Learning German and the Paul Noble Language Institute
‘Nobody Wants to Learn German’.
Supposedly people aren’t interested in learning German, Spanish and French are more popular when compared. A local college near me has stopped offering their german course and I had waited nearly two years to enroll on a Paul Noble language course.
No wait, that doesn’t make sense. If nobody wanted to learn German, why did it take me that length of time to get on the course? The title of this heading is pretty much the take away response from both the local college and Collins; the publisher of Paul Noble language courses.
It’s only with persevering with enrolling that I secured on place on the course. No small feat when classes are limited to eight students per class. It’s only after I turned up the Saturday that I discovered Collins were lying to me, they ARE releasing study at home versions this September, my situation was almost as confusing as trying TO actually learn German!
Currently on offer for home study are French, Spanish and Italian*. The actual institute offers five languages in total, which can be found here. Expect some of this:
Anyway, this has been my ambition for the past two years: to learn German.
How I’ve Tried to Learn German
For those who don’t know, it’s not very straight forward, in fact it has been frustrating. But last month I finally understood the grammar rules, the case system and the past tense. This was directly attributed to Paul Noble’s teaching. So if you don’t read the rest of this article, yes the £200 I paid was worth it.
My previous approach was a mixture of educational websites (avoid the BBC website), eBooks and various apps on my iOS devices; some apps gave me structured scripts, some were vocabulary builders and others were games and tests. I’m also very lucky to have the opportunity to practice and question a few of my german friends about their mother tongue. Those methods sounded reasonable, right?
Well, I was overcomplicating the previous method. In hindsight, I should have dispensed with learning vocabulary and concentrated as hard as I could on the grammar. Regardless of the next problem I’m about to explain:
You know when you are asked a question about english grammar and you can’t explain how something is the way it is, but you know you the way it should be done? The same thing happens when YOU’RE trying to learn a language. This may not surprise many, but I incorrectly assumed there was something inherently flawed with the British way of teaching english. So there were many questions that were out of reach for my german friends!
A Method to the Madness
I came across Paul Noble’s institute during a google search for an alternative to the Michael Thomas method. In a nutshell, Thomas’ method is himself with a structured dialogue shared between two non-speakers and himself. The dialogue through repetition and a few rules, is supposed to empower non-speakers with an understanding of the language over the duration of the material. You actually speak whole sentences as you learn.
The Michael Thomas method felt like it would work if it weren’t so disastrous in its delivery. I personally found it very difficult to listen to**. As the product description suggests, I would be learning along with his students, but they were stuttering and stammering their way through the material. At various times on the course Michael Thomas even shouts at his students.
The method seemed sound, but the tension within the material dissuaded me from continuing; making me feel anxious and I’m supposed to pay for this as a feature? Thankfully the iTunes version comes in parts so you can buy them as you progress, I only paid for the first part. Michael Thomas deserves some credit, if it wasn’t for his program I wouldn’t have found Paul Noble’s.
I was naturally skeptical with trying another method, but there are free demos on Paul Noble’s website. I downloaded the first hour of the Italian learning program. A language I had no prior knowledge of or intention of learning, it was just to test Paul Noble’s method.
At this point I want to state the two methods are more than just delivering sentences to students in an easy manner, how the course is actually structured is a method devised by the teacher. You can read about it much more here, here and here.
As a direct comparison to the Michael Thomas method, Paul Noble’s was so much clearer and less distracting, it helps that the students are native speakers, not novices and the sentences were repeated three times between Paul and his students. Sadly though, Michael Thomas died in 2005 and he won’t be updating his course based on this article. My personal downside was having to form a long term relationship with Paul Noble’s website in order to eventually claim my seat.
Have you ever started a language course and upon meeting the lecturer for the first time they greet the class in the language you’re going to learn? Yeah? I would find it awkward and until the phrase was explained, I was left thinking what it meant as well. I know, I know, it’s just the teacher being friendly, but I always found it kind of cheesy. I obviously don’t understand so why speak to me like that?
When I arrived I was lucky enough to discover that Paul Noble himself would be teaching our class. More often than not, lessons are hosted by native speakers. By this point you’ve realised the right type of teacher is important for me, so allow me some space to dedicate a description of Paul Noble as I think it’s quite important.
