freenerd

i'm johan. i do things with computers. i'm from berlin

How I learned to English

From time to time people comment on my English skills being surprisingly good for somebody who never lived in an English-speaking country. So I thought I should write down a bit about my learning path. Please excuse if most of it appears rather trivial.

If I remember correctly I started learning English in school when I was in 5th grade, just being shy of 11 years. A year later, we got internet access at home. And as I quickly discovered, understanding English was highly beneficial there. This sparked my interest in learning English a lot. On a side note: I can still remember how I once stumbled over a French website, was amazed that I understood a bit and hoped this would spark my interest in the language. Turns out the French internet is small and I barely passed my French class. But back to English: The amazement when I had my first online chats in English about Punk music on Napster. The first time I followed an English tutorial on programming and succeeded. All the video games that finally made sense once I understood the instructions and story. And of course music and lyrics.

Classes ran through to the 13th grade and me being 19 years old. During the 8 years of weekly education we went on to read full books, watch movies, listen to music lyrics and write essays and stories in English. So you could say, after 8 years of school, internet and media education I had a decent vocabulary, enough grammar and a basic cultural understanding. What I lacked was pronunciation, confidence and subtext. Not to speak of idioms, puns and humor. Or spending time with actual English-speaking people.

I spent some time abroad in Poland, where English became the third means of communication after Polish and German. Next I went studying Computer Science in Berlin, where a lot of reading and writing was in English but classes mostly stayed German. But the real kicker then was joining the SoundCloud gang. Diverse background and the only common ground for communication being English. Being thrown in, having to adapt and level up. Additionally I made some good English-only friends at that time and ended up having weeks in which my German speaking was reduced to a minimum, despite still living in Berlin/Germany. Obviously this is a huge problem for people coming to Berlin hoping to learn German, but that’s another story. Pro tip: Even though I never had a foreign-language partner, friends of mine took that route as a language bootcamp. Turned out quite well for them.

Anyways, my life shifted to English leading to me often writing notes to myself in English. And even my thoughts aren’t necessarily in my mother tongue anymore.

But back to how I learned: Movies and TV Series were a big thing. Germany has a terrible culture of dubbing German audio tracks onto everything. Luckily the advent of DVDs and the internet helped us out there. Today I cringe on dubbing and put in extra effort to see orignal versions, preferably with English subtitles. Like The Wire.

Obviously I’m an internet person and my day-to-day work is in English. Still I stumble over unknown words constantly, so I made a habit of looking up everything instantly. Mac OS X’s dictionary.app (in combination with Alfred) as well as the Google search spell checker (seriously) are my go-to tools here.

And the last thing is book that influenced the way I write a lot: “Revising Prose” by Richard Lanham. It gives a magnificent view on how to write concise and clear. Sadly the latest edition is overpriced, but I do recommend it strongly.