Learning a Foreign Language

Part 1 of our mini-series where we meet entrepreneurs who have moved countries.


Martin is 27 years old, he is a linguist and a language teacher who speaks eight languages, of course not all of them equally well. Besides his studies and work, he runs a social project for people learning German, called Deutsch mit Martin, offering free online lessons.

Martin, how important is it to learn a language?

It depends on the situation. It enables you to communicate which makes you happy, and it trains your brain. It also puts your own language into perspective, such as making you more receptive to expressions you had never heard of before. It gives you better access to culture. We should nevertheless make the difference between learning a language, and living a language. The latter is far more enriching.

If you don’t speak the local language, how can you survive?

In many cases by speaking English! But this is no guarantee. For non-native speakers of English, it is the next best thing. Otherwise try and link up with similar people, and stay within your community. This is dangerous because it is effectively self-discrimination. It is rather a strange situation, being an adult and not understanding your environment, because you end up unable to do things you took for granted. On the other hand, necessity is a great motivator.

You have immigrated a number of times. How did you deal with the language barriers each time?

By tackling the problem head-on, not being afraid to use the language. I exposed myself to Portuguese whilst in Brazil, and to Spanish living in Chile and Argentina. I spent almost all my time talking, listening, taking notes, whilst hanging out with locals.

Do you find that local people are more indulgent with someone who speaks their language, however imperfectly?

Definitely yes, though speaking perfectly is an illusion. By learning the language, you’re already in the club, so express yourself! People’s connection to their mother tongue is very emotional, which is particularly evident in regions where dialects are spoken in addition to the national language.

Let’s focus on German, which is your mother tongue. In the most objective manner possible, how difficult is it to learn?

It’s pretty difficult to be honest! It´s so complex that many people find it a frustrating language to learn, but it’s also why I enjoy teaching it. There are three genders, complex syntax, declination of adjectives, and irregular verbs. It is a big effort and essentially a question of motivation. If your goal is just communication then it’s relatively easy, however speaking and writing without any mistakes is quite a challenge. But at least, German is relatively easy to read once you have figured out the basic rules.

What makes German a useful language to speak?

Over 100 million people speak it, and those countries where it is spoken (Germany, Austria, Switzerland) have strong economies. It’s also an attractive culture to learn about, and is very important if you’re interested in literature and technology, to name a few. Apparently it is the most widely spoken language in the EU.

Tell us a little about Deutsch Mit Martin. How did this start?

It began as a social project, actually a suggestion by one of my students who enjoyed my style of teaching, and thought other people might benefit from it. We have come a long way, and Marcelo Cabezas (who suggested the idea) still works behind the camera. To start with we did it with iPhones, and have since progressed technologically, which allows us to engage with the audience by way of quizzes, examples and additional examples. The structure of the video and the sound quality have also greatly improved. More changes are envisaged and we have some collaborations in the pipeline. There is also a Swiss German language project coming up.

Our idea is to provide language learners with informative and entertaining videos that help to maintain the motivation, which can easily be lost. We´ve been working on this project for more than two years now and are happy to see our audience constantly growing and we greatly appreciate the positive feedback we obtain.

What have you noticed the most in your students learning German? Any secrets to success?

Consistency and having the guts to make mistakes should be accepted at the outset, especially with German. You need to find a way of learning that is pleasant to you, because it will help keep you motivated. There are different learning types, and you need to find out what works best for you when learning a language. In my case, my motivation is to have a key to other cultures, to read, to understand. You might have a preference for structured learning, which is also possible.

About immigration, what were your biggest challenges when moving? Would you have done things differently?

The biggest challenge for anyone is to try to not behave like a tourist, and to avoid expatriate communities. If you want to integrate, avoid speaking your native language, just expose yourself to the new culture and language. I have lived in Chile, Argentina, and Brazil, the best way for me to learn was just to get out there and speak Spanish, or Portuguese respectively though the cultural differences were quite a challenge to start with.

I would not have done things differently, because it was so easy for me. I was young and got a visa very easily. The countries I stayed in are quite welcoming to Europeans, and my break-dancing “family” is worldwide. It’s a different story if you have a job and kids, or if you need to have good knowledge of the administrative apparatus, in which case I would rather ask someone else. Everyone’s experience will be unique of course.

Martin, thank you very much for your time.

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