…with Paul Noble
Let’s begin by saying Paul doesn’t introduce himself with that awkward forced greeting thing I just described. For a man of six languages he doesn’t them show off, he just speaks plain english to us***.
Paul informed us upfront that, “You’re going to make mistakes”.
He stated he was going to deliberately force us to make mistakes as well, it was unavoidable so we needn’t worry.
Paul’s overall approach did make us feel comfortable and importantly feel like we are already familiar with the language. His way to do this was by reframing our understanding of German by presenting us with many small, interesting, facts about language history.
So for instance, there was a short discussion about language drift, using US English as a second reference alongside German. The physical distance and 200 hundred years of human history has produced new words, new grammar and new ways to pronounce words differently to British English and that’s fine, we can make the jump and survive a holiday in the US because the drift is only slight. German however has had 1200 years of drift and Britain has invaded by the French since then.
English has at its core German and French linage, with five out of every ten words being of Germanic origin. Knowing the history helped as it lowered the perceived difficulty. There were many other pieces Paul shared with us, but for the sake of brevity I won’t include them unless needed.
Paul’s manner was one of a crazy, scheming, mad scientist with a plan, but delivered through the foil of a casual conversation, that in essence sums up the pace of the lesson; a casual conversation directed by a madman and I enjoyed this approach (if this is a puzzling description, you’ll understand when you attend a class).
Paul also repeatedly tells us from the beginning to relax and to, “Forget everything that I teach you, I want you to forget”.
As he said this, I thought of this article by the NYT; discussing how forgetting may be part of the remembering process. Paul didn’t mention this himself, but the parallels were very apparent. Just a note, students only direct their german at Paul and there were no roleplaying scenarios between students; everything is through Paul and with Paul.
‘You do not need to bring any equipment… this will all be provided by us’.
The sub-heading is a direct quote from the preparation email sent to us before we arrived and it’s very deceptive, nothing is provided, aside from a tray of refreshments. I was tricked! Or was I? I consider myself mostly a visual learner so I was slightly worried at first. The deception actually reinforces the method being taught to us. Writing anything down would actually distract us from thinking about the words we have to recite. Instead I visually imagined them in my head and I found that everything was clicking into place. Paul noted that only two people have ever failed the course and they as visual learners insisted on writing everything down.
Paul Noble believes that learning a language should not be an academic subject, but more vocational, it should be akin to learning how to drive a car. So unlike in other language courses I’ve attended; I was using German sentences pretty much from the beginning with short statements that allow us to change the verb or the personal pronoun.
During these short exchanges, we were supplied with small rules to deal with the language shift I mentioned earlier. To use one as an example, a ‘d’ typically becomes a ‘t’ in german when the word begins with that consonant.
So ‘dance’ would turn into ‘tance’. We also include an ‘en’ on the end so the word becomes ‘tancen’, meaning ‘to dance’.
It’s knowing these little rules that brought me closer to the language and it’s with practising them that is the focus on this two day course. We didn’t actually learn that much vocabulary, it’s all about getting to grips with the grammar framework and then applying this knowledge to our own needs. It’s so simple!
Paul stated, “Learning vocabulary tables are boring”.
So was understanding all the terms behind grammar; those satellite words that orbit our language like ‘the nominative case’, or ‘adjectives’, ‘conditional sentences, clauses’ and so forth. They are there in a lesson if you’re already aware of them, but they are not described formally or focused on. As far as Paul is concerned they are unnecessary at this stage as knowing what they are interferes with language learning.
‘The Awful German Language’
At the start of the lesson we were practising the present tense with sentences like:
“Es ist Fantastisch” (it is fantastic), and then through repetition and rehearsal we’ve built the structure of the sentence up to something like: “Es ist exotisch, aber es ist nicht romantisch (It is exotic, but it is not romantic).
If you notice the ending of the german nouns, they are all similar and you can work out the rule to convert them into english yourself. Armed with these rules it makes learning so much easier without needing to learn the words (I have to state there are exceptions to the rules). The past tense is even easier and it was taught and understood inside the last hour of the first day.
The most difficult part during the course is word order and it’s something I have always struggled with. In german for those that don’t know, the second verb in ANY sentence goes at the end of the sentence, REGARDLESS of the length of the sentence. It’s a clever language right? Mark Twain himself has a little rant about it here, it’s an excerpt from his 1880 book A Tramp Abroad. His rant is quite clever, in so much that it actually explains in detail what he’s ranting against. I refer to it often.
In addition to the journey of the second verb, if you use a questioning word in the middle of a sentence, the next verb in the sentence also gets transplanted to the end of the sentence, even going beyond the other wandering verb.
Here’s an example (and I referred to my support pack for this one, more on this later):
English: I would like to know when you can do it.
German: Ich möchte wissen wann Sie es tun können.
German word order in english: I would like to know when you do it can.
Makes perfect sense right?
Other differences highlighted were with placing time before place (in english it is reversed), the proper placing of ‘nicht’ in a sentence, gender nouns and the case system. Again Paul Noble doesn’t refer to this directly and neither will I, but simply put, in German (and many other languages) there are different types of words like ‘a’ and ‘the’ when defining subjects and objects in a sentence and the change depending on the context.
If this sounds perplexing and possibly frustrating, then let me state that I finished the course understanding it all, not bad considering what we went through. I have a much firmer grasp of the German language than I did prior to starting.
The course wrapped up with questions and anything we wanted to work through one more time. There was a discussion about other learning guides, the take away was to avoid Rosetta Stone and unless you’re a guy, avoid PONS. PONS itself seems suited for a man who wants to pick up women and the best grammar book to use is ‘The German Handbook’ by Paul Webster.
It can be found on Amazon here. I got mine second hand, there’s no need to splash out on a new one, save some money after treating yourself to the two day course :-).
Paul Noble’s method was exactly what I needed to jumpstart my learning again. Since attending the course I’ve returned to the previous material I was using with a more informed insight; clearing out a lot of the apps that I know aren’t as useful anymore and I’m hoping to converse in german with my friends soon. So I definitely had fun and received a lot of value for my money.
The course was thirteen hours over the two days. That might be a bit much for some people, but I prefer it this way as opposed to a twenty hour course over ten weeks. Placing it all in one weekend made sure I turned up.
Anyway I mentioned a support pack. The course doesn’t end after those thirteen hours. You’re emailed a detailed PDF that provides a run through of the material instructed by Paul; recapping everything you’ve learned. It’s very thorough and I’m glad it was sent as a PDF. I imported it over to my iPad and it accompanies me everywhere.
Of course I recommend this course to everyone. Not just for those interested in German, Mandarin was given a write up here in the Guardian newspaper. Soon I will attempt to write this blog in both English and German, 10% of my traffic actually comes from Germany, I feel it is worthwhile and I’m getting to use it in the way I want as well.
There is also a level two german course offered by the Institute, but it’s only available to those who’ve completed the first level. My class group opted to stay in touch with each other and at another point in the future we might meet up again and take it together. One last thing, the study at home material comes out in September, it has more vocabulary and I think is seven hours longer than the actual two day course. I actually own the first Spanish portion. If you are by this point thinking of buying either courses don’t hesitate to do so, then again if you waited as long as I did, you might not be able too!
If anybody is interested, here are the best podcasts and apps I currently use.
Unless stated, the podcast is a series of role-plays.
Deutsch – Warum Nicht (Series One)
German GrammarPod - Explains the Grammar (in-depth, but worth it)
I have many apps, but these are the best and the ones I use the most.
German Verb Conjugator - Search for a verb and it get conjugated!
WordRoll DE - Quick reference, type a word and it’s opposite appears, it’s just one long word list, very fast.
German Grammar - Explains the Grammar (expensive, but worth it).
German Larousse - German/English Dictionary
Absolute German Beginner - 20 Structured lessons, with scripts and grammar sections (there are other language packs at a higher levels that are also offered)
* Italian? Who want the fuck wants to learn that!
** Other people have stated via iTunes comments that haven’t had a problem with his method.
*** On the day two people cancelled, meaning there was more practice time for the rest of us!