Virtual Reality, Film, Science and Language: 30 minutes with Marco from Authentic German Learning

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For our second Immerse Session we talk to Marco from Authentic German Learning about his progressive approach to language learning, polyglot personalities, the science behind language learning and most importantly, what book he would take to a desert island! Strap in, it’s a hell of a ride!

What is clear from the very start of the interview is Marco’s passion for what he is doing, his general curiosity about language learning, the methods, theories and science behind language. This is a man who doesn’t just talk the talk.

WWhat inspired you to start Authentic German Learning?

M – Well, I was learning Italian with Alberto Arranging who founded and runs Italiano Automatico. The idea fascinated me; learning a language by also learning about personal development and exposing oneself to that language in a genuinely engaging context.

Exposing oneself to the target language is one thing, but you do also need context. Having subtitles or pictures to aid your language learning is an incredibly powerful approach and there is even some science behind it. You can learn a language by exposing yourself to anything that engages you or strikes your interest, why not combine this with personal development?

That is what I found particularly interesting when I started learning Italian and still do. I was inspired. I wanted to teach people German but also teach them everything I have learned in the past year. Last year I read 26 books so this is something I want to spread and bring into the language learning space.

We proceed to have a brief discussion about two scientists in Germany experimenting different language learning techniques with Syrian refugees to help them integrate into German life. They scanned each participant’s brain with an MRI scanner to test how exactly they were learning, how the structures were forming and which part of their brain they were using. They used this information to create bespoke language learning courses for each student, specifically suited to their language learning style. 

M – This is similar to what a lot of Polyglots, who are obviously learning a lot of languages, have said. They say they actually have a different personality in each language. Almost like they are a different person. Learning a language is like getting a new personality – when you learn a language and immerse yourself in the culture, you start absorbing that culture’s mindset and this actually changes your brain.

The new movie Arrival addresses similar themes, showing how learning languages can open us up to a deeper more empathetic form of communication. Check out the analysis here:  

M – There is one scientist that I am particularly interested in; Steven Krashen. He has 5 hypothesis of learning a language. The fifth hypothesis is called the Affective Filter hypothesis. This is the theory that a number of ‘affective variables’ play a facilitative role in language acquisition, namely self-confidence and motivation. You also must be very engaged in the content. You might be interested in his and Tracy Terrell’s book; The Natural Approach. It is a very balanced take on the science of language learning.

If you want to read more on this check out this link: 

When people are exposed to these new methods they are really relieved – it is a eureka moment, the sudden realisation that there is actually another way to learn a language. I don’t have to just memorise grammar and vocabulary.

We stay on this point for a while, I recount my time in Argentina, how I improved more in 2 months out there than 8 years of Spanish in the UK, and Marco on his time in America.

WSo, going back to the point about the different personalities that polyglots have. Do you feel you have a different personality for each language that you speak?

M  Maybe. In Italian I don’t think that I am fluent enough to be able to warrant a different personality. But in English yes. It is difficult to describe. You need an outside perspective. In a sense yes. A lot of personality traits that come forward when I speak English are those that I learned while learning English.

I went to the USA and there I immersed myself in the language and culture of high school and this is conducive to how I conduct myself in English. I think that I am more self confident when speaking English than when speaking German. It is very hard to self-evaluate yourself when speaking the language.

WWhy is it that English people are so monolingual in comparison to Europeans. Germans in particular?

M – Part of it is the school system. Almost everyone learns English from 1st grade, by age 3 we are already singing songs in english and it continues in this way for the entire 13 years of school. Although I have some contentions about how I was taught languages at school, for the most part it was good as the lessons were conducted in the target language.

It is key that you are taught in the target language. It is called comprehensible input, if you understand 70-80% of what is being said, then you acquire the language.

W – I totally agree. It almost gives you something to aspire to. Seeing the possibilities of what learning a language can give you. What doors it may open.

M – I think that is the second part. Why Germans are so multi lingual. We have a heavy influence from English speaking countries through film and music. As a young person growing up in Germany you are exposed to all of these English and American movies and TV Shows.

Some people watch the movies when they are dubbed but mostly not! They are excited about watching the original version. There is also a huge amount of other media, for example, I am a huge fan of podcasts!

WWhat do you love most about learning a new language?

M – This depends on the language. I started to learn many languages. The reason was almost always that I was in a relationship. I dated almost no German women. I dated Brazilian, Polish and Italian women and this was my motivation to learn. I decided to continue my Italian after that relationship finished. I had to finish what I started.

My motivation is always people oriented, the ability to communicate for me is so important and learning a new language brings this to new levels. I am also fascinated by communication strategies. Personal development and communication overlap as you can communicate better, you gain more self confidence. Communicating with natives is the only way to get to know the mindset of a foreign language speaker; how they think, their priorities their approach to living.

W What is your biggest obstacle when learning a language?

M – The hardest part is the first phase. Comprehensible input (mentioned earlier) does not work if it is well…not comprehensible. Getting over that hump is hard and you have to memorise a lot of vocabulary. It can be very frustrating until you are able to read or watch something and not spend all your time looking up words.

It doesn’t have to be difficult but it is sometimes hard to find engaging material for this stage. What I have found super helpful for this stage are videos with subtitles in both languages and texts that are translated.

I briefly agree and take the plunge with my penultimate question:

W If you were stuck on a Desert island and you were allowed to take one German film and book with you – what would they be? (This is for any of you Desert Island Discs Radio 4 fans)

M – Ok so the book would definitely be: Die Stadt der Träumenden Büchner (The City of Dreaming Books) by Walter Moers. It is a novel about a society in which books are everything, everybody is a writer and the city is built on top of this huge library that occasionally collapses. Members of the city get to dive into the dungeon of the library and hunt for valuable books. I love this book because it inspires you read more books. May not be the best book when there are no other books around to read though I guess!

Here is a link to a review that Marco wrote on the book – it is in both English and German:

For a German movie I would have to pick a historical movie. There have been some very interesting historical movies like Sophie Scholl – Die Tage (Sophie Scholl – The Final Days) and Das Leben de Anderen (The Lives of Others).

However, a personal favourite is Free Rainer. It is a fantastic movie by director Hans Weingartner. It is a culture critique about how a manager of a TV Station manipulates the ratings of TV shows to ensure that more informative shows and documentaries are shown instead of the incessant nonsense that is constantly shown on TV to dumb down the population. He initiates a TV revolution. It is an interesting take on how we consume media, what type of media we consume and what it does to us.

Here is the trailer in case you are interested:   

We then have a great discussion, by discussion I mean myself blabbing on, about Deutschland 83, which if you haven’t seen you MUST binge immediately.

WI have to ask about new technology and innovations. How will they, if at all, help language learning?

M – Something I have been hearing about recently which is a long way into the future or maybe just 10 years down the line is how virtual reality will affect language learning. This is all about context. What if you can make a virtual environment where you are in a German story. That would be awesome! Although I definitely think current technology is pushing the boundaries with language learning. Whether it be with your app, podcasts or Duolingo. There are just so many possibilities.

And with that the interview is over. I leave a more knowledgeable linguist, surprised at how much we managed to talk about in a 30 minute interview, from science to film, literature and virtual reality.

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