So you (don’t) want to learn English?

(Letztes Update von Niklas Baumgärtler am 26.5.2021)

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Sorry, my friend, but they got you here. English is an Illusion, and by the way, so are Spanish, Portuguese or Russian. They do not exist in the way that everyone tells you. If you are confused now, don’t worry, I’ll let you in onto the secret of why in a second. Firstly, though, I will have to tell you something you will not like: schools don’t understand that languages are an illusion, so to pass school, you will probably have to act like the illusion is a reality. Mad world, isn’t it?

Alright, so you cannot just say a language is an illusion without proving it, right? That’s why I’m gonna try to explain to you what I mean by that, I shall give you examples, and then you can decide what you think. What I want to say when I say a language is an illusion is that there is no language as such without people who talk, write or read. A language is nothing more than the abstraction of all the people who talk, write or read in a more or less similar fashion. A lot of people converse in a certain way and then we call it a language and try to find out the rules of their language to teach to other people who want to converse with the first people, and this way we create languages with borders.

An Englishman cannot talk with a German if the Englishman does not talk German and the German does not talk English, so in order to talk with each other, at least one of them will have to learn the language of the other one first. Sounds logical, right? The problem is, it’s not the entire truth.

More than Language

Whenever we communicate with each other, we use a lot more than mere language. We use our hands and feet, change the rhythm of our speaking or the voice itself to point out certain things in a non-verbal way of communication, we manage to get at least parts of what we want to say across. Even in written language we can use non-verbal ways to help us get a point across: pictures, for example. If you have ever been to another country where you don’t speak the language but still got the information you needed, you have probably used a lot of those non-verbal communication.

But even in verbal communication (that is, using words and sentences), we can often guess a lot of the real meaning of what the other is trying to tell us, if we dare to. Sometimes words are quite similar to others, or the rest of the structure of a sentence helps us to determine the meaning of the words we don’t know yet.

The interesting thing is that the words and the sentences themselves do not matter. They are, just like pictures or using your body to converse, simply ways we use to communicate. What matters is the communication, the getting across of the meaning, not the correct word order or usage of words. The human mind is, thankfully, not a computer that only understands the perfect structure of a programming language. We are pretty good at guessing the missing parts, and it really does not matter if the parts we get from the other are words in whatever language or pictures. Whenever someone talks, draws, acts, he gives us pieces of information that we can use to build up what he might want to say in our minds. Even someone speaking a perfect English with an Englishman still does this process in his mind: constructing in his mind what the other might have meant. The goal of every communication is synchronization of thought, or, in other words: understanding.

Why schools fail

What schools try to teach you is an unrealistic version of a communication. It teaches you to form a certain sentence in English and punishes you if you cannot get the sentence right, even if in a real communication no one would bother you because you got your point across. It teaches you that if you do not get that sentence right, if you don’t memorize all the vocabulary, all the animals on the farm or whatever the current unit is about, you will not be able to talk to someone in English, and it might even be true. Without all the English vocabulary you probably will not be talking in perfect English, but guess what: no one does, because, as I wrote earlier, perfect English is an illusion. Everyone uses some kind of dialect, some at least slightly changed, individualized or even fucked-up version of it, and so can you. At least in real life. School obviously has to be different again.

The advantage of not sticking to perfect English is you don’t have to learn it to talk to people. You can communicate with people even if you speak no single word of their language. If you can throw in a word or two in their language, that’s wonderful, but you don’t have to to be able to communicate with them. Of course, it makes it easier, there is less noise in the communication that leads nowhere, but let’s switch the sides of right and wrong a little and look at it a different way: when someone tries to form a sentence which he cannot do yet, it’s not only wrong, but also hilarious. Most times the other one understands anyway what you have been trying to say, but they hear something really different. For example, here in Brazil the words for shit (cocô) and Coconut (coco) are really similar, and when I tried to order coconut water in a bar, the waiter laughed so hard he nearly dropped everything. Making mistakes is usually just that in real life: funny.

The fun in language-learning

If you communicate with people with whatever you got, you learn the actual language those people use, not some abstract concept of how a language should work. You can be pretty screwed in Peru with your European Spanish, with your Austrian in Germany. I was having a blast when trying to communicate in Austrian with my German friends here. We both now learned a whole lot of new vocabulary from each other just by that: trying to figure out what on earth the other one meant.

I spent a year in Brazil now without speaking more than a few words when I came here, and though I probably make a lot of mistakes still, especially in writing, I can speak pretty fluently or read pretty much every book I want in Portuguese now. In fact, I’ve found that whenever I concentrate on speaking Portuguese, I make more mistakes, probably because then I think of the words and verb forms I still haven’t learned. When I don’t think that I am speaking or reading Portuguese right now, some people even think I am a native speaker. If I was following a Portuguese course I would probably be at the same stage in five years or so because I would have been scared to talk to people here until I was able to speak almost perfectly. This way I just started communicating with people at some point, and that is how I learned.

How you learn ‚a language‘

Whenever you don’t understand something (for lack of information) in a communication and then afterwards get it (maybe someone used body language to point you to the missing part), your mind kind of guesses how the missing parts work, and if you let yourself use those guessed parts in another communication you find out if you used them correctly anyway. The only thing that halts this natural process is fear. Fear of not being good enough. Fear of making mistakes. Fear of not being perfect. But if you hold yourself back in fear, you do not practice and thus, you do not learn (or at least much slower).

I am not saying that you should not learn grammar or vocabulary. It helps a lot because it accelerates the process of making the right connections in your mind. I’m saying learn it for the right reasons: to make communication easier with someone with whom it is still difficult, and not to learn a language. This is also true for a book. You don’t read a book to learn English (and if you do, I think it’s a bad idea) but to decode and understand the thinking of the author of the book. If you go for English, you will have hard work ahead of you. If you go for meaning, though, you will have the full spectrum of tools on your hands to understand it.

Schools don’t care, so you have to

Now to the sad part of this article: in school, your teachers probably don’t care if you can successfully communicate with someone who does not speak your language. Most likely, all they care about is if your English is perfect, and they will grade you for that. They somehow mixed up the techniques with the end goals of learning and, if you are unlucky, will not listen to reason, either. So either way, you might have to learn the things they want you to learn, even if it does not make the slightest sense for you (or me, for that matter), because sadly, that’s what school is still about after all these years.

The moment, though, that you understand that schools sometimes just suck in figuring out what you really want and need, you might be able to deal with it in a better way. Sometimes, if you are lucky, you can even talk with a teacher and convince him that you figured out a way that is better for you and if he is willing to support it. If all else fails, you can perhaps accept that school does not help you here, that for some absurd reason you still have to do it, but don’t have to worry about it so much anymore and use the time saved from worrying more constructively then. Sometimes schools teach you something useful, sometimes they don’t. Even if they might think it’s their responsibility, don’t let them take that responsibility from you. Stay in charge of your education and you will succeed even if your school sucks.

The good part of learning to speak a language the way I described (at least for me) is that a) you actually learn to use it and not to forget it after the final grades, b) you probably get to know a lot of awesome people and thinkers in the process and c) if you do it long enough even your grades in school will improve. When I was in technical school my English teacher kind of hated me because every time she would mark an error in my tests I would prove it to her using dictionaries and other tools that indeed she was wrong.

So, how can you learn to communicate with English-speaking people without having to rely on schools? Well, for starters, you can change the language settings of your computers, mobiles, games to English. You get loads of vocabularies from that, and also direct feedback. Watch films and series in English. Especially those which are produced in English-speaking countries are normally much better in original language. Invite couch-surfers who speak the language you want to learn, write in English-speaking forums, and don’t write just in English-learning-forums but those with topics you really care about. Remember, the important thing is communication because this way you are getting feedback what works already and where you have to learn more, and for those parts you can ask anyone who thinks he speaks a language to give you some tips, not just at school.

Why English in the first place?

But one big question remains to be answered, perhaps: why on earth learn English in the first place? Say you live in Austria and have no intention to ever visit other places of the world where you might need it, you think all English music sucks and you don’t want to know. Even then I would advise you to learn to understand at least a little English. It might become some kind of world language in the next few decades, so wherever you go (and whoever comes here to visit your place) might in the future be able to speak English. Wouldn’t that be awesome, to be able to communicate to anyone on this planet?

Another reason, and a sad one, is that it looks like we cannot really trust governments (any more), cannot trust our media (any more). Perhaps it was always like this and we are only now beginning to see it, but anyway, if we cannot trust what we hear about other countries (and even our own), we (at least I believe) will have to find other ways to make sure we get the bigger picture, and understanding English helps a lot in understanding what is going on in the world because usually someone from any country at some point will try to put it in English and on the Internet. Learning to communicate in English becomes (this is my belief, not a fact) one really powerful tool to overcome the differences, and by that the I-don’t-care-attitude we shared so many years for the others, those far away. Staying in my own world, my own language has been the protection of many crimes worldwide because as long as people around the world are shattered in their own little worlds, people with weird ideas have it easy to do as they wish.

I say: No more.


Portrait Niklas Baumgärtler

Niklas Baumgärtler

Niklas Baumgärtler interessiert sich für die Kunst der Begeisterung und macht gerne Wechsel- und Hebelwirkungen in Sozialen Systemen sicht- und erlebbar. Mehr über Niklas Baumgärtler...