“Why do you have to learn German and French?”
I’ve been asked this question numerous times by family members and friends. I’ve asked myself this question numerous times myself.
But for most PhD students in the humanities, including biblical studies, acquiring some decent level of competency in both German and French is a requirement. The simple reason is that we are required to become subject matter experts in our fields, and there are a lot of scholars in said fields who do not publish in English. While classic works are often translated, very few modern books or journal articles in German or French are ever translated due to the cost and time. Hence, to be fully conversant in one’s field, you have to be able to read those materials in the native language, for there’s no other option.
Many American students, however, learn at most one additional language in grade school, and these days that is most often Spanish, for obvious cultural reasons. A decent number may break the mold to take French instead, but very few even have the opportunity to learn German unless they are at a particularly well-resourced high school.
So the reality for many of us is that we’re stuck trying to learn French and German as grown-ups with tired, over taxed brains. And it is truly hard to teach old dogs new tricks. But we have to learn them nonetheless.
I thought it might be helpful to compile a short list of the most effective resources I’ve come across to get up the speed in a reasonable amount of time. These resources won’t make you a fluent speaker, but they will help with acquiring reading knowledge (and those two are completely different animals). There are tons of grammar books, dictionaries, online tools, etc. out there, but sometimes it is helpful to have a more simple starter kit, and then grow from there.
If you have come across other great tools, let me know in the comments.
- Grammar: By far the most widely used and oft recommended “learn to read” book is April Wilson’s German Quickly. This book got me up to speed enough to jump right into the intermediate reading course here at Cambridge. There are some annoying things about it, such as her decision not to provide English translations for all of her exercises (only some, which is very odd to me). Her approach to vocabulary is also quite awkward, and ultimately I didn’t use it. On the whole, however, it is effective as a pragmatic guide to learning the ropes quickly. However, once you’ve finished it, there is still need for more advanced help.
- Vocabulary list: Using a few various lists I found on the internet, I put together this spreadsheet of >4,000 German words. It’s easy enough to sort, import into a flashcard program, or whatever.
- German Bible audio: Hearing German reinforces your reading skills, and I’ve found it quite helpful to listen to the German Bible on mp3. The best free resource I’ve found is the Deutsche Audiobibel (which uses Luther’s edition). You can match this up with the freely available Luther text at, say, BibleGateway. For a free resource, the audio quality and clarity of enunciation is quite good.
- Other resources: For theology students, many folks recommend Modern Theological German, which includes some vocabulary and sample readings. For me, I preferred to start out on “real” texts that I need to read rather than sample texts. But perhaps it is useful for some. See also these two blog posts for helpful advice: Andy Rowell and Ken Brown.
See below for my thoughts on dictionaries, apps, etc. (for both German and French).
- Grammar: The most often recommended book is Karl Sandberg’s French for Reading. Overall, I have found this book to be fantastic. The layout and learning approach are far superior to Wilson’s (on the German side): much clearer grammatical explanations, more systematic and organized, and far superior exercises. Expensive though.
- Vocabulary list: I’ve culled together a list of about 2,300 of the most common French words from a variety of online sources.
- French Bible audio: I’ve also found mp3s of the Louis Segond translation here. Unfortunately, the audio quality is not quite as good as above (partly due to the slurredness of French pronunciation as well). It is easier to follow if you have the text in front of you, again at BibleGateway.
- Dictionaries: Many folks will say that you need to buy multiple scholarly dictionaries in order to read German and French. They’re probably right. But in the early days, when you’re simply trying to follow the argument in an article but not necessarily translate it (which is a different animal altogether), who wants to thumb through word after word in a 1,500 page expensive dictionary? The cost-benefit ratio just doesn’t make sense. I prefer the following:
- Collins Online: One of the primary publishers of the printed dictionaries has a great online dictionary. Much quicker to use than print.
- Google Translate: Yes, you read that right. Let’s be clear: Google Translate is amazing in a lot of ways. And it is not “unscholarly” to use it selectively. And it by no means takes away the need to learn the languages really well, for it is absolutely horrid with German, and only slightly better with French (at least as far as sentences are concerned). Yet it can serve quite well as a rough-n-ready dictionary, given that suggested translations show up as you type (versus Collins, which requires a full page load, with ads etc.). So I find Google quite useful as I’m reading. If it is stumped or produces odd results, then I turn to a real lexicon like Collins.
- Dictionary apps: The best I’ve seen so far is Dict.cc (available on iPhone and Android). It is free and it includes downloadable data sets for both German and French. Hence, once you have it, you do not need to use an internet connection (unless you want to use the built-in audio, which does use the internet). It’s quite handy (esp. when visiting one of these countries), but tends to drain the battery.
- Learning apps: There are quite a few language learning apps or websites out there. The best I’ve seen so far is Memrise, which includes intro German and French as well as a Theological German module. Available in the browser as well as on the iPhone/iPad and Android.
Hope these resources help get you started!