Icon of Berlin, the Fernsehturm, seen from Alexanderplatz

Berlin, where have you been all my life?

Language learning isn’t finite; it’s a lifelong process, and isn’t meant to have an end. As such, languages never count as ‘finished’ or ‘learnt’, but require upkeep and maintenance.

With this in mind, I’ve been planning some exciting mini-trips to German-speaking towns over the past few months. Since graduating from university, I’d taken my German for granted a bit. As my first, and strongest foreign language, it was a bit of an oversight that needed some correction. And, looking in the right places with the right tools, you can unearth some real bargains, and make maintenance breaks a regular thing.

Bremen was my first German weekend of 2017, back in May. It was a great way to ease back into travelling the country – an intimate, friendly and compact city well served by budget flights. I loved every minute of it, and it left me ready for the big boss of German cities: Berlin.

Why Berlin?

As a student, I’d shunned Germany to focus on Austria and Switzerland. The southern German-speaking countries had a special draw to me then, with my fascination of dialect. (Germany is just as rich in dialects, though – something I overlooked as a student!) Berlin was a chance to redress the years of negligence, and really get to know this icon of Germany.

Zip in and around with ease

Berlin is an excellent place for a weekend hop-over or short stay. For a start, many low-cost carriers serve the city. From the UK, I flew in to Tegel for £40 (FlyBe), and am flying out of Schönefeld for £30 (EasyJet). From the US, although obviously more expensive, there are still budget options such as Wow Air.

What’s more, connections from the airports to the city are easy and excellent. The Berlin public transport system (BVG) is comprehensive, fast and good value. A Tageskarte (day ticket) for all zones A, B, and C – including the airports – is currently just €7.70. And that covers local trains, trams and buses. (For most of your full-day activities, a ticket for zones A and B will suffice, making it even cheaper.)

All this makes Berlin the perfect candidate for zipping into and around if you have a limited budget and a short time.

A Berlin for everybody

The huge selling point of Berlin is its diversity of attractions. There are museums, exhibits and sights that will appeal variously to all kinds of interests. And entry fees are, on the whole, very reasonable! Pretty impressive for a major city (and welcome to a Brit suffering from a weak pound!)

Traditional museum buff with a love of antiquity? The Pergamon Museum is probably top of your list. Like showcase architecture and spectacular views? Then head to the Fernsehturm (TV Tower).

As for me, I’m a political history nerd. Hungry to learn everything I could about the old East German regime, I wasn’t disappointed. It’s a period the city has come to terms with through openness; the Stasi Museum (€6.00) and DDR Museum (€9.50) are intriguing, often disturbing, but ultimately extremely enlightening places to spend time. For the linguist, they offer tons of reading material in the form of short summaries of key events with each exhibit. These are in German and English, just in case you need some translation support!

Deciphering East German soldier speak at the GDR (DDR) Museum in Berlin

Deciphering East German soldier speak in an exhibit at the GDR (DDR) Museum in Berlin

History – and language – on every corner

The city is also full of symbolic, charged landmarks of political history, like Checkpoint Charlie and the restored Reichstag. To dig into the significance of each, I used the German language version of Wikipedia to do my planning beforehand. Additionally, public buildings have dedicated websites, like the Reichstag website – essential for booking the highly recommended (and free!) lift to the roof to view the cupola. The Reichstag reception also has piles of books and leaflets in German, all free to take away with you after your visit.

YouTube is a great pre-trip resource, with some excellent historical clips for fact-digging in the target language. I walked through the Brandenburger Tor, from East to West, after refreshing my own memory with German documentary footage of citizens streaming to freedom one November night in 1989. That made for a pretty special way to rei-imagine Berlin’s history.

The day-to-day

Besides the grand cultural experiences, there was plenty of chance to practise my more prosaic German. Berliners come across as open and friendly people, and it was easy to turn everyday conversations into a little bit more.

Being used to waves of tourists with little or no German, shop and restaurant staff seem more than happy to have a little chat if you want to go beyond “one piece of Streusel, please!”. Being curious and asking questions helps – “wie heißt dieser Kuchen?” (“what’s this cake called?”) was a simple but effective conversation starter in the bakery! Just the slightest hint of an accent will turn the simplest of questions into a chat about why you speak German, too.

Icon of Berlin, the Fernsehturm, seen from Alexanderplatz

Icon of Berlin, the Fernsehturm, seen from Alexanderplatz

In short, I don’t know why I left it so long. Berlin, where have you been all my life? Multiple trips back are a foregone conclusion; the charm of the city and the inexhaustible pot of things to do ensure that. As an affordable mini-trip for Germanists in maintenance mode, I can’t recommend it enough.

Headphones - great for listening to a podcast or ten!

Podcast essentials: mining overseas charts

As a podcast junkie, I’m always looking for new sources and recommendations for foreign language programmes. So I was particularly excited to happen across the website iTunesCharts.net recently.

The site provides iTunes charts across a range of regional stores, including France, Germany and Spain. It lists all digital media, including songs, albums and TV programmes. But most usefully for linguaphiles, it compiles charts of the most popular podcasts in each country too.

