Poetry, My Secret Weapon for Language Learning

Photo by David Iskander on Unsplash

I’ve started learning German. Right now, I have just about enough German to say that ich spreche kein Deutsch. That is, I’m a total beginner. But I’m already gathering a list of poems in the language, poems which I plan to understand and even memorise.

With this secret geeky weekend ritual, through Spanish, Portuguese, Danish and now German, I’ve found that poetry is my most useful tool in learning a language. So, fellow language learners, allow me to make a case for poetry.

Apps and textbooks are mind-numbing

Language textbooks are equally mind-numbing. We probably share dull memories of Spanish textbooks asking inane questions like ¿Donde están los zapatos de Miguel? Who cares where Miguel left his shoes? Textbooks are useful for learning grammar, but they are weak on engaging content.

For me, the same is true of reading children’s books. Yes, to get comfortable in a language you need to be ready to infantilise yourself a bit at the beginning. I hate compromising on my appetite for depth, complexity and meaning. Poetry offers the perfect solution.

Poetry is digestible

And because poems are digestibly sized, it is easier to form habits and goals around them. For me, one poem a week is manageable. Each time, it feels like a mindful treat and a deliciously analogue break from the screen.

Contemporary poems are best. Poems with short lines and particularly ones with some element of repetition are even better. I just discovered the perfect first poem for losing my German language virginity, Es Ist Was Est Ist by Eric Fried. Clear, repetitive, meaningful and with a smattering of useful vocabulary.

Poetry gives insight into the language

Then, poetry gives unique access to the culture behind the language. Lots of Spanish poetry is fiery, bright, emotionally charged. Danish poetry celebrates the is down-to-earth and often quite cosy. Portuguese poetry is often nostalgic, melancholy.

Poetry anchors the language

Of course, the poems slip out of your head too. But the poems you get familiar with go on to provide a secure anchor back to the language. A reminder that it is there, hiding away in grey matter, waiting to come out again when it’s needed.

When I pick up Fernando Pessoas’ Mensagem and turn to his tantalising poem Horizonte, Portuguese rolls off my tongue again. After, I feel like a trip to Portugal or Brazil would be enough to jump-start this language.

Poetry empowers

One poem in Danish, Livets Hastighed by Michael Strunge, gave me a fundamental breakthrough. I connected with the poem and managed to learn it, painstakingly line by line. That one poem somehow allowed me to prove to myself that, yes, I do have a handle on this language.

It’s a vacuous point, but language learning is so much about confidence. I’m not advising you recite a poem next time you order a cappuccino in a second language. Simply, I think that arming yourself with a few poems in the language at hand will help you have the confidence to order said cappuccino.

Learn a poem a week

Poems are digestibly-sized, meaningful, train pronunciation and give a key to the culture. They also help you become more confident in and stay connected to the language. Choosing poetry which is clear and contemporary is the best starting point.

Language-learners, try this: Once a week, familiarise yourself with a poem from the language you are trying to learn. You don’t need to learn it completely flawlessly by heart. Just enough to be able to read it with occasional prompts. Perhaps choose a favourite new word from the poem, and cherish it.

Then, come back to the poem, ten years later, when the language has faded from your mind, and it’ll still be there waiting for you.

Innovation Strategist, UX Researcher & Facilitator @ IXDS Berlin. Ethical innovation and systems thinking. Making space for deep work. Formerly B&O & O2.

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