How to help a language learner

Part of the point of moving to Germany has been learning/improving German. Learning a new language is not easy and each of the four of us have quite different experiences. Since I have the strongest German of the four of us, it’s got me thinking about the ways in which the others help me and how others could help me.

First a short description of where each of us are.

Robie is moving the fastest, largely due to discipline and motivation. Before moving, she spent a lot of time on Duolingo. Once we got here, it wasn’t until September than she began a formal class (3.5 hours M-F). In between, she used a couple books. She is very quickly becoming able to interact with people. She can read some German kids books to our kids and mostly know what’s going on.

Malcolm doesn’t really realize that German and English are two different languages. He doesn’t say yes anymore; only Ja. For him, it seems that there are a bunch of words around him the he doesn’t know. Some of them are English and others are German.

Lydia is aware that the languages are different and it puts her at a bit of a disadvantage. When hearing someone speak German to her, she doesn’t really listen. She is happy at her kindergarten and has others she plays with including two girls, sisters, that come to our house for play dates. Still, not a lot of communication. I worry for her the most, especially since she’ll be in first grade next year. I need to do more to help her.

Me… I speak German pretty well, but to get the real me, I have to speak English 1. Since I don’t work I’m not forced into regular speech beyond the chitchat when dropping off the kids. I need to put in more effort.

All of this has given me an increased appreciation of immigrants. American’s like to criticize, but they just have no clue. I had no/less clue before I came here.

I think I’m generally pretty good about helping people improve their foreign language skills, usually co-workers with English and now helping my family with German. Here are my tips.

First, you have to realize that correcting speech doesn’t have to be disruptive to a conversation if you do it regularly. Most of the time, it doesn’t need to take more than a couple seconds. Sometimes, elaboration is needed.

Second, you have to realize than being corrected is really the only way for the person to improve. This is especially true if not taking classes. Some people are content with where they are. They can be understood and don’t care to go beyond that. They’ll usually let you know. Otherwise, I think most people welcome the help.

Now, my tips.

If someone uses the wrong word or an incorrectly conjugated word. Just say the correct one and that’s it. Much of the time, they’ll understand. They’ll often know the rules, and just forgot. So if someone says, “they teached me how to do that.” All you have to say is “taught”. This is the most common way I help Robie.

Practice reflective listening 2. I do this a lot with the kids. So if one of them tells me “they teached me that.” I’ll respond with “really, they taught you that?” 3

That’s mostly it. Lots and lots of small corrections. Even if not that well delivered, clumsy corrections are better than no corrections. Do it a lot. Occasionally, more explanation will be needed, but even then, remember you’re a resource the learner probably doesn’t have. A confusing explanation is better than no explanation.

I once had conversation with an admissions officer for some university in Oregon. We were talking about SAT scores. I was observing that my SAT score was about 200 points (out of 1600 at the time) below the average at MIT where I went to college. The man commented that they don’t really care about SAT scores, especially the verbal portion. How well one does on the SAT verbal is more a matter of how your parents communicate and not necessarily a reflection of the student. I think our kids speak English very well, thank you very much. 🙂

In contrast, years ago, I once went to a dinner party in Sausalito. I was with my girl-friend, a Wellesley student 4 at a friend of hers’ house (also a Wellesley student). I had already graduated from MIT and was working at Intel, a leading tech company. While listening to the dinner conversation, there were a bunch of times I had to ask my girlfriend, “what’s that word mean?”. The participants weren’t trying to be intellectual or anything, it’s just how they talked. I assume their SAT verbals were higher than mine.

I also learned that “dinner party” is just another way of saying “we’re having some people over for dinner”.


  1. I’m happy to have conversations in both, I speak English and my counterpart speaks German, but most people aren’t comfortable with that

  2. when writing this, I initially used the term active listening, but wikipedia (where everything is true) corrected me.

  3. I wish I could find a youtube example, but I think many older black women are particularly good at this. I have many memories of my grandmother basically repeating much of what someone is saying, only prefixed with “you mean to tell me?!…” You’re probably wondering, “what is Miles talking about”, and that’s fine. It makes me smile thinking about it though. So there.

  4. Hillary Clinton did here undergrad there

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