Glossika is an online learning platform that takes a sentence-based approach to language learning. Recently, Glossika teamed up with smarterGerman, another online platform that teaches German in hopes of bringing online language learning to new levels.
In this interview, Glossika founder Michael Campbell talked about smarterGerman with founder Michael Schmitz, and his inspiration behind the smarterGerman service, and a few other interesting German-specific topics such as false friends, facing the challenges of German's tricky word order, and the different usage of verb tenses between English and German.
What is smarterGerman?
smarterGerman is an online platform for learning German. It's aim is to make learning German as simple as possible, and let the language learner relax as much as possible. Learners shouldn't have to worry about the material, and all they have to do is read, listen, and learn by completing small, simple tasks. smarterGerman cuts unnecessary talking points found in most traditional curricula and focuses first on the basics before moving on to more advanced material. In the words of Michael Schmitz, "Language learning is a beautiful thing. It causes a smile on your face. My job is to make your life a tiny bit more joyful. And I teach German as a means to that."
What is the Inspiration Behind smarterGerman?
As an experienced German teacher, before starting smarterGerman, Michael had taught German in traditional institutions and language schools for 13 years. He eventually got frustrated with some of the ineffective methods used in traditional institutions, quit his job as a teacher and decided he would teach German in a more effective way.
His first endeavor was to teach German in a story based manner. He had a young artist write a criminal story, with each chapter centered around about a grammar topic. Michael used the story to create online materials and sold it as a curriculum/grammar course based around the story. As the years went by, it has evolved into what smarterGerman is today. Now smarterGerman has been going for almost 10 years and has now teamed up with Glossika to bring the story to a wider audience.
The story Michael uses in his German curriculum is a criminal story. The reason he chose to do this was based on the nature of criminal stories. People are drawn naturally to stories like this because they want to find out more. They want to learn and discover the truth. When this type of motivation is paired with learning, it prompts the learner to read on and learn more to find out who the the culprit is. And on this journey, the reader learns a new grammar topic with each chapter they read. In the words of Michael Schmitz, "If you want to learn more, you learn more."
The reason smarterGerman chose to base the curriculum around a story is also to address one of the common mistakes made in traditional language learning. Many times, when a learner wants to learn a new foreign language, they start with vocabulary. When they find a word they don't know, they need to look it up in a dictionary or on the internet. The problem with that, however, is that a single vocabulary word can have multiple meanings depending on the context. If a learner only learns vocabulary in an isolated fashion, either they only learn partial meanings and ignore the full range of definitions that the word has, or they try to memorize multiple definitions and end up confusing themselves because they don't know when to apply which definition. Both Glossika and smarterGerman address this issue directly and makes sure a learner always sees new vocabulary in the context of a sentence.
Before we get into some examples of false friends between German and English, and Michael's thoughts on them, let's first define "false friends." False friends are words that are often confused with a words in another language with a different meaning because the two words look or sound similar, or may actually be cognates. English also borrows the term from French as "faux amis".
As in any other language, German and English have a lot of false friends. However, Michael Schmitz doesn't find them all that scary. On the contrary, he says,
"False friends I rather find funny and helpful.... [It] makes [a] language alive. It seems like there is a similarity, and then it's a complete surprise."
Here are some of the false friends they discussed:
“Ich habe das Gift gebracht”: In this sentence, the German word “Gift” means “poison” so the sentence means "I have brought you poison.”
“Ich habe Geld gespendet”: it seems that the sentence means to spend money, however, the sentence means “I have donated money.”
“Ich komme bald”: The word “bald" seems to mean this sentence is about hair loss, but the actual meaning is “I'm coming soon.”
Although these false friends can cause frequent mistakes in the language learning process, there is no need to get frustrated over them. As Michael Schmitz says, false friends are beautiful mistakes that can be very vivid in your mind and help you memorize the real definition of the vocabulary word. Because once you've made the mistake, you remember it more clearly in your mind.
What About Word Order?
Word order in German and English can be very different. Take the sentence, "I have seen the film," for example. The correct word order of German requires you to say, "I have the film seen." which can be quite confusing to many language learners. Over time, a fixed word order in our mother tongue strongly influences how we understand and parse sentences, so when we encounter different word orders for the first time, it can be very uncomfortable. This is when we have to break out of our comfort zone and put in extra practice.
Michael Schmitz uses the Autobahn as a metaphor to describe the word order and pattern of a learner's mother tongue. On this highway, we are used to driving quickly and smoothly, but learning a foreign language is like taking our SUV and trying to drive on a small path that has yet to be built. Michael Campbell uses a similar metaphor of "ruts" in the road to describe how deep your habits have become in a new language. The key to conquering the differences in word order is practice. Simple as that.
Using different languages and word orders works the same way in our head. With repeated practice, we build deeper ruts in our brains making it easier and more natural to use. And with time, we can take our SUV away from our mother tongue Autobahn and move to the newly built small pathway and start building that up, until it becomes a road just as wide and smooth as the other.
Usage of Verb Tenses: English vs German
Verb tenses are another area of difference between German and English. For example, English tends to use the simple past a lot more than German, especially in time phrases like, "I did that last night" or "I did that this morning." German, on the other hand, uses "have" forms more often, otherwise a sentence may sound very literary. Verb tenses can be quite simple. You talk about the past, you use the past. You talk about the future or now, you use the present tense.
Grammar books can sometimes lead you astray when it comes to German verb tenses. As a lover of grammar, Michael Campbell has to remind himself that memorizing all the verb tenses in grammar books and being able to talk about grammar in much depth doesn't necessarily mean you can produce the language effectively in conversation. Often times, some of the tenses provided in grammar books are only used for a handful of words. In the case of simple past German words, it is only used in very few cases, like official documents. And even then, one would only have to comprehend it. There are many cases where some verb tenses are not needed in everyday speech.
The future tense is another area of confusion for German learners. In German, the future tense, ironically rarely refers to the future. When a German sentence uses the future tense, it is usually used to make an assumption, or talk about possibilities. For example, "Ich werde wohl später kommen," "I will probably come later," uses the future tense to express this probability.
How to Learn Effectively?
Teaching things that are similar can be tricky. Which is why I will never teach them together. I take a break in between. There's something called the inhibition of similar information. If you learn similar things in close succession, you get confused. Therefore, you need breaks in between. — Michael Schmitz
Languages are very tricky, with nuances and intricate differences that need close attention. At Glossika and smarterGerman, we have identified the importance of learning things within the context of a sentence, so learners can quickly understand how words are used in real life.
Michael Schmitz also expresses the importance of building from the bottom up. Learning languages can be like building a house at times. In Germany, when someone wants to build a house, they start from the base and build a basement before anything else. It is the same with languages. When Michael teaches German, he makes sure he teaches the basics, or the most frequent usage of the word before moving on to the next. When a learner learns first the most frequently used words, they will be able to identify those words in all the videos they watch, or materials they read. They start hearing how the people around them or how native speakers are using the words and can then start picking up these patterns intuitively.
Glossika and smarterGerman both focus on maximizing these methods of learning by giving learners the opportunity to hear how words are used in sentences and stories, so they can start putting together the puzzle pieces and move a step closer to being a fluent speaker.
If you are interested in seeing Glossika and smarterGerman's story in action, open up a German course on Glossika, and click on "story" in the menu: