I am struggling to make sentences ... what can I do?

It is normal to encounter difficulties when you try to make sentences when learning a new language. This is a common complaint/comment from students, as per the email below...

I have been slogging it out in a language school, with limited success. I can write basic German but not speak it! My brain can't put the words together fast enough to construct sentences.... Anne

Here is what we at 200 Words a Day! would say:
Dear Anne,

What our German courses will give is lots of vocabulary with effective tools for remembering the genders. Our Courses 1 and 2 cover the most common 2,000 words. Our Sentences courses 1 and 2 will put those words in to real sentences. From your email it sounds as though you may already have enough vocabulary and grammar for that, but I don't know. You are the best judge of that.

What you need now is to work on your:

  1. sentence building,
  2. speaking and
  3. listening for comprehension.

My recommendation is that you take a series of 10 to 20 structured telephone lessons (the more the better). They should be from 30 minutes to 45 minutes. Record them, and get your teacher to analyse them. Practise the things that need improvement. Consolidate the areas where you are already proficient.

These should concentrate on the most important phrases and sound bites, and be with a native German teacher and speaker. Initially you should work on the most common 100 phrases and their responses.

The phrases and structures need to be repeated again and again the later lessons, as more new material is also introduced.

The advantage of telephone lessons is that they force you to concentrate on speaking and listening. There are no visual clues available to you by watching the speaker. (As something like over 60% of face to face communication involves non-verbal clues - expressions etc.

If you have a German teacher that you deal with now, you can organise such telephone lessons with him/her as part of your regular lessons. These should be taken in addition to your face-to-face classes, and computer based training. There are also lots of teachers advertising online that you can contact via such voice-over-internet protocols as skype, google-talk, yahoo talk etc etc.

You can expect to pay about $15 to $40 per telephone session, but it is money well spent... and very effective if done with a good teacher. Remember to keep reviewing previously learned patterns in your telephone lessons.

Not being able to put sentences together fast enough

This is normal, and it does take some weeks of total immersion in the language to listen, hear, absorb and process each word quickly enough to be able to understand, comprehend what was said, and construct your reply.

By the time a beginner to intermediate student has done that, the speaker has blasted on to the next sentence, and it all just sounds like a burble!

The deeper one has learned and memorised one's vocabulary, verb conjugations and sentence structures the quicker will be the student's ability to picking up the meaning of everyday conversation. So the more effective your tools for learning and remembering vocabulary the better.

The most effective solution in my experience, is total immersion. That is, living in an environment where the target language is spoken, so that you absorb it.

For most students this should not be attempted until you have a reasonable base. Some very able students can dive straight in to a 'total immersion' environment, but they are are minority.

Total immersion allows you to 'swim' in the language - to live it, hear it, see it, and to see the actions taking place as sentences are spoken. The two go together.

If you cannot go and live in a German speaking environment, you should strive for regular sessions in a German-speaking group.

There are other ways to improve your comprehension. Watching foreign language DVD's is great because you can replay the same movie again and again and again. Write down the text, 'learn your lines' as the actors had to, act out the parts.

You can also listen to German radio stations free via the internet. This will get your ear used to hearing the language delivered at normal conversation speed.

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