Ralf Russow – the German language guru
Jane McGuire

Ralf Russow – the German language guru

Ralf Russow the German language guru

First published date October 16 2014 Amended date May 21 2015

It’s safe to say when you are learning a language you are going to feel stupid. The words won’t sound right, you won’t be able to understand things and at some point you will feel like giving up. To reassure you that everyone feels this way, here at Hotcourses we search high and low to find you experts in the field to give you some top tips. When it comes to learning German, there is one man who knows his stuff. Ralf Russow has been a German teacher for longer than he can remember, moving to England in 1994, teaching in universities and colleges all over the country and working as a tutor for NE Language Project. ‘I’ve been around a bit’ he laughs as we catch up over the phone one rainy Tuesday morning. Funny, intelligent and speaking perfect English with a slight accent, if there is one man to convince you that learning German isn’t as difficult as it sounds, it’s Ralf.


So how did you get to where you are today?

Well I started teaching the language when I was fairly young still; when I was at college I actually funded my studies by teaching language in the evenings at an adult college and have been doing it ever since. I started out teaching English as a foreign language for Germans. I got into this just because I could do it – I was naturally good at English and spent time in the country so ended up teaching it.


When teaching German, what is the first thing you teach your students?

Well the first thing they need to understand is that they have to be patient. Learning a language is not a quick fix; you cannot learn a language to any sort of degree without giving it some time. I then start moving onto things like the sound system in German. I work on the differences by using a compare and contrast approach to grammar, to get a good reference to the English and then contrast it with the German – that works quite well.


Do you think it’s easier for an English person to learn German by actually going to Germany and being submerged in the culture?

I think to be totally immersed is always preferable to learning in a classroom situation, simply because of the time effort. In the country you are exposed to the language 24/7, 365 days a year. You learn so many things from just being in the environment because the language is all around you. When you are in the classroom, it depends on the amount of contact time you are getting, so progress will be a lot slower. In the country you are exposed to natural acquisition processes and in the classroom you are always at a lack really, but with dedication the sky is the limit. If you give it time you can definitely learn the language to a very good standard anywhere.


Do you think German is a popular language to learn in the UK?

I’m not actually sure if it is that popular, the numbers have actually dropped I think. But what’s definitely changed in the time that I’ve been over here is that a lot of people have now got families that are straddling both cultures. A lot of people have got relatives that work in the country, so that is interesting and definitely wasn’t the case twenty years ago. There is a big impetus to learn the language for future job prospects I think.


Every person learns in a different way, but what would you say is a common problem your students have when trying to learn German?

A big problem is a lot of students have never had any English grammar education, if that makes any sense. You basically cannot assume any prior knowledge really, that’s one big obstacle block. Also because the grammar systems are quite distinct, a lot of features are really complicated to learn in German. You have to learn a lot of endings and rules – usually the first two years of learning German are just cramming in really. But once you’ve done that, once the system is in place, it’s actually much quicker to then accelerate. So if you can stick with it for say, two years, the next levels are much quicker to reach.


Would you say that is the hardest part of learning German or are the pronunciation and conversational elements just as difficult?

The grammatical part is the first obstacle and then what comes over time is you develop an ear really and a gut feeling for the language. Every language is very dynamic and changes – there are a lot of colloquialisms that make listening to conversations quite hard. Again it is probably best to learn and experience that in the country, as it is very difficult to stimulate authentic conversation even in a language class.


Do you believe it is harder to learn a second language later in life?

Well I think there’s no age limit really. Of course when you are younger you learn much quicker; my boy is two and a half and he speaks English and German, learning a second language was just as natural as learning the first for him. Undoubtedly all the functions slow down the older we get, but this is no reason not to be successful. I’ve got older students who have come a long way in two years; I would say they’re much more dedicated, they do it in other ways. My undergrads don’t put as much homework effort in as my older students do, so they make the same sort of progress but by different means. The younger students may learn quicker, older students may invest more time, but the outcome is the same.


What would your advice be to someone like me who has never spoken a word of German but wants to learn the language?

If you’ve never done it, I would recommend first just popping into a class just to jog your memory, as there will always be certain things that you have come across or will have heard through things. You will have encountered some German but might not realise it. There are lots of similarities as far as vocabulary is concerned that are almost absolutely identical.


I think a common problem our users experience is maintaining the language. What would your advice be to them?

Well with the internet now there are lots of contact points for the language, it’s easily accessible. I would recommend doing practical things like finding a pen or Skype friend and keeping in touch like that. Or just attending a class – I’ve got one class for students that graduated years ago or retired teachers who just want to keep the language active. We don’t do much grammar, we just talk in sentences; you have to be permanently using some aspects of language to keep it in your memory. If you don’t use it, you will lose it, it’s quite simple. So permanently engaging with it, that’s the art.


Finally, what do you think students should look for when they are trying to choose a German course?

They need to look first and foremost at what they really want it for; what the purpose is. If the prime purpose is to get an A* at GCSE that is a different premise to actually preparing to study or work in the country. You have to find out do I need a qualification and if so, what qualification do I need and how do I get that. There are a huge number of classes out there, so there has to be a different personal analysis before you chose the direction of study that you are going to take.

Like I said at the start, after speaking to Ralf, German no longer seems scary. If you want to sign up to a course and learn from the man himself, take a look at NE Language Project. Alternatively, there are loads of great German courses on our site to chose from, whatever your experience. Viel Erfolg!