It is possible to find this information yourself by switching your store region in  iTunes. However, iTunesCharts.net is quicker and easier if you study any of the clutch of ‘mainstream’ languages: French, German, Italian or Spanish.

Listening material that switches you on

The site addresses a common issue for linguists: finding interesting material in the target language. Not dry, sanitised language for learners, but engaging, entertaining programming in topics that grab our attention: the kind of stuff you’d listen to in your native language. And it’s current, up-to-date, regularly published material that can plug you straight into the culture of your target language country.

Here are direct links to some of its national podcast lists:

They are brilliant places to mine for listening material. Additionally, though, they offer a great way of finding out what’s currently popular where your language is spoken.

Podcast your life!

Podcast listening has been a bigger part of my own language learning strategy than ever in recent months. Instead of listening to programmes in my native language, I’ve tried to replace them with similar material in the target language. I don’t watch TV; instead, I make my foreign podcast picks my entertainment. It’s a conscious effort to bring language into my everyday, and not just the bit of my life labelled ‘learning time’. It’s all about living the language, rather than just studying it.

This is a great strategy particularly for languages in maintenance mode – languages you are already proficient in, but want to keep at a good level. German and Spanish will always be my strongest foreign languages, for example, being my degree languages. But through podcasts, I can actually enjoy keeping them strong and fresh.

Stretch yourself

That’s not to say that beginners can’t also gain a lot from a well-chosen podcast. In my own experience, my Norwegian comes on in fits and starts. I’d say I still hover around a B1/B2 in terms of proficiency. However, I love the NRK podcast Språkteigen. It’s a programme about language aimed at native Norwegian listeners, and it really stretches my comprehension.

But despite not being an advanced speaker, the topic switches me on enough to stay focused and enjoy each episode. Being a favourite topic of mine also helps; I can often guess new words from the context. It’s win-win: I regularly improve my Norwegian, and I learn lots about my favourite topic at the same time!

The iTunesCharts.net site is a real goldmine for the linguist. I now have more podcasts than I can fill my spare time with, but it’s always good to have choices! I hope you find something useful in there too.

 

Dialektboka (The Dialect Book) from Norway

Dialect deviants? Celebrating linguistic diversity

Spoiler alert: the language you’re learning probably isn’t the language people are speaking. Thanks to dialect, you might be surprised when you chat with your first native speaker.

If you’re not prepared for it, the surprise can be disconcerting at best, and demoralising at worst. I remember the first time I tried out my fresh, pristine, textbook Norwegian in Bergen. I marched up to the tourist information desk, and enunciated my request for a map with all the precision I could muster. And the answer? Gobbledegook. Nothing like my Norwegian learning CDs back home. Was that really Norwegian? Or was I really that bad at learning languages?

OK, I was naïve back then! But dialect can still pose an issue for anyone hoping to get a functional, everyday knowledge of a foreign language.

Golden standard

When you learn a foreign language from a textbook, you’ll be learning a standardised form. This will be some general, accepted form of the language, often prescribed by an official language body in the country of origin. Some of these organisations have remarkable pedigrees; the Académie Française has been looking after the French language since 1635, for example. Spain’s Real Academia Española has been around since 1713. Sometimes, publishers or private companies will become semi-official language keepers, like Germany’s Duden, or the UK’s Oxford English Dictionary.

These lofty institutes (a full list can be found here) are custodians of the ‘dictionary’ forms of language. Consequently, it’s these forms that we’ll find in textbooks as foreign learners, and for good reason; native speakers use language in such varied ways, it would be impractical to learn every manner of speaking from every region. But out in the field, it’s everyday, spoken, dialectal forms that can add a lot of colour to your language experience.

Norwegian dialects: Extreme sport

If you know Norway, you might well consider people like me slightly masochistic. Norway is an pretty extreme example of dialect diversity. In fact, there is so much linguistic diversity in Norway, that there are two official standard forms: bokmål and nynorsk. The interplay between the two gives rise to the great language controversy that continues to play out across the country today.

However, accessing this diversity is gaining an insight into something very close to Norwegian hearts. I recently happened upon a book in Oslo that I just had to buy. In fact, it’s not just a book. It has a big, whopping MP3 player attached to it. Dialektboka (The Dialect Book) is a compendium of Norwegian dialects to read about and listen to! It’s pretty amazing:

Dialektboka (The Dialect Book) from Norway

Dialektboka (The Dialect Book) from Norway

Dialektboka (The Dialect Book) from Norway

Dialektboka (The Dialect Book) from Norway

What grabbed me particularly was this line from the introduction:

Vi nordmenn er stolte av dialekten vår.
We Norwegians are proud of our dialect.

Look at that: proud. Dialect isn’t just something that makes learning Norwegian a bit tricky. It’s actually something that makes Norway Norway. A source of national pride. So you might not understand everything straight away. But you can enjoy something that is as much a part of Norway as reindeer and hurtigruten: marvelling at how rich the country’s linguistic landscape is.

