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Learning with Babbel: Interview with Miriam Plieninger

Posted on November 23, 2010 by

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Miriam Plieninger

Miriam Plieninger is the Head of Content Production at Babbel. Over the years she’s edited courses and taught languages in classrooms in Germany and the UK. German is her mother tongue, but she also speaks English, French, Norwegian and Latin, not to mention the languages she’s learned at Babbel: Spanish, Swedish, Portuguese and — as she tells Babbel Blog in the interview — Italian. Here she talks about the “communicative approach” for teaching beginners new languages and how it allows for quick progress.

Miriam, do you use Babbel for learning yourself?

Actually, I do every day, because I edit the courses.

Of course , though, I work on them before they are done. It takes a few weeks until a lesson is finished, but by then I’m already working on the next lessons. So to see what the courses feel like when they come to life, I sometimes go back to earlier lessons and have another look at them with all the pictures, sounds and interactivity, and I work through them myself.

Sooner or later you’ll be able to speak all the Babbel languages!

(Laughs) Some of them were new to me, Italian for example, and now I know it on a beginner level. I think it’s a good thing to never lose the beginner’s  perspective. That way I know what a beginner course has to look like. I see what’s difficult, I can say “stop, that’s too much for one lesson, we have to put that into two or three lessons.” And I know what being a beginner feels like. I had a nice situation a few weeks ago, I worked on the Italian beginner course before and I went to Sardinia for holiday. That was the first time I really spoke Italian to Italian people. Just basic sentences, but I was so proud because I could make myself understood. Not only with the sentences from the course, but I could also combine stuff.

So though unintentionally, you did learn some Italian?

Seems like I am an auditive learning type. I always have the Babbel speakers in mind. That’s sometimes not such a great thing… I mean, you don’t want to be dreaming  about  recording people and have their voices in your head. But on a holiday this can come in really handy. I went to a bar, heard my speakers’ recording of the word for “I want something” and “a drink” and I was able to combine.

My masterpiece was ordering vegetarian food when there was no vegetarian food. I managed to ask the waiter if I could have two side dishes instead of having the meat course. I got what I wanted. I was so proud. My beginner course worked out as planned.

Did you understand what the waiters were answering?

Most of it. I think that’s also an important thing to learn, that you don’t have to understand each and every thing. You can understand just three quarters of a sentence and know what the sentence is about. I also keep that in mind for the dialogues and courses. The main words, the most important chunks and phrases are introduced at the beginning. But then there are always little words, like prepositions, which you don’t learn explicitly. You understand them from the context.

And if I don’t?

In real life you look them up in a dictionary. At Babbel we never leave the learners alone. There are always translations on all the beginner levels and in all the vocabulary and sentence trainers. You’ll never have to go to your bookshelf and take the huge dictionary to look up stuff.

Speaking of huge dictionaries, how many words do I have to learn to get along in a foreign language?

In general  you need around 2000,  3000 words for basic communication.

That sounds like a lot of work.

But obviously there are a lot of fillers, lots of prepositions, lots of these small words. With the communicative approach that we take at Babbel, you don’t need to learn those explicitly in vocabulary lists. You’ll just know them after a while.

Communicative approach?

In more old-school approaches to didactics you used to learn a thousand single words and then you would have to learn how to combine them. It took a while before you were even able to formulate a four-word sentence.

With the communicative approach you learn chunks and short sentences, useful ones, very very quickly. This way, after the first ten minutes with the first tutorial of a beginner course, you make basic smalltalk, you can say hello, goodbye, how are you and I’m fine. After maybe an hour you can already tell people where you’re from, which languages you speak, order a beer and so on.

But I still have to memorize chunks and sentences. How does it differ from old style vocabulary learning?

In context and linking. If a word or chunk is linked to a picture in your mind, it is much easier to remember. Memorizing things works best when your brain can link them to other things. That’s why in all our lessons, tutorials, vocabulary trainers, sentence trainers, we always try to offer “connected material” for different learning types. Images, sounds, typing and word order exercises. And good example sentences are really important to us.
For each and every of the 3000 words in the basic and advanced vocabulary trainers we have one example sentence. So you learn ten or twenty words for one word field actively, but you learn a lot more words around that because of the example sentences.

