to each other with a bit of sweet talking and empty promises. German and I rekindled our relationship!
My German today
I don’t speak German as much as I’d like to nowadays, but I try to keep it fresh by listening to German radio shows, music and I watch the occasional German Tv series or movie on Netflix every once in a while. The countless hours I put into gaming caused German to really stick in my mind. I also understand language learning a lot better now in general than I did when I was 15, so I’m able to maximize my time a lot more effectively and get more results for less effort which is the way language learning should be.
The Moral of the story
The moral of the story is that you CAN create an immersive setting in your home country… Heck you don’t even have to leave your house or basement. All that was required in my case was an Xbox live subscription, a mic and a few good games. Video games aren’t ALWAYS bad. They can be used for good just like many other things. Try to learn your target language as much like a baby as you can. Avoid grammar like the bubonic plague at the begging and focus on learning words and phrases in context and then just use what you’ve learned with native speakers as early as possible. I don’t agree with the whole “speak from day 1” thing, but I do, however think that you should start speaking as early as possible. Once you feel comfortable in the language and are around an intermediate level, then you can start supplementing more grammar in to add to what you already know. That’s what I did
There are many other ways that you can recreate the same level of immersion that I did via Skype and many other platforms. I’ll link one of my other posts that talks about those things below! I hope you guys are now more motivated and see how simple it is to create a great language learning environment!