Celebrate diversity

One of the greatest thing about this book is its celebration of all dialects. This is something Norway does very well, where other countries can sometimes stigmatise dialect as ‘substandard’. When I compare this to the situation of my native language, British English, I’m a little ashamed; recent studies suggest a continued prejudice towards certain dialect and regional accents. Even qualifying accents with the seemingly innocuous term ‘non-standard’ hides a snootiness that places them outside some prestige ‘norm’. Can’t we all be more like Norway, please?

Dialect for the learner

So, dialect is a key to richness and diversity in your chosen language’s culture. You needn’t view it as an obstacle, but rather an amazing opportunity. The first engagement as a learner should be to acknowledge that dialects exist, and to expect diversity from your very first interactions. There are a couple of things you can do to maximise your enjoyment, though.

Prepare yourself

Research the linguistic topography through Internet searches. Simply starting with ‘German dialects’ in Google, for example, leads to a wealth of material.

Interrogate your textbooks

Check the intro – does it say which variety of the language you are learning? Does it give information about alternative forms that aren’t included? Welsh, for example, comes in two standards, like Norwegian. Which one are you learning? Be aware.

Expose yourself!

Aim to soak up as much contemporary language as possible. You don’t need to be in the target language country for this. Mine online TV channels and podcasts for examples of real speech. National broadcasters are good places to start; the Norwegian state broadcaster NRK has a wealth of podcasts available, for example.

Reap the rewards

If you can cope with a relatively obscure rural dialect that differs a great deal from the standard you are learning, then you have something to celebrate! Dialect comprehension shows that you’re starting to gain a very deep, active understanding of the language. Like native speakers, you’re able to hear unfamiliar words and make educated guesses at meaning.

Being able to pick out dialects can give you so much more cultural access to your target language country, too. There’s a delicious satisfaction when you hear a dialect and can place where the person is (probably) from.

Look beyond your standardised textbooks, and be prepared for colour, richness and diversity in your language learning experience. Most of all: enjoy it.

Aeroplane

Language travels on a shoestring

Despite brill online face-to-face services like iTalki for practising and learning languages with native speakers, you can’t beat time spent in the country as the best way to immerse yourself in your chosen language. Seems like an expensive way to fluency, doesn’t it? But it doesn’t have to be, with a range of web tools for sourcing super-cheap travel to your target language country.

Top of the list, and indispensable to the travelling linguist, is Google Flights Explore. It’s not particularly well signposted online – in fact, it’s practically clandestine, and you have to be told by someone else ‘in the know’ before you can find it! Why the experimental extension to Google’s flight search is not promoted more is a mystery, but it’s second-to-none at sourcing cheap flight offers with very general search terms (and I mean very – you can pop in ‘Scandinavia’ or ‘Eastern Europe’, and it will check the lot!).

For instance, say you’re learning Polish. Enter your preferred airport of origin, then Poland as the destination. You can adjust the length of the trip if you like, but the default 3-5 days is a good short break duration if you’re looking for a cheap getaway to practise your language skills. You don’t even need to add a date, as when you select your start and end points, you’ll be presented with a list of destinations along with time charts of the cheapest flights to each. It will even order them, with the cheapest, on average, at the top.

The example below shows that I can get to Warsaw from Edinburgh for as little as around £20 return (USD$25, although prices in your local currency appear when you click through to one of the flights on the time chart).

Google Flights Explore example

Google Flights Explore

Switching to a traditionally more expensive flight destination, such as Norway, still yields great results; a quick search today threw out some £30 returns on London-Oslo routes. It’s just as handy for longer-haul flights, too; flying from New York, Norwegian students can get to the country for under USD$300 return in a sample search made at the time of writing.

But how to minimise costs when you get there? Accommodation will be perhaps the biggest expense on the tick-list. It’s no big secret that, for value, you can’t really beat private rental services like AirBnB. Combining with the sample Polish flight search above, you could add a private room in a shared house for just £11 a night at the time of writing. That amounts to less than £100 for a 5-night stay, flights and accommodation included.

But there are more benefits to using these services like this than low rates. For a linguist / cultural explorer, a private rental property will likely:

  • come with a direct contact, and so more opportunity to meet a local and practise a bit of language as soon as you’re off the plane
  • give you a more authentic experience of what it’s like to live in the target language country, especially as it’s more likely to be self-catering (think of all that shopping vocab you can practise!)
  • give you day-to-day, lived experience of the language if you’re in a shared property / room in someone’s home

Compare that to the often sterile, internationalised hotel reception experience, and private accommodation offers big boons for the language traveller!

There are ways to minimise living costs while you’re there, too. They may not be glamorous – buying food supplies at supermarkets rather than going out to eat, grabbing a cheap pølser i brød (hotdog) at an Oslo kiosk for tea – but again, they bring you into direct contact with the target language, rather than sanitising your experience through safe, familiar settings like restaurants.

It might seem an extreme measure – and, intuitively, an outrageously unaffordable one – to ‘pop abroad’ when you need some target language practice. But it needn’t be bank-breaking, if you know where to look. Commit to a cheap cultural scouting trip once every month, or at least couple of months, setting yourself a tiny budget and seeing what you can do with it. Your inner linguist will thank you!