What is a good example sentence?

A good example sentence explains the word you learn. Let’s take the word “airport”. A bad example sentence would be “I live near the airport”, because you could live near anything and anywhere. A better sentence would be “I pick up my friend from the airport, his plane lands at two”.  You need context, more words from a field, to get a picture in your mind. The sentences should also be somehow interesting. If they are fun, emotional and close-to-life, the picture will stick in your mind.

Some of our sentences are outright funny. For example I remember one from a vocabulary trainer about parts of the body, which was something like: “His nose is so big, he can smoke a cigar in the shower”. I read that out loud to the people sitting in the room and everyone just busted out laughing. But for sure, everyone will remember the word from now on.

That’s what I like about self-directed learning, that I can just learn the stuff which is fun to learn.

… and the more fun you have, the easier will it be to learn. Another important point of autonomous learning is that you can do it at your own  pace. We have those really small portions, you just need 10 to 15 minutes to work on one lesson. If you want to go on, you can go on, if you want to have a break, you have a break. Nobody will nag you to go on or tell you that you’re lazy or something. You can learn when you want, as long as you want.

… and what you want.

Well, to really early beginners I recommend starting with the beginner course. There they are taken by the hand, they’ll find everything they need to know. Pronunciation, grammar and communicative situations, it’s all connected. Then after the beginner course, they’re really free to choose from anything. They can choose topics of interests, they can go and take grammar lessons, they can add more words to certain word fields.
Or if they know that there’s a specific situation where they need their foreign language soon, we have those sentence trainers of a thousand useful sentences. For example you want to cook with friends and want to know what the food is called in their language, then you could just go into these sentence trainers and pick out a few really authentic phrases and practice them. With our speech recognition you can also check if your native speaker friends would understand your pronunciation.

How do you choose your topics and content?

Most of the time I’m sticking to the European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEF) by the Council of Europe. This framework provides so-called “Can Do” descriptions for different communicative skills on reference levels from A1, basic, to C2, proficient.

So for example, what can I do on an A1 level?

You can understand and use familiar everyday expressions and very basic phrases “aimed at the satisfaction of needs of a concrete type”. You can introduce yourself and others and can ask and answer questions about personal details such as where you live, people you know and things you have. You can interact in a simple way provided the other person talks slowly and clearly.

Is that CEF the framework that schools [in Europe] are using for reference?

Yes, schools try to make their students have a B1/B2 level after their degree, but to be honest most people have more of an A2 level. And especially after a few years of not using the language A2 is a very common level to be on.

You have a lesson about time machines and flying carpets. Does the CEF mention that?

Well, there is no “I can talk about teleportation”. But isn’t that a very concrete type of need? (Laughs.)

Our vocabulary, sentence and grammar trainers aren’t linked to the framework levels. They just float on top of everything. Every learner of every language level can learn basic and advanced words, which we don’t limit to the CEF. If you say you have a basic vocabulary that has to do with fantasy or backpacking or sex, that’s not an A1 thing to learn. But it’s a basic set of words for a language situation in which you might find yourself in real life. I think that’s what makes language learning fun. It needs to be close to your real life. You might not be teleported, but it’s useful to be able to talk about fantasy – and what’s possible or not.

That’s the second time you mentioned that G-word. Grammar.

Personally I think that most people who think they need grammar, don’t really need to learn grammar. But they do need to use the foreign language actively: listen, read, write and speak. We do have grammar tutorials for those learners anyway, because it just gives them more confidence if they refresh the rules and use the rules in context sentences. But what’s really important is to practice the communicative situations in the course.
We try to make Babbel as easy as possible to work through for people who don’t have a university degree in philology. Babbel is not just for linguists, it’s for everyone.

Miriam, thank you for your